Guiding at High Altitude

Victor Saunders

17 May. It is 05.30 a.m., a thin orange line on the eastern horizon foreshadows the breaking day. Punctuated with Tibetan mountains, the line is not yet bright enough to profile Kangchenjunga, though the dark bulk of Makalu has already blotted out the orange.

‘Here we are again’ I say. ‘8848 m ... Right! Let’s get down.’

Charlie nods, under the oxygen mask and down suit, it is not possible to read any expressions of emotion. It is too cold to tarry more than a minute or two, and though dawn is not far away, neither is danger. Charlie turns left and steps towards the cornice overhanging the Kangshung face.

‘No! No!’ I shout, ‘The fixed rope is that way!’ pointing with my ice axe.

Charlie swivels and begins to lose balance. I step forward and grab Charlie’s rucksack. Charlie tries to walk off into Tibet again. I am about to use some pretty unprofessional language when it quite suddenly, without warning, becomes clear to me that Charlie cannot see. Charlie has become blind in the few minutes we stood at the top of Everest together.

This vignette is from a recent expedition. Though the names have been changed, the story is largely true, in so far as truth is something a climber is capable of.

Some people say you cannot guide at high altitude, but that depends on what you mean by the noun ‘guide’, and the verb ‘to guide’. The fact that a Sherpa and I were able to descend with a temporarily blind client, and to arrive at Camp 4 six hours after leaving the summit, shows that the critics are partly wrong. Perhaps even wholly wrong. I will return to the story of our descent later. What I want to examine briefly here are the main elements of guiding at high altitude and where this may differ from private expeditions. This is the main point of this short piece, but first I would like to briefly touch on the subject of the ‘ethical’ value of commercial trips as compared to private expeditions.

There are essentially four classes of expeditions to distinguish here. (1) Non-sponsored amateur expeditions. These will be funded by the climbers, with perhaps a little support from organisations such as the national alpine clubs. (2) Sponsored expeditions, where the teams have a commercial sponsorship. These can comprise professional climbers as well as amateurs. (3) Commercial professionally led expeditions where the operator provides logistics but not guiding support. (4) Commercial Guided expeditions, where there is a clear distinction between the clients and the guides. We are looking at class (4) here.

The view has often been embraced by a few well-known mountaineers, (I will not name them here) that guided trips are less ethically valuable than private trips. The same folks seem to hint that guided expeditions should use alpine-style tactics, and that maybe they should not exist at all.

I will show that this view is mistaken and that the ethical issue is in fact an irrelevance, but before dealing with the so-called ethical issue, I want to set aside the usual diversions that get mixed up in this discussion. There are three.

First: Commercial expeditions bring too many people to the same mountain, by the same route. Well to these people I say, if you have a romantic desire to find raw savage nature; go away and do new routes on unclimbed mountains. There are wonderful climbs just waiting for you. There are thousands of unvisited mountains out there. It is not intelligent to do the normal route on Everest or Cho Oyu and then complain that you are not alone.

Second: The environmental argument. Commercial expeditions typically go back to the same site year after year, and so it is in the operator’s interest to keep the camps clean and tidy for the next year.  Amateur expeditions, visiting an area only once, rely solely on the good moral values of the climbers, because there are no other controls on them. By far the worst garbage I have seen in the mountains was left by a non-commercial sponsored European expedition. It included half burned Karrimats and lead-acid car batteries (more than one). This was nothing less than a desecration of one of the most beautiful bases under an 8000 m mountain. No self-respecting commercial expedition would leave this kind of mess behind. Let us just agree that this kind of thing is completely unacceptable to all types of expeditions, amateur, sponsored and commercial.

Third: This diversion is surprising, I hear climbers say that commercial trips are dangerous. This seems to me to be a really strange one. Between 1970 and 1982, the British expeditions trying new routes on 8000 m peaks were losing climbers at a rate that would not be acceptable in the commercial world. No commercial enterprise would survive the litigation.

