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Everest, Inc.

The Renegades and Rogues Who Built an Industry at the Top of the World

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About The Book

Featuring original interviews with mountain guides and climbers—including Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker—this vivid and authoritative adventure history chronicles one of the least likely industries on Earth: guided climbing on Mount Everest.

Anyone who has read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or has seen a recent photo of climbers standing in line to get to the top of Everest may think they have the mountain pretty well figured out. It’s an extreme landscape where bad weather and incredible altitude can occasionally kill, but more so an overcrowded, trashed-out recreation destination where rich clients pad their egos—and social media feeds—while exploiting local Sherpas.

There’s some truth to these clichés, but they’re a sliver of the story. Unlike any book to date, Everest, Inc. gets to the heart of the mountain through the definitive story of its greatest invention: the Himalayan guiding industry. It all began in the 1980s with a few boot-strapping entrepreneurs who paired raw courage and naked ambition with a new style of expedition planning. Many of them are still living and climbing today, and as a result of their astonishing success, ninety percent of the people now on Everest are clients or employees of guided expeditions.

Studded with quotes from original interviews with more than a hundred western and Sherpa climbers, clients, writers, filmmakers, and even a Hollywood actor, Everest, Inc. foregrounds the voices of the people who have made the mountain what it is today. And while there is plenty of high-altitude drama in unpacking the last forty years of Everest tragedy and triumph, it ultimately transcends stereotypes and tells the uplifting counternarrative of the army of journeymen and women who have made people’s dreams come true, and of the Nepalis who are pushing the industry into the future.

Excerpt

Prologue PROLOGUE
The summit of Mount Everest is split right down the middle by the border between Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, but the vast majority of climbers make their attempt from the Nepal side. If they’re clients of a guiding company, as almost all Everest climbers are today, they do so via the South Col Route–the same one that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa used during their first ascent. On their way to the 29,035 foot summit, clients pass through five well-stocked camps, from the relatively flat and balmy base camp, at 17,600 feet, to the head-spinning and frigid Camp Four, at 26,250 feet. Camp Four sits on the South Col—a saddle-shaped pass between Everest and the adjacent peak Lhotse, the fourth-highest mountain in the world.

Trekkers and climbers reach base camp by first taking one of a dozen daily flights from Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in the small village of Lukla, at 9,400 feet. From there, they spend ten days ascending and descending narrow switchbacks and rough staircases hand-built out of local granite, crossing swaying cable bridges over churning glacier-fed rivers, and admiring pink rhododendrons in full spring bloom during the most popular climbing season. They bed down each evening in cozy stone teahouses heated by yak-dung furnaces in increasingly small villages with centuries-old Buddhist temples. As base camp nears, the landscape of variegated earth tones becomes monochromatic, all black rock, white snow, and blue ice. While the Khumbu Glacier on which base camp sits looks like a vast rock garden, it is really the surface of a constantly shifting frozen river that has chewed its way through the surrounding metamorphic rock and deposited the crushed-up debris on the surface. When trekkers crest the final moraine before base camp, at last they see the hundreds of brightly colored, dome-shaped tents stretching across nearly a mile of the glacier.

Many of those who will be attempting the summit as part of a guided expedition will arrive in base camp to incongruous comforts for such a remote outpost, including carpeted lounges with beanbag chairs, high-speed internet access, masseuses, full bars, baristas, and movie screens. The diversions are meant to help fill the ample downtime, as climbers and their guides spend up to eight weeks on their expedition. It’s often said that Everest expeditions are two weeks of climbing crammed into two months. Climbers spend approximately a week, cumulatively, ascending to Camps Two and Three, and up nearby peaks to acclimatize to the crippling altitude. Then, when it’s time to go for the summit—which usually isn’t until about day thirty-five of the expedition, if all is going smoothly—it takes less than a week to climb from base camp to the peak. Coming back down takes only about three days.

Getting from base camp to Camp One requires navigating the mountain’s most treacherous section, where the Khumbu Glacier makes a sudden 2,000-foot climb in the span of about a mile and a half. This landscape of slick ice, enormous blocks of teetering snow, and gaping crevasses is known as the Khumbu Icefall. Camp One is more of a supply depot for oxygen bottles and other gear than an overnight pitstop, so climbers typically push on to Camp Two. Perched at 21,000 feet, in a seemingly benign valley called the Western Cwm (pronounced “koom”), Camp Two has fifty or so tents tucked into sheltered nooks of rock and ice. Surrounding the tents is a towering horseshoe-shaped amphitheater of jagged peaks and ridges consisting of Everest, Lhotse, and a rarely climbed, slightly lower, but more technical subpeak called Nuptse. Frayed, faded Buddhist prayer flags flap in the near-constant breeze as climbers hide out from the elements and sip lemon ginger tea in cramped mess tents that double as command centers—or ERs when disasters strike.

The terrain of Camp Two must be treated with great respect. Routine storms blow in, and avalanches, even distant ones, can push blasts of air and an apocalyptic cloud of white powder into the camp with such force that it rips tents apart or blows them away. Complacent newbies have been swallowed by cracks in the ice while fetching water for an afternoon tea. Even elite mountaineers have been lost. A beloved and skilled Nepalese climber named Babu Chiri Sherpa died in 2001 after falling into a crevasse while taking photos near Camp Two.

Bottom line: in the thin air of Camp Two, it is hard enough to walk a few feet away from your tent to relieve yourself, let alone run for your life. This is why on a now-infamous day in late April 2013, professional climbers Ueli Steck and Simone Moro, and their companion and cameraman Jonathan Griffith, were sick with dread as they fled down the mountain from Camp Two without time to consider the safest route. They had no choice. They were being chased.

Steck and Moro represented an increasingly small slice of Everest society: elite mountaineers who neither paid others to guide them nor took money to guide others. They were sponsored climbers, who received a salary from huge outdoor companies including the North Face and Mountain Hardwear to beguile and inspire amateurs with their daring first ascents and pioneering records.

Steck, thirty-seven at the time, was one of the most famous climbers on earth—a national hero of Switzerland, where they treat professional mountaineers like Americans treat NBA players. His nickname: “the Swiss Machine.” Moro, forty-six, was an Italian who had been coming to Everest since he was twenty-one years old and had summited four times already. He also worked as a pilot for an elite high-altitude helicopter rescue operation in the Himalayas. At thirty-three, Jonathan Griffith, an Englishman, was less experienced, there primarily to film Steck and Moro’s groundbreaking climb for as long as he could keep up with them.

By 2013, there were only a couple of routes left on the mountain that had either never or only rarely been climbed before, and the Europeans were set to attempt one of them. Not only did Steck and Moro intend to summit Everest via this extremely dangerous route, they wanted to continue on in a single twenty-hour push to then summit Lhotse, also via a new route. They planned to do all of this without supplemental oxygen.

The pro climbers, however, were operating on the fringes of a juggernaut that can justly be described as the Everest-industrial complex. On any given day in April and May (Everest’s spring climbing season) there are approximately 1,500 people at base camp. Only a small fraction are independent climbers like Steck and Moro. The rest are clients or employees of the booming commercial guiding businesses, in which amateur climbers—or even complete novices—pay as much as $300,000 for a heavily assisted shot at the summit. The South Col Route is like a two-lane freeway, with a 75-miles-per-hour speed limit, and no shoulder to pull off on. Though they hoped to ultimately attempt a new route, the elite climbers were using the South Col Route up to Camp Three for acclimatization climbs and gear-shuttling purposes in preparation for their big day.

Put another way, Steck and Moro were attempting something akin to looking for an Amazon butterfly species that lives in the path of a one-hundred-ton scorched-earth logging operation.

April 27, 2013, was a day of rest for the Western mountain guides and their clients. Some would be taking it easy in base camp; others would do the same at Camp Two on an acclimatization rotation. Steck, Moro, and Griffith saw this particular rest day as an opportunity to move more freely on the mountain at a time when less-experienced climbers would not be crowding the route. That morning, they set off from their tents in Camp Two for Camp Three on an acclimatization foray.

