Business is booming at the top of the world

by AFP/Sam Taylor, Aug 27, 2007 | Destinations: Nepal / Kathmandu

Kathmandu, Nepal - Fancy standing on the top of Mount Everest?

If you have previous high-mountain experience, an understanding boss and about 40,000 dollars to spare, Russell Brice, a New Zealander and leading Himalayan expedition organisers, can probably help.

First conquered in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the 8,848-metre (29,198-foot) peak has since been scaled around 3,000 times, and this spring season was a record breaker with around 530 people getting to the top.

Despite the growing number of climbers jockeying for space on the small summit, climbing Everest is still an incredibly demanding and potentially fatal challenge.

"It's not just about fitness. You have to be physically fit, you also have to be mentally fit," Brice told AFP.

"You need to be able to have determination, to know your own body and ability, how far you can go before you have to turn around, how far you can go before you fall over and die," said the 55-year-old.

Seven people died on the mountain this spring, and last year 11 perished.

With just one third of the oxygen getting into the lungs compared to at sea level, Everest's "death zone" above 8,000 metres (26,400 feet) is littered with the corpses of those who did not know their limits, were caught by the fast changing weather or involved in accidents.

Brice vets his clients and requires them to have a thorough medical examination, provide a résumé of climbing experience and sign a contract that stipulates they must do what he says even if it means turning back just metres (yards) from the summit.

"We know from experience that the success rate of people who have been on an 8,000-metre peak previously increases their chance of getting to the summit of Everest," he said.

Telling white lies about previous mountain experience cuts no ice with Brice and his team.

"We had a climber this year who said she had a lot of experience, but in actual fact we saw immediately that she didn't, so we stopped her going to the summit," said the plain-speaking, windblown and greying Kiwi.

Big mountain, big money

Costs charged by commercial operators vary widely -- a bare-bones climb with minimal support costs around 7,500 dollars on the cheaper northern approach from Tibet.

"A medium priced expedition on the north side is around 30,000 dollars and on the south side it costs around 10,000-12,000 more. I am at 42,000 dollars and an expensive expedition on the south side will be 65,000-70,000 dollars," he said.

To take a stab at the mountain, you'll also need just over two months, with acclimatisation and training climbs taking most of the time prior to a five-day summit push.

The trip starts in Kathmandu, from where Brice's clients are flown to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, then trucked to Everest base camp on the Tibetan side.

Despite the cost, time needed and tough conditions imposed by Brice, the customers just keep on coming. And with 53 of them taken to the summit this spring, Brice puts his success down to meticulous planning.

Everything included, even the kitchen sink

"It's a huge operation. I just paid a quarter of a million dollars in wages today. At base camp we had accommodation for 130 people, and we had 10 trucks deliver the gear," he said.

"We had underground sewerage and water pipes, we had a power tent, kitchen tent, medical tent, communications tent and a bar," added Brice.

Brice's Sherpa team lays out the fixed rope needed to ascend Everest and he charges climbers from other expeditions for its use.

In addition, the Sherpas set up and stock the five camps between base camp and the summit, as well as closely guiding paying clients along with Brice's foreign guides.

"Our Sherpa teams are totally important. They are incredibly strong, incredibly modest and incredibly qualified to be climbing Everest," said Brice, who employed around 70 of the world renowned high-altitude workers this spring.

"Most people would not get to the summit without them," he added.

So far Brice and his team have helped put a staggering 219 people on the summit.

"Its impossible to say why people climb Everest, the reasons are too diverse," he said, but the boom in adventure sports and travel has been a major factor.

"The whole adventure tourism business has escalated astronomically in the last few years," said Brice who has been organizing Himalayan expeditions since 1979.

"People want to be skiing in the morning, skydiving in the afternoon, diving with sharks the next day and climbing Everest after that," he laughed. "Whether driving a Formula One motor car, or climbing Everest, someone will provide that service."

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