This article originally appeared on Climbing
The tumultuous 2023 Himalayan climbing season was marked by both triumph and tragedy. More climbers than ever set out for Mount Everest's summit, and 17 died on the mountain, the most ever in a season. Record-chasing climbers smashed historic marks on the 14 8,000-meter peaks. But the race to bag summits also contributed to deadly disasters. And the history books documenting the achievements on these mountains were also upended. New methods for scrutinizing historic climbs prompted Guinness World Records to strip some of the sport's greatest athletes--specifically Italian climber Reinhold Messner--of their past achievements.
The whole series of events did not sit well with Ed Viesturs, the legendary alpinist who in 2005 became the first American to ascend the 8,000-meter peaks without using supplemental oxygen. I spoke to Viesturs, 64, in October about the state of Himalayan climbing, and whether or not he believes Messner's record should still stand.
Viesturs told me he does not take the Guinness decision seriously. "The list, as I always saw it, named me the fifth person to climb every 8,000er without oxygen, " Viesturs said. "I didn't care if I was first or fifth or tenth but somehow recently the four people ahead of me were taken off the list through analysis or scrutiny and I got pushed to number one. Did It change my life? No. But someone's keeping track."
The crowds on Everest and the uptick in record chasing are tied to the same sea change in Himalayan climbing. The rapid increase in guiding companies in the Himalayas means it's easier and cheaper than ever to ascend Everest and other peaks. Some companies will guide novice climbers up routes that, decades ago, were the playground for the most seasoned climbers. Other guiding companies specifically cater to record-chasing climbers hoping to bag all of the 8,000ers.
Viesturs is not impressed with these records. "The media and general public love this type of speed event. It's fast, and seemingly innovative. It attracts lots of attention. But this style of climbing takes logistics, manpower to fix ropes, and lots of money," he says. "Not skill."
Plus, the race to bag these peaks causes dangerous situations. On October 7, American climber Anna Gutu and her guide Mingma Sherpa died in an avalanche on 26,335-foot Shishapangma. Then, less than an hour later, Nepali guide Tenjen Lama Sherpa and his client, another American climber, Gina Marie Rzucidlo, died when a separate avalanche buried them higher on the peak. Both women died attempting to become the first American woman to climb all the 8,000ers and were racing each other for the title.
Viesturs believes the demand to score speed records is one of the biggest problems in Himalayan climbing right now. "The highest peaks in the world will always attract people," Viesturs says. "With the high demand, outfitters are supplying the resources. Some outfitters are well organized and trained, others perhaps not so much."
Viesturs doesn't blame the guides, but rather argues that the incentives to get clients to the top may persuade them to take unnecessary risks. Some guides feel extreme pressures to get their highest-paying clients to the summit. "The pressure of that investment and expectation causes the guides to continue pushing clients to the summit who perhaps should have been turned around much earlier, due to lack of endurance or skill," Viesturs said. That, combined with what he describes as a group-think mentality, likely contributed to the high death toll on Everest.
Once acclimatized, many disparate guided parties at Everest Base Camp anxiously await a good weather report. When guides are given the green light on a weather window, no one wants to be left behind--a dynamic that creates bottlenecks and traffic jams on the route. "Many teams decide to push for that one seemingly perfect day, rather than waiting or assuming that there might be several more good days still to come," says Viesturs. That issue of crowding on summit day, he argues, could be resolved by the leaders of the teams coming together and making a plan to spread out the summit pushes, rather than all going on the same day.
While Viesturs does not have much interest in climbers chasing speed records on the 8,000-meter peaks, there is plenty about climbing in the Himalaya that still excites him.
"There are many climbers out there doing amazing ascents with little fanfare or publicity. The recent ascent of the North Face of Jannu (25,300 feet), done in alpine style, is a great example of the future of climbing," says Viesturs. "Hard ascents done by small teams, often on relatively unknown peaks."
These climbs often go unnoticed because of how difficult it is to describe just how futuristic they are. The climb on Jannu, for example, involved a push up a face three times the size of Yosemite's El Capitan, climbing pitch after pitch of vertical rock and ice for seven days. The most difficult pitches of climbing would have been quite difficult for most expert ice climbers at a crag, let alone at 25,000 feet.
"The general public doesn't really care, but the folks that know what these climbs involve are paying attention," says Viesturs.
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.