After Camp Two, the horizontal world ends and a vertical world begins. Climbers must spend a hard day scaling a section of an imposing and often icy slope known as the Lhotse Face. Camp Three is hacked into the side of the face at 23,500 feet, with man-made terraces just wide enough to fit a few tents.

By midday, the Europeans were halfway to Camp Three. Also on the face that day was a small group of Sherpa climbers, working for the guiding companies. Sherpas—an ethnic group native to the Solu-Khumbu region of the Himalayas, where Everest sits—had always played a significant role in the guiding industry, but by 2013 they were beginning to take increasing ownership of it, and thus were becoming more protective of it than ever before. Poverty was once crippling for the Sherpas of the Solu-Khumbu, even by Nepali standards. The Everest business had changed that.

The half dozen or so Sherpas working on the Lhotse Face were installing a three-thousand-foot rope safety line. This and the rest of the approximately twelve miles of “fixed rope” that is installed on Everest each season would essentially act as a limp handrail for the benefit of less-experienced client climbers, who would need the safety net during their trudge toward the top. (The ropes are left in place and remain on the mountain until they are buried by the snow, fall apart naturally, or are cut loose because they’re in the way.) Among the team were Mingma Tenzing Sherpa, a well-liked and very experienced sirdar (a management position held by Sherpas), who worked for the American guiding company International Mountain Guides (IMG), and Tashi Riten Sherpa, a young IMG employee. The rest were employees of other Western guiding companies.

The job the Sherpas were doing was particularly delicate, involving hundreds of pounds of rope and climbing hardware such as razor-sharp ice screws and carabiners. Installing the fixed ropes often takes several days, and there are well-understood rules among the guiding companies about steering clear of the Sherpas until they’re finished. All the commercial teams had met and explicitly agreed to avoid the face for several days. Steck, Moro, and Griffith were not at that meeting. As a small, noncommercial team, they did not feel obliged to clear their movements with other expedition leaders.

Still, aware of the dangers of the task the Sherpas had in front of them, the three had purposely plotted a route up the face that was a good 150 feet away from the rope-fixing team. They would also be climbing without ropes—“alpine style”—which would allow them to give the Sherpas a wide berth and move past them quickly. Griffith’s footage from the day shows Steck plunging his ax into the snow, ascending quickly and playfully like a child climbing a tree. The alpinists were clearly enjoying themselves.

In order to reach Camp Three, however, they needed to eventually traverse across the face and over the Sherpas’ ropes. The Sherpas were stacked in a long line as they worked at various elevations. The Europeans understood the importance of treading lightly and moving quickly. The two crews slowly merged, with Steck, Moro, and Griffith moving laterally, passing above some Sherpas and below others. As the climbers from both teams drove the spikes of their crampons and axes into the face for purchase, chunks of ice and snow rained onto those below. Mingma Tenzing rappelled down to confront Steck and Moro, yelling. Tension grew. Insults flew. Soon there was grabbing and shoving among the men clinging to the icy mountainside.

A fall seemed imminent—until a single word ended everything.

In a panic, Moro called one of the Sherpas a machikne. “Motherfucker” is the direct translation from Nepali, but the insult is considered far worse to the Nepalese. Moro had long worked side by side with Sherpas in his job as a helicopter rescue pilot, and he says he knew the word from late-night card games with some of his many Sherpa friends. In that moment, he believed his Swiss friend was about to be pulled off the face and killed. The shock of the insult stopped everything. As it turned out, one of the Sherpas’ radios happened to be stuck in the Talk position, and the entire exchange was being broadcast into every mess tent on the mountain. Expedition leaders in the camps below listened raptly, helpless to intervene.

Then, with eerie calm, the Sherpas gathered their gear and began descending back toward Camp Two. It was only one p.m., and there was still much rope to fix. The three Europeans decided to stay behind and continue some of the rope work themselves as an act of goodwill. They knew there would be a reckoning when they returned to camp, though nothing that couldn’t be settled over a cup of tea and a handshake, they thought—especially after letting the Sherpas know they’d helped with the ropes.

By late afternoon, most Western climbers and Sherpas at Camp Two are making small talk while sipping tea—or something stronger—in one of the heated mess tents. Entering Camp Two around three p.m., Steck, Moro, and Griffith planned on addressing what had happened on the Lhotse Face right away. They were eager to put the conflict behind them. They would just drop their climbing equipment at their tents, then continue straight on to the communal tents of the guide services to talk to the Sherpas and hash things out with the help of the guiding company expedition leaders. They knew the Sherpa climbers would likely already have recounted the incident to their bosses.

Before the Europeans even had time to reach the guide company camps, they were intercepted by Greg Vernovage, the IMG expedition leader. Vernovage had overheard the entire incident on the radio. “We asked everyone to just stay in their camps while we worked things out,” he recalls. But while he was eager to smooth things over and was willing to be the middleman, there was no question about who he felt was to blame. “We had asked everyone in Camp Two to steer clear of the face that day, while the Sherpas worked,” he says.

Vernovage walked with the three European climbers back to one of their tents. They were all discussing the best way to move forward when Melissa Arnot, a twenty-nine-year-old American guide, burst in, panicked. “You guys need to get out of here,” she warned. “They’re coming.”

Arnot hastily explained that dozens of Sherpas were marching toward them, banded together from separate expeditions, many wearing scarves to cover their faces and some clutching baseball-size rocks.

Steck, Moro, and Griffith realized that there was no hope of calmly hashing things out. The angry voices drew near too quickly for them to get their gear together and escape. “We were trapped,” Steck recalls. “I’m pretty used to dealing with dangerous situations. But people are different from mountains.” As he cowered in his tent, Steck couldn’t help but consider the irony that this might be the way his life came to an end. “I was thinking about how I’ve climbed so many cool mountains, without oxygen, without ropes—‘I can’t believe this is how I’ll die. I’m so stupid for coming to Everest.’?”

Rocks began to fly at the Europeans’ tent. One struck Steck in the head, unleashing a stream of blood down his face. Vernovage and Arnot attempted to hold the line, standing firm with their arms linked between the tent and the Sherpas. Vernovage was staring down many of his own trusted employees. “I lost the ability to calm them down,” he said in a documentary about the incident. “Many were young and I didn’t know that was in them until I saw it.” Another guide, Marty Schmidt, joined the standoff and knocked a rock from a Sherpa’s hands.

Amid the chaos, Steck, Moro, and Griffith managed to split up to hide in separate tents. Steck’s head was still gushing with blood when he heard Sherpas nearby saying, “Get that guy out. First we kill him, then we look for the other two.” Moro too says he heard Sherpas saying that they deserved to die.

Many Sherpas dispute this, including the young Tashi Riten. He admits to stoking the violent confrontation, but not that far. “If Sherpas had really wanted to kill them, would they be alive now?” he asks. Tashi Riten also acknowledges that he ignored some of the more senior Sherpas who were trying to calm the situation, as he and some of the other younger men rallied for a fight. Dawa Steven Sherpa, the owner of the guiding company Asian Trekking and something of an elder statesman on Everest by that point, says, “We asked our senior Sherpas at Camp Two to try and go talk sense into the young rope-fixing Sherpas.”

Tashi Riten did not back down. He stood in front of Moro’s tent and demanded an apology. “I had once heard that in Italy, having to kneel is the worst thing,” he says. Cell phone footage shows Moro emerging from a tent and immediately dropping to his knees in deference, asking for forgiveness. Arnot, in tears, pleaded for calm and mercy. Rocks continued to fly. One Sherpa reached past Arnot and Vernovage and slapped Moro across the face. Another kicked him with a heavy mountaineering boot. Arnot and Vernovage continued to stand their ground. Many who were there later said that the presence of a strong woman was likely the only thing that staved off an all-out attack.

With the European climbers essentially cornered, the Sherpas offered what felt like a draconian compromise. “They told us that if we were not gone in an hour they would kill all three of us,” remembers Griffith. The men gathered a few necessities. As they set off in the fading light, they paused just long enough to notice the silhouettes of some Sherpas on the ridgeline, watching them flee.

Thirty minutes later, they reached the top of the Khumbu Icefall. They were so scared that they decided to avoid the standard, safer route, and make it more difficult for the Sherpas to follow them. This was an especially risky choice given the fact that they were traveling soon after the hottest part of the day, when melting ice and snow makes the glacier even more unpredictable.

As the Europeans danced through the gantlet of crevasses and kept a lookout for falling ice, the expedition leaders in base camp—Westerners and Sherpas alike—were having heated conversations over radio about how to handle the situation. For many, the priority was saving the season from an all-out mutiny. The guiding business was livelihood and lifeblood for them all, and this incident felt like an existential threat. Blame was being meted out on both sides. “Some company owners were already calling for us to be jailed,” says Tashi Riten. “They requested an armed police force to come and get us.” No such force materialized.

Eventually, the Europeans made it safely to base camp. Steck was truly shaken and insisted they leave immediately. Griffith agreed. “Ueli and Jonathan wanted to get the fuck out of there,” says Moro. But Moro wanted to stay, still hoping to work out a truce. He loved Everest, called the place home for a good part of the year, and felt a deep connection to the Sherpas who had become his friends. He hated the idea of damaging the place and its people.

Moro’s argument won out, and with the help of Dawa Steven and a New Zealander guide company owner named Russell Brice, among others, a meeting was organized. “I was pushing for the outcome of the meeting to be put in writing,” Tashi Riten says. “It wasn’t enough to just have an oral agreement. Otherwise, in coming generations, there will always be shame about this event, and we were just defending our pride.”

A peace treaty of sorts was drawn up, agreed to, and signed. But the two main things it stipulated were reiterations of the norm as it already stood: Sherpas would be the ones to fix ropes, and their work would be undisturbed. It seems the settlement was less about the specific incident between the Europeans and Sherpas than an expression of the feeling among Sherpas that they deserved more control and respect. They deserved to be heard.

With the incident smoothed over, the Europeans abandoned their climb and left the Khumbu (though Moro did continue to fly rescue helicopters the rest of the season). Tashi Riten was let go by IMG, though he was rehired by a Nepali company to finish out the season. He has always regretted that the conflict turned physical, but he also says “there were some people that thanked me,” pointing to what he saw as a reduction in the disrespect aimed at Sherpas after they’d stood up for themselves.

Meanwhile, the 2013 spring guiding season resumed. Roughly eight hundred people had their sights set on the summit that season. Six hundred and eighty-four people were successful and eight died—unremarkable statistics for an Everest season. To a typical client, it might have seemed as if nothing much had happened. In fact, everything had changed. The fuse that had been slowly burning for decades, ever since a Texan named Dick Bass had inadvertently kicked off the Everest guiding industry twenty-seven years earlier, had at last reached the powder keg.

About The Author

Dave Mullin

Will Cockrell has spent more than twenty years as a senior editor, writer, and consultant for national magazines including Men’s JournalOutsideMen’s Fitness, and GQ. His work has been awarded by the American Society of Magazine Editors and Professional Publishers Association UK. A former outdoor guide, Cockrell has covered Everest throughout his career, and has visited Everest base camp in Nepal. He lives with his family in Los Angeles, California. Find more at his website, WillCockrell.com.

Why We Love It

“In April 2011, I landed at Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal, and trekked for two weeks to Everest base camp and back. No surprise then that I love adventure books, especially about Everest. And for a long time, I’ve been looking for one that takes a fresh approach to the genre. Everest, Inc. is it, and I’m thrilled to be able to share it with readers. Will Cockrell’s electrifying and authoritative book is not only rich with drama and insight, and packed full of larger-than-life characters, but gives the full picture of how the Everest industry has evolved, in tandem with the wider world.”

—Max M., Editor, on Everest, Inc.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (April 16, 2024)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982190453

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Raves and Reviews

“There are more worlds at the top of the world than most of us know. The Everest guiding industry has a strange, gnarled history and Will Cockrell has turned it into a fair-minded, engrossing tale. It’s a book full of unforgettable characters in a spectacular setting that's both physically and morally treacherous.”
William Finnegan, staff writer at the New Yorker and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

“Cockrell chronicles the simultaneous democratization and commercialization of high adventure in his deeply researched debut account of the guided climbing industry on Mt. Everest . . . a sure-footed, and at times riveting, history of Everest. Fans of mountaineering adventures will want to add this to their shelf.”
Publishers Weekly