Let us set aside these diversions then and move on. For ‘ethics’ read ‘rules of the game’. Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out that a game consists solely of the rules that make it up.1 This is also true of mountaineering. All climbing is just a game. It is created by rules. The fact that people cheat proves the case that it is all about rules. Whether we follow the rules or break them is up to us; there is only one meta-rule here; do not lie if you have not followed the rules. That is almost the only really unforgivable sin in climbing. As the game evolves, so do the rules. The first recorded climbs had no recognised rules, though Moses did return with a nice set of commandments. The common ancestor of modern climbing is the first ascent of Mont Blanc, but it is not till almost 100 years later that we begin to see the idea of ‘fair means’ expressed by Alfred Mummery. By 1913, the great Paul Preuss was writing that all artificial aids are unethical in the game of rock climbing. Meanwhile bouldering was invented by Oscar Eckenstein at the end of the 1800s, its grading and rules redefined in the 1950’s by John Gill. The use of pitons, bolts (invented in 1927) ice screws, crampon heel-spurs, bottled oxygen, fixed ropes, porters, fixed camps and chalk have all been circumscribed by rules.

All of this reflects the evolution of climbing into differing and quite separate activities. We started with the same common ancestor, and now climbing has evolved into many species, each with its own rules. If you are bouldering the rules for a hammerless ascent of the Nose are not relevant. On the other hand, it would be plain silly to say that because you have been bouldering, you are now no longer allowed to climb the Nose.

The corollary is there is no contradiction in climbing with light weight alpine-style rules on one expedition and guiding clients on a commercial trip with fixed ropes, bottled oxygen and camps the next. To say there is an ethical contradiction between amateur alpine-style climbing and professional commercial expeditions is exactly equivalent to saying that a boulderer is not allowed to climb any other style; just plain wrong.

And here I must diverge a bit from the strict tramlines of the argument; I want to add something that is not predicated on the rules of the games. I believe in tolerance: we should keep as light a foot print as possible and interfere with the other games as little as possible. If we accept these constraints and that one game does not negate another; we should tolerate other styles of climbing, even if we do not follow or delight in them. This would be a mark of the respect we owe to other climbers and to ourselves.

So now, at last I hear you sigh, we can move on to the practicalities of guiding. Guiding at high altitude is not normally conducted in the same style as Alpine guiding. In the Alps, guides and clients operate in small teams, and rarely spend the night outside of a building. By contrast, the Himalayan guiding scene sees large groups operating with a high guide to client ratio. Where you might see 1:2 in the Alps, similar ground in the Himalaya (for example Ama Dablam in Nepal) will often see 1:5 or even in extreme cases, 1:20! (Not recommended by the way). This discrepancy is possible because most European climbing is carried out with climbing ropes usually 50 m long whereas high Himalayan climbing -with its origins in the siege-climbing game – often makes use of static fixed ropes. This is especially the case with the popular 8000 m peaks. When critics say that it is not possible to guide at high altitude they are often thinking about the Alpine version, and yes, at 8000 m and above, that is very tiring, though not impossible, as we will see in the story that this piece begins with. What the critics miss is the intelligent use of fixed ropes.

Clearly the guide in high altitude expedition must control a large number of sub-projects: the logistics and planning, the special equipment, the staff side, the porterage, the technical skill level of the team members, and so on. The list is almost endless. But most of these are aspects of all expeditions. The main difference for a guide in the Himalaya is the use of fixed ropes for clients.

From a guiding point of view, the use of fixed ropes presents both opportunities and potential pitfalls. The opportunities are the high guide to client ratios permitted, the quick descent for safety, and the necessity of climbing the pitches only once. However, the use of fixed rope presupposes minimal supervision by the guide. There are two areas this has an effect: in the pre-climb training, and while climbing. With fixed ropes, it is easy to lose contact with the team. The climbers are effectively ascending the fixed ropes on their own. This, in turn, means there must be a high level of client training, which may take place during the early (acclimatisation) phase of the expedition. An amateur will train till they get it right; a professional must train till he can no longer get it wrong. Therefore, this training, similar to military training regimes, must ensure not that the client cannot get it wrong. In the dark, with cumbersome gloves and equipment, tired and not least feeling the effects of high altitude, the systems must be so automatic there is no question of error.

