This article was corrected on May 6.
Michael MacNair is alive today thanks in large part to lucky timing and the advice of an expert tour operator.
MacNair, president and CEO of Alexandria, Va.-based MacNair Travel Management, was on Mount Everest base in Nepal last month on the day an avalanche killed 13 people on the mountain. Three more remain missing.
MacNair and his longtime friend John Carney had made the trek to base camp at 17,500 feet, where they were going to spend a couple nights before heading back. While there, however, they had originally planned to visit Khumbu Icefall, the spot where the deadly avalanche occurred, about 2,000 feet above base camp 48 hours after they were there.
They canceled the plan after their tour operator, Alpine Ascents, advised against it.
“We literally could have been standing right there,” MacNair mused last week. “It’s incredible to me how you place yourself at the mercy of so many people when you travel. That’s kind of part of travel. You have to relinquish control sometimes.”
Relinquishing control is especially wise when it comes to mountain-climbing.
“They say to the climbers, ‘You don’t pay your guides to lead you up the mountain, you pay your guides to tell you when to not go up the mountain,’” he said.
Paradoxically, it was those trusted guides who were lost in the avalanche on April 18. All were members of the Sherpa community, the ethnic group native to the Himalayan mountain region on which many climbers rely to make their way up the world’s highest peaks.
Treatment of Sherpas questioned
Since the tragedy, the deadliest accident in the history of Everest climbing, the Sherpas have effectively shut down the remainder of the season (which usually runs for a few short months in the spring) as they mourn the loss of their brethren and protest the risks they take vs. the compensation they get for bringing climbers to the 29,035-foot summit.
“It is a great loss for all the Sherpa community,” said A.C. Sherpa, president and guide of Redmond, Wash.-based Himalayan Sherpa Trek & Expedition. “We lost great climbers, but also they left behind family.”
The government of Nepal was highly criticized for initially only giving the families of the fallen Sherpas $400 each as compensation for their loss in an industry that charges climbers tens of thousands of dollars for an attempt to summit.
The Nepalese government has since looked into greater compensation for the families of the deceased Sherpas, and the adventure travel community is promoting fundraising initiatives to add to the assistance.
Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, said, “Good operators really take care of their Sherpas, both in pay and also by taking out life insurance policies on them for the families’ sake.”
Stowell added that while the recent tragedy dealt a serious blow to the adventure travel community, he hoped that, ultimately, the climbing industry will be able to continue in a way that is beneficial to all parties involved.
“Could the industry look into itself and see what risks can further be mitigated?” Stowell asked. “Sure, but … for the longer term, to close down climbing would have a devastating effect on the mini-economies that have sprung up around climbing — not only the guiding, but the lodging, restaurants, etc., that come along with it.”
Indeed, the adventure travel community expects that Everest will be up and running again for the 2015 season, and the climbing industry doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
But experts say there are several cautionary tales in the recent tragedy, ranging from overcrowding on high-risk climbs and treks to the effects climate change will continue to have on mountains such as Everest, potentially making them riskier to ascend.
Jeffrey Kargel, senior associate research scientist for the University of Arizona’s department of hydrology, said of the glaciated ice and snow that covers the mountains, “In the Himalayas, it’s pretty much across-the-board thinning.”
Kargel, who oversees the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space project, an effort to monitor the world’s glaciers, added, “I suspect that the absolute danger or hazard is increasing due to two effects: One is [that] the reducing ice thickness is reducing the buttressing or stabilizing effect on ice. But then there’s [also] the increased use. The more people in those valleys, the more disasters are going to happen.”
He noted that as climate change continues to alter the environment, it will be more difficult to predict risks, with the past serving as a less accurate guide to the future.
Kargel’s observations are amplified by the fact that it was experienced mountain guides who lost their lives in this most recent accident.
‘What’s a safe number?’
His second point, about the impact of people on mountain environments, raises the question of whether there should be more government and/or industry controls on the number of people climbing and visiting the Himalayan and other mountain ranges.
“How many people should have been up there?” MacNair wondered. “What’s a safe number? That’s a big discussion that’s probably going on in Nepal right now. That’s the job of a government, to determine how much an infrastructure can handle reasonably.”
And it’s a challenge that governing bodies and the industry are going to have to tackle more directly as more and more people indulge an appetite for the life-changing risks and rewards that adventures such as Everest present.
“There are a lot of different flavors of getaways,” MacNair said. “And this was clearly an adventure and in no way shape or form a vacation. I put myself in a very uncomfortable environment and challenged myself. I needed some time to think, I needed some confidence to be brought back to my body. Definitely the trip accomplished all those goals.”
So, was it worth it? Will he continue to look for unique travel challenges despite being confronted in the most vivid way with the risks those challenges present?
MacNair said he is looking to bike across America next.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that MacNair was at Mount Everest base camp on the day of the avalanche. MacNair had begun his descent from base camp 48 hours prior to the avalanche.