Aaah yes, this old story on Everest...
Once upon a time, when a small community of lonely, honest and silent heroes performed alpine climbing, it was common for all expeditions on a mountain to share the burden of rope fixing.
Well. While there is still a vague, romantic belief that this is how it should be done on Everest, it is crushed today by the new era of alpine climbing.
The fact is, that most climbers visit once or twice, never to return to Everest - or even the Himalayas - again. Climbers today are far more many than in the old days and not always very experienced either. Often, they are led by large commercial expeditions, and have no part in the rope fixing at all.
Consequently, fixing of ropes has simply fallen upon the expedition who actually gets up and does it, usually without much help from the others.
Sometimes, meetings has been held and decisions has been made between expeditions on who is supposed to do what. This well intended attempt to co-operate has often ended in delayed acclimatizations due to wrecked deadlines, dangerous parts not fixed at all and on occasion even wrecked summit bids due to failed promises to fix at crucial timing...
In the end, one expedition simply takes it on itself to do all of the fixing, in order to be able to climb in time. The other expeditions then climb happily right behind, too often avoiding the bill afterwards.
Rob Hall fixed most of the mountain in 1996, Boukreev in 1997, everyone and nobody in 1998 and then we did it in 1999. Neither us, Hall nor Boukreev were offered much help with cost or labor from (most of) the others - even after asking...
The costs for rope fixing above icefall are huge. Apart from the 5-km/3 miles of ropes, 200 icescrews, 500 ice picks and other gear that we had to bring, you also need additional sherpas and the sherpas need to be paid extra bonuses for the fixing.
We used 5 extra sherpas for the fixing and it took all our guys about a week to fix the route from Icefall to Camp 4. It was done early, enabling early acclimatizations and summit bids. An additional 1500-meter/5000 ft of rope was then brought to C4, where Pete Athens team completed the task between C4 and the summit.
Our expedition budget was US 200 000 and we simply added the additional 10% - or US 20.000 - required for the rope fixing. We did so after a prior years (1998) disastrous fixed rope situation. We needed to ensure good odds for our own summit bid and additional safety for Babus record attempt. We simply didn't want to lose the summit or our lives on hassles with (some of) the other expeditions.
We told the others that we would do the fixing for our climb and offered them to join in with a fixed amount of money, or whatever they decided was fair. Again though, for us as well as for Hall/Boukreev, that didn't work out very well, people used the ropes and ran. Should you and your expedition choose to prepare the mountain yourself, you need to be aware of that and be prepared to cover the cost.
Yet, if your budget is limited, and you can't prepare the entire mountain yourself - where does these politics leave you?
Unfortunately, the situation is still unsolved and has to be dealt with each year. And it is a problem indeed. If you are joining a small or commercial expedition, you won't have much say. The rope fixing will be dealt with between the expedition leaders under much hush-hush. That will be frustrating to you since you are very dependent on the ropes.
Try to talk to the other expeditions before the climb. The best is to agree together for one of them to take on the additional sherpas needed for the task. Try to choose the seemingly most responsible and well organized expedition. Share in on the costs.
Leave your gear at BC if not asked for; it's better with only one Chef on the mountain. Bring just spare rope to tie in to your climbing buddy on tricky parts if needed.
Keep your fingers crossed that the rope fixing will find a solution some day. It shouldn't be hopeless, in the end, Hall managed to bring at least the Icefall under some control. Mention the problem to the Ministry.
We think that the best solution would be to assign a fixed crew of strong sherpas to do the job every year and share in on their wages and their costs for the gear needed. Expedition sherpas are doing the job anyway these days except when nobody is responsible and nobody wants to pay, and the fixing of the ropes is unnecessarily late and poorly done.
Luckily enough, it has at least become standard that the icefall is fixed by a sherpa "icefall doctor" and all expeditions have to pay. The cost for each expedition for the Icefall is about US 300 per person.
In the last years of 2000, costs rose and service fell, for a few years. The reliable Icefall doctor sherpa from earlier years was replaced by a new (probably cheaper) not so reliable one, hired by a commercial expedition leader new to the task.
The icefall doctor in 1999 actually left the icefall unmaintained on several occasions, causing us to pull as many as every second screw at times. The abandonned ice fall even caused a few sherpas to fall from ladders.
After that, a reliable sherpa team was assigned by the Ministry to do the icefall and we have not heard complaints since.
Our hope is that in highlighting the problem, something will be done about the entire fixed rope situation. Thus enabling us to remove this section altogether.
All of the above applies to the normal route. Should you choose any other route, it will be cheaper permit vise, but you will definitely have to do much of the rope task yourself. We assume however, that in choosing one of the unusual routes you know climbing well and probably don't need further advise from us.