During climbing operations, the fixed ropes also present the danger of loss of communication. The guide must stay in constant contact with the clients, for even with the best training, circumstances will conspire to produce unforeseen events. Here the alpine training of the guide comes to the fore.

An obvious feature of Himalayan guiding is the lack of regulation of guiding standards. Unlike the Alps, there is no control over either the level of experience or formal training of guides. The necessary training comprises not only the usual technical competence, but also objective risk assessment, basic medical training, communication and navigation training and a familiarity with the current environmental standards. A Himalayan guide should be trained AND experienced. The UIAGM system delivers the minimum and necessary level of training. (It may not be the only way to achieve the necessary training, but it is the only internationally recognised way. The main alternative to UIAGM guides is the use of highly experienced but not qualified guides such as those used by certain American outfits). UIAGM guides are highly qualified, with training in risk evaluation and avoidance. The main areas of work for them in the Alps are, skiing and ice climbing in winter and rock climbing and mountaineering in summer.

The experience of guiding clients at close quarters in the Alps is invaluable for the Himalaya. A typical Alpine outing will see the guide working with the client to achieve accurate footwork and careful control of balance while on exposed ridges and ice slopes. During the course of a guiding day, many hours may be spent watching the clients for the first signs of tiredness, loose steps, or inattention, which may lead to a slip. A slip can easily lead to a fall, and that is what the guide must prevent. It is easy to hold a slip, and very hard to control a fall. This can hardly be more serious. Whereas an architect can plant trees in front of his errors of judgement and a doctor can bury his mistakes, an Alpine guide is likely to pay for his lapse of concentration with an early entry to the next life. The UIAGM guarantee comes with financial costs, UIAGM guides will normally (but not always) attract a higher fee than non-qualified guides. And that is also part of the problem in the Himalaya. In the intensely competitive market, some enterprises will save by using non-qualified guides and/or unacceptably high guide to client ratios.

So, to sum up, while there are many aspects of high altitude guiding that require expertise; the two key parts to the guiding regime that seem to me to be special to the Himalaya are the pre-climb training, and the in-climbing communication. The pre-climb training, which can take place before the expedition or in the early phase (i.e. during the acclimatisation), will ensure the clients are so familiar with the rope-work it will be almost intuitive, no matter how tired and hypoxic they are. The communication while climbing supposes the discipline of keeping everyone in visual or audio contact during the climb. Most other considerations are not special to high altitude guiding, but common to all expeditions.

So, there we are at 8848 m. We have a plan B. I have already discussed this with Charlie’s Sherpa, Sangay, who looks on with concern. We now begin to put the plan into operation. I attach a cord from Sangay to Charlie and another from Charlie to me. Sangay leads the way down. Charlie is in-between and I am at the rear keeping the cord tight to control Charlie’s balance and hold the slips. Always preventing a slip from turning into a fall. We talk our way down to the Hillary Step.

‘Step down with your left, bit icy there.’
‘Shuffle down a bit, rock under the crampons.’
‘Face out here, lean against the rope. You will feel a rock on your left, turn around and hang from the cord.’

We rely on the instinctive understanding of the tone of voice. This is an important layer of communication. Our common language, our mother tongue allows the understanding of slight nuances (an anxious tone indicates that an instruction was imprecisely understood. A nod shows this the right amount of information for the next shuffling step). The body language too is important, it says as much as the words we use.

Sangay, who is in front of Charlie keeps the leading cord tight and occasionally, places Charlie’s crampons on the correct ledge. It takes six hours, but the weather is perfect and we were at the summit early and so have plenty of time. We are lucky. Charlie has no other signs (nor indeed symptoms) of HACE. Proceeding quickly in this manner we are soon down to 8000 m and the South Col. A bit of dex and turning up the Os brings back Charlie’s eyesight. Yes, we have been exceedingly lucky, but without Charlie’s pre-climb training and the years of guiding the Matterhorns of Europe, we would have been certainly less fortunate.

A personal overview on guiding at high altitude.



  1. Quoted by Clive James on R4, 29 Nov 2009.

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