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Deaths cast shadow over safe climbing practices at Everest

A set of best practices for 8,000-metre peaks exists, but the guidelines are voluntary. In this photograph taken on May 19, 2009, unidentified mountaineers descend from the summit of Everest. Four climbers have been killed returning from the summit of Mount Everest, tour agents and officials said on May 21, 2012, bringing the season's death toll to six on the world's highest peak.

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Shriya Shah-Klorfine is not the first inexperienced climber to take on Mount Everest and she won't be the last.

Mountain-climbing expedition operators say they field calls from people like her all the time: Adventurers who want to conquer the world's tallest peak without any previous high-altitude experience.

On the surface, the response seems clear but in the absence of regulations preventing guides from taking novice climbers up Everest in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars, it ultimately boils down to a matter of ethics for the guides and one of personal responsibility for the climbers.

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"Going straight to Everest is a shame. You're not going to appreciate the experience. Your chances are not that great. It's far more dangerous," said veteran mountaineer Wally Berg, chief guide with Berg Adventures International in Canmore, west of Calgary. "But people do go to Everest for their first time … on any mountain and they climb it. Sixteen-year-olds climb Everest and 76-year-olds climb Everest. It's interesting times."

Ms. Shah-Klorfine, 33, made it to the 8,848-metre summit this past spring but died on the way down, collapsing about 350 metres below the peak after she ran out of oxygen bottles. She was one of four climbers who perished on Everest on May 19, one of the deadliest and most crowded days in the mountain's history.

Born in Kathmandu, Ms. Shah-Klorfine grew up in Mumbai before moving to Toronto with her husband, Bruce Klorfine. Speaking this week about her death, Mr. Klorfine said his wife was too inexperienced to tackle Everest and contended her Nepalese outfitter should have stopped her from climbing after she seemingly struggled on her acclimatization hike.

But Ganesh Thakuri of Utmost Adventure Trekking Pvt. Ltd. maintained Ms. Shah-Klorfine had acquired the skills to climb after weeks of training in the Himalayas just before her spring trek.

On the way to the summit, Mr. Thakuri said he and the two Sherpas tried to persuade her to turn around, but she refused.

Knowing how to deal with determined clients who are struggling on Everest is an essential aspect of guiding, noted long-time mountaineer Tim Rippel, who operates Peak Freaks in Nelson, B.C. Mr. Rippel said he turns a few people back on every expedition because they're not coping well with the gruelling conditions.

"I don't want to lose people," he added. "I know they have loved ones at home."

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After the disastrous 1996 Everest climbing season, during which 15 people died on the mountain, concerns were raised about the commercialization of Everest and whether there should be stricter controls on who can climb to the summit and who can guide them there. Several expedition operators came together to craft a set of best practices for 8,000-metre peaks, but the guidelines are voluntary.

British guide Kenton Cool, who reached the Everest summit for the 10th time in May, believes this year's deaths – 10 in all – should prompt the guiding industry to take another hard look at whether changes are needed to improve safety. But Sharon Wood, the first North American woman to reach the peak in 1986, argues climbers need to take more personal responsibility.

"I think what needs to change is our attitudes towards the mountain," said Ms. Wood, who lives in Canmore. "People are going there with very, very unrealistic expectations and just about zero aptitude for mountaineering."

When inexperienced climbers contact Mr. Rippel about taking on Everest, he suggests they first join him on a training climb in the Himalayas. The trip costs $6,900 and allows adventurers to learn what it will take to conquer the peak and gives Mr. Rippel and his team the chance to assess whether they are suitable for Everest.

"There's no reason why inexperienced mountaineers can't go there," Mr. Rippel said as he prepared to head to the region for a training climb. "They just need to do their homework and make sure they're hooked up with proper operators that can have lots of back up for them."

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About the Author
National news reporter

Renata joined The Globe and Mail's Toronto newsroom in March of 2011. Raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Renata spent nine years reporting in Alberta for the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, covering crime, environment and political affairs. More


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