Climbing Legend on Mt. Everest's Nightmare Season

What’s next for the world’s highest mountain? We ask one of Everest’s most experienced guides.

The lure of Mount Everest is hard to resist
The lure of Mount Everest is hard to resist© Kenton Cool

It's summit season on Mt. Everest, but no one's climbing from the Nepalese side after the tragic deaths of 16 Sherpas led to nearly all teams abandoning their summit bids. British guide Kenton Cool, who has made 11 ascents, gives us his take on the situation – and explains what the future holds.

What do you make of the tragedy?

Every climb we ever undertake has some objective danger. The serac fall didn’t really surprise me, as it's been threatening for a number of years now, but it’s a tragedy it occurred when it did. At almost any other time of year no one would have ever known about it.

I personally knew three of those who died. The huge media interest was partly because it was only Sherpas who lost their lives. People are saying extra pressure is on the Sherpas to expose themselves to the danger and although this is true in some ways, no one makes the Sherpas climb. The rewards are high -- the pay is extremely good by Nepal standards. But what price is a human life?

Cool gives the fingers for ascent number eight
Cool gives the fingers for ascent number eight© Kenton Cool Collection
Kenton Cool and Sherpa Dorje on Lhotse in 2013
Kenton Cool and Sherpa Dorje on Lhotse in 2013© Kenton Cool

Will Mt. Everest ever be the same again?

Everest has taken a beating in the public eye in recent years – the picture of queues in 2012, the "fight" of 2013, and now this incident. The assault on the image of Everest will be hard if not impossible to repair. There will definitely be some fall out, which I very much hope will be positive, but I suspect that next year will be business as normal – Everest brings too much money to the area and government for it not to recover.

Seems like there are a lot of issues.

It’s a complicated four-way interaction between tourism, commercial operations, the majority of Sherpas and a small group of militant Sherpas. It escalated because the latter was fighting for better working conditions, pay, insurance and so on. This was leveled at the government and commercial guide teams but they also threatened any Sherpas who didn’t agree with their views, which led to the talk of a boycott.

Olympic gold: Kenton on the summit in 2012
Olympic gold: Kenton on the summit in 2012© Keith Partridge

Why weren't you there this year?

I decided way before the season started to take a year off from Everest – and what a lucky choice that was!

What does Everest mean to you?

Everest has defined my life over the last 10 years, and I owe her a lot. I see her as an immense beauty that should be respected and honored. Being allowed to climb on her slopes is a privilege.

Of your 11 Everest climbs, which was the most amazing?

Last year’s "Triple Crown" of Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse was really special for me. It had been a dream for a number of years to pull off the three ascents – and to do so in a seven-day window was amazing!

The scariest?

I’ve never really been scared on Everest. I fear the mountain because of her ability to be so cruel and extinguish life so easily – but having a healthy fear of mountains is important.

Kenton on the north face of the Eiger
Kenton on the north face of the Eiger © Ian Parnell

And the most emotional?

The first summit was special, speaking to my mother by Sat phone, choking back tears. On the opposite side, last year I had to deal with the death of Mr. Li (Chinese climber Xiaoshi Li, who died on Lhotse). I’m still emotionally dealing with the scars that left on me.

What makes you want to go back time and again?

I love Everest and all it stands for. For a couple of months a year, life boils down to one simple thing: climbing the mountain. I love that simplicity.

Will you be back?

Yes. Next year I am planning to climb the world’s three highest mountains - Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga – in three months. We’re getting partners onboard now, and should be set to go in 2015.

By Will Gray