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Deaths and Fairness on Mount Everest

More people died on Everest this year than any other year.

The cause of 16 of the 17 deaths on the mountain this year was an avalanche, that occurred between basecamp and camp 1 on 4/18/2014, in an area known as the Popcorn Field. This is around 18,000 or 19,000 feet at the top of the Khumbu Ice Fall, the most dangerous part of the Mount Everest climb.

An overhanging wedge of ice the size of a Home Depot broke loose from the western shoulder of Mount Everest, killing the sherpa that were hauling loads underneath it. They didn’t stand a chance. The only way to avoid an avalanche here is to not be on this part of the mountain in the first place.

How Tragic was 2014? Very.

That one avalanche above basecamp made international news. It killed 13 people, making 2014 the deadliest year on the world’s deadliest mountain.

Number of Climbers Killed on Everest 1922-2014

The data source for the below graphs is a wikipedia page that tracks Everest fatalities. Here is the google doc I used to make the graphs.

 

Number of people killed on mount everest by year (1922-2014)

 

Number of Sherpas Killed on Everest 1922-2014

All of the deaths in 2014 were Nepalese Sherpa. This has caused a stir in the Nepalese community and among westerners (like me) who relied on the sherpa, and have therefore come to care a great deal for their well-being.

 

Number of sherpa killed on mount everest by year (1922-2014)

 

The Sherpa People

The Sherpa are an indigenous ethnic group who have settled in the Khumbu, near Mount Everest. There are about 100,000 of them, and many have the last name Sherpa. For more than a century, western climbers have hired Sherpa to do the most dangerous work in the Himalaya.

The deaths this year have caused everyone that has ever worked with the Sherpa people to take a moment and reflect on whether it’s worth it or not. And how we can protect the Sherpa.

The Sherpa people consistently put the needs of “members” above themselves. A “member” is a person who hires the Sherpa to help them climb mountains in the Himalayas. On Everest, I was called a “member”.

Internationally, the word “Sherpa” has come to describe the profession of being a porter, someone who carries objects. In other words, the Sherpa people became so revered as porters, that they redefined the professional category. To put this unto humorous contrast, that’s like Minnesota doctors becoming so great at curing disease, that all doctors worldwide come to be called “Minnesotans”, instead of doctor.

 

The Sherpa Work Stoppage of 2014

After the avalanche on 4/18/2014, both climbers and sherpas stopped climbing to mourn the dead. After this mourning period, the Sherpas announced they would go on strike. At the heart of the work stoppage was the reparations offered by the Nepalese government to the families of the deceased Sherpa. From the New Yorker:

The threat of a work stoppage was provoked by the Sherpas’ outrage over the Nepali government’s offer to provide just forty thousand rupees—slightly more than four hundred dollars—to the families of the Sherpas killed in the avalanche, to defray their funeral expenses. Among the Sherpas’ demands are that the government increase this compensation to approximately a thousand dollars per family

 

Are the Sherpas Strike Demands Fair? Yes.

The Sherpas were offered $400 USD and they want $1000 USD per fallen Sherpa, to defray funeral expenses. Is this fair given that Nepal is in the developing world?

A dollar in the USA has much less purchasing power than a dollar in Nepal, or India – the Nepalese rupee is pegged to the Indian rupee. According to the Economist, in their easy to understand Big Mac Index, $50 USD will buy 11 Big Macs in the USA, and 30 Big Macs in Nepal. This means that a dollar in Nepal buy about three-times what it will in America.

This purchasing-power-parity (PPP) math can help us determine if we feel that the Sherpas demands are fair. I believe they are fair . Funeral arrangements to transport a body from base camp down to their home village certainly adds to the funeral expense. Among other additional fees.

Even though Nepal has a much higher PPP, it stands to reason that they ask for $1000 USD. This is worth about $3000 in the mind of an American, which is within the realm of perfectly reasonable for funeral arrangements, especially given the nature of this years tragedy.

As an American, I am accustomed to the Federal government going out of it’s way to afford reparations to families that are hit by national disasters. For Nepal, this avalanche was absolutely a national disaster. The 13 Sherpas have impact on much more than just their own families. There is a many thousand person supply chain that these climbing Sherpa are just to tip-of-the-sword for. Given that, and with the admission that I absolutely feel that a welfare state like what we have in America is the best of all possible alternatives, I believe the Sherpas request to be fair and adequate to help Nepal cope with this national disaster.

 

How will 2014 be Remembered? Expensive.

As of 4/23/2014, more than half the Sherpa have left basecamp. No one knows if the Sherpa will return. Many of the climbers have also left. If the teams don’t return quickly (days not weeks), they will un-acclimatize, and this two-month long climbing season that ends in May will effectively be over. Without the help of the Sherpas specifically, who are key guides and also haul tons of gear up the mountain, it would be nearly impossible for climbers to scale Everest.

2014 will be remembered as a very expensive year on Everest, in terms of human life (17 dead), lost opportunity (very few summits this year by climbers), lost income (for sherpas seeking to advance a career and make-ends-meet on Everest), and lost investment (for climbers who have paid $30,000 to $90,000 each).

 

Final Thought

I’m fortunate that I was on Everest in 2005, and not 2014. I really empathized with this quote in the New York Times:

“I can’t help but feel that I have let everyone down,” wrote Kent Stewart, an American climber, in a blog post. “If I don’t ever make it to the top of Everest, I’m afraid there will always be a hole in my life, and frankly, that worries me.”

Some of the articles I read question if it’s all worth it. In my estimation it is. I am a serial adventurer with motivations and drive that differ from the norm. I understand how many people find mountaineering needlessly risky. I look at it like this. Some people really like chocolaty sweets, and they get fat. That’s a risk. Some love football, and they get concussions. That’s a risk. Some stay safe by never leaving hermit holes, and thus go bonkers. That’s a risk. We all take risks – my risks involve ice bulges that avalanche.

I’ll close with a picture of Lakpa Geljin Sherpa, who climbed with me to the top of Mount Everest at 9:00am on June 2, 2005. Here he holds the Nepalese flag lashed to his aluminum ice axe. This same axe successfully brought him to the summit of Everest for his previous two summits of Everest. He’s an elite-climber.

 

Lakpa Geljin Sherpa on the summit of Mount Everest

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A Thawing Arctic

The year that Arctic Row rowed across the Arctic Ocean we witnessed the lowest ice cap in recent history. And the trend predicts more melt to come.

The Arctic, the roughly 8 percent of the earth above latitude 66º 33′ north, is warming faster than many climate scientists expected—at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the planet. The extent of Arctic sea ice, which melts to its nadir each September, has steadily declined over the past three decades. The years 2007–2013 saw the six lowest levels since satellite imaging began in 1979. Overall, the ice cap has retreated about 40 percent over this period. The trend is likely unmatched in recent human history, reported a UN panel on climate change in 2013.

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 3.41.44 PM

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Launching the Lifthrasir Rowboat

Last night we launched the refurbished Lifthrasir rowboat into the flat evening waters of the San Francisco Bay. The Lifthrasir had been in the boat shop since April for a strip, overhaul, and varnish. The launch happened after 3 hours of last-minute touch-up and assembly work by 20 members of the Dolphin Club Rowing Club, including my friend Jason Zanetti and me.

A bit of history on the boat, the Lifthrasir was donated to the Dolphin Club in January 2010 by three members (TOppendheimer, PDrino, J/PSancimino) including the wooden double Viking class boat itself, 3 sets of oars, trailer and miscellaneous equipment/gear. She was built in the 1970s by Jeremy Fisher-Smith, who built all the Viking class wooden single and double oar boats at the Dolphin Club and Southend Club. Jeremy is the builder of the Thor wooden single Viking class boat that I was seen rowing in the previous SF Chronicle photograph.

It was rare to be involved in the launching of an overhauled vintage viking-class wooden rowboat. The boat wright, Jon Bielinski and a cadre of regular boatnight members, have worked on this boat overhaul since April. It was inclusive that they chose to share this occasion with all of us. For our part, Jason and I were charged by the boat wright to sand the gunwale, remove the excess caulk from the oar locks along the gunwale, affix the foot stretchers to the boat, and help carry the boat out of the boat room and into the water.

Wooden rowboats need to be overhauled every 5 to 10 years, depending on use. The picture at upper right is taken from the first overhaul back in 1985.

Here are some photographs from last night. There was also a dinner afterwards by chef Mattie, which I do not have pictures of, but will soon.

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Sunday SF Chronicle

I went rowing this weekend to watch the Blue Angels and the America’s Cup sailing race. The SF Chronicle was out on the town, snapped a picture, asked my name, and put Tenzing and me in the Sunday print and online edition. Thankfully the “spills” on the headline is in reference to one of the racing sailboats, and not my rowboat.

 

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Back from rowing 1000 miles across the Arctic

In July I left to row across the Arctic Ocean. I ended up spending 41 days in a rowboat at sea without touching land once. We rowed 1000 miles from Inuvik Canada to Point Hope Alaska. Along the journey we collected plankton samples to predict future whale migrations, saw a polar bear and her cub, almost got crushed by ice bergs, frostbit my finger tips, lost 25 pounds and learned a lot about ocean rowing.

General pictures (first set)
Science pictures
Video of ice berg

Here’s what we accomplished.

  • Longest non-stop row in Arctic history, measured by duration and distance
  • First non-stop international row over 1000 miles in Arctic waters
  • Pioneered a new route for modern ocean rowing spanning the Beaufort and Chucki Sea between Inuvik, CA and Point Hope, AK
  • First  non-stop row covering all of Alaska’s North Slope
  • First ocean row in the arctic to combine human power exploration and marine science

It’s good to be back, but I do miss the simplicity of expedition life.

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Arctic Sea Ice Melting Faster Than 2007

This week the pack ice extent was lower than 2007, the previously lowest year in history. There’s even a nice graph (below).

There’s two sides of this, here’s how I view each side:

  • Liberals love this graph. They print it, shove it in their leather briefcases, drive their V6’s to their corner java shop and use the graph to bemoan earth’s fate–note the conflict.
  • Conservatives say that it’s 2 year’s data in quick succession, too small of a data set. They recall the 1960’s concerns of an “ice age” because of quick data analysis similar to this. They also print this liberal-rag graph, hand it to one of their many children, drive their Suburban to McDonald’s, and forget they ever saw it because they are so busy feeding their family of 4–note the hilarity.

Now, scientists fear that although the data set is small, the result will differ from the 1960s supposed ice age. The reason is the positive feedback loop . When snow or ice melt, they are replaced by darker melt-water pools, land or sea. As a result, the Arctic surface absorbs more solar heat. This causes local warming, therefore more melting, which causes more warming, and so on. This positive feedback shows how even a small change to the Earth’s systems can trigger much greater ones. Which means it won’t be a blip.

As a data-jock, I feel this positive “feedback loop argument” above is a veiled attempt to hide from a lack of data.

As a citizen of low sea-level city, I feel that if we wait it’ll be too late.

That’s why I’m rowing across the Arctic Ocean to see it for myself, after which time I plan to make an opinion and spend the next years spreading that opinion far and wide.

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Arctic Row on WGN Chicago News

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Meeting Roz Savage

I met the most prominent rower in the world today, Roz Savage. She’s the only woman to row across the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, all solo. She wrote a book about her Atlantic Crossing. She was in San Francisco this week to prepare her boat to row across the Atlantic. She was super kind, gave me a bunch of tips and wished Arctic Row well. I wished her well also, her rowing expedition leaves in a couple days.

Roz Savage and Neal Mueller

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Arctic Row Mentioned In New York Times Today

Link to article about Arctic Row’s scientific work with University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Lab Chimps Play in the Sun for the First Time

Auf Deutsch fuer meine deutschsprachige Freunde. [via Adventure Blog]

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