“Will Cockrell’s Everest, Inc. is a fast-moving, nuanced account of the peak's transformation from the ultimate mountaineering challenge into a booming business opportunity. Beginning with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's historic conquest in 1953, Cockrell recounts how a colorful cast of moguls, entrepreneurial guides, and Sherpa visionaries expanded access to the summit and raked in big bucks in the process. His book is both a cautionary tale of the dangers of overexposure and a celebration of what remains the greatest terrestrial adventure of them all.”
Joshua Hammer, New York Times bestselling author of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and The Falcon Thief

“In this enlightening book, Cockrell, an adventure writer for Outside, Men’s Journal, and other publications, expertly traces the industry behind the majesty… An astute history and powerful cautionary tale.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“It isn't only the mountain climbers finding their purpose at the top of the world's highest peak. In this fascinating look at the big, big business of guides on Mount Everest, Will Cockrell uncovers how a group of entrepreneurial adventurers began guiding well-heeled clients up the mountain to become an integral part of the big-money adventure economy and help change the way we see mountain climbing, and the mountains themselves.”
Town & Country, “12 Best Books to Read This April”

“Cockrell talked with guides, Sherpas, amateur climbers and Hollywood types to craft this compelling look at how the industry of climbing the world’s tallest peak came to be. But despite the tragedies and over-commercialization of the mountain in recent decades, Cockrell’s tall tale is ultimately an uplifting one.”
New York Post

“It’s high time our collective consciousness got an update on what it really means to climb Everest. In the deeply researched and cinematic Everest, Inc., Cockrell has mapped a new route expertly. Whether you want to climb the world's tallest mountain or laugh at those masochistic and wealthy enough to try, this is a page-turner."
Diana Helmuth, author of How to Suffer Outside and The Witching Year

“Although Mount Everest perpetually makes headlines, there have been precious few attempts to objectively chronicle its tumultuous recent history. With deft storytelling and in-depth research, Will Cockrell fills that void, providing a kaleidoscopic view that honors many different perspectives—most important, that of the local Sherpa guides who call the Himalayas home. Whether you are thinking about taking a crack at the world’s highest peak, or are simply an armchair mountaineer trying to make sense of the complex dynamics driving the modern Everest industry, Everest, Inc. should be required reading.”
Freddie Wilkinson, professional climber, documentary filmmaker, and author of One Mountain Thousand Summits

“With exhaustive reporting, eloquent prose, and spine-tingling pacing, Everest, Inc. deserves a spot alongside the great mountaineering narratives of the last decades. But it's also refreshingly different than any alpine tale before it. Unpacking the mountain's mystery like a detective on a crime scene, Cockrell shows that the story of Everest's industrial complex is every bit as gripping—if not more so—than the challenge of ascent. This book had me glued from the first chapter and gathered momentum like an avalanche.”
Jaimal Yogis, author of The Fear Project and Saltwater Buddha

“Summiting Mount Everest has gone from a feat of almost superhuman achievement to something more mundane—a thing rich people do to say they’ve done it . . . [and] the transformation in scaling Everest has been brought about by the Himalayan guiding industry. Cockrell, who’s covered mountaineering throughout his career as a magazine writer and editor, tells the somewhat unknown story of these entrepreneurs, whose ingenuity, acumen and very hard work have created a boom industry.”
Bloomberg

“The book captures the personalities of the early pioneering guides, the triumphs and tragedies that unfolded as the industry grew, and the differing viewpoints on how the business of guiding on Everest has and should evolve. Cockrell draws on interviews with all the leading characters of the Everest guiding industry, from Conrad Anker to the late David Breashears, and climbing icons such as filmmaker Jimmy Chin and Patagonia-founder Yvonne Chouinard.”
Boston Globe

“There’s something both inspiring and off-putting about humanity’s fascination with Mount Everest . . . Adventure writer Cockrell (Outside, Men’s Journal) teases out both sides of the issue, clearly conveying how exceedingly difficult the climb can be while describing in great detail the exponential growth of the industry … Cockrell has done readers a service in setting it all down.”
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