Mt Everest in Business Class

Austrian climber talks about the climate crisis, flash mountaineering, and reviving Nepal's tourism

The summit ridge of Mt Everest on 20 May with Lukas Furtenbach and his clients. The expedition organiser defends the use of bottled oxygen for his team. Photos: LUKAS FURTENBACH

Growing up among the Alps at home in Austria, Lukas Furtenbach often dreamt of one day being three times higher on the summit of Mt Everest one day.

He came to Nepal as a teenager in 1999 and made his first climbs in the Himalaya, learning about acclimatisation and technical climbing at high altitude.

Since then, after climbing all major peaks himself, Furtenbach now helps others climb. His company Furtenbach Adventures claims a 100% success rate on Mt Everest with a zero accident record. He has also pioneered ‘flash mountaineering’ that uses hypoxic tents to help acclimatisation and make quick climbs of Mt Everest possible.

“Having the highest mountain in the world makes Nepal the best tourism destination,” Furtenbach told us in Kathmandu after returning from Base Camp this week. “But it is the connection with raw nature that gives me a high. Then there are the people, partners and the organic beauty of Nepal.”

But the Austrian has seen Mt Everest change a lot since he started climbing two decades ago, mostly due to anthropogenic causes like overcrowding, littering and climate change.

Noticing the blue ice shrink more and more every year even at 8,000m on the South Col worries him. Despite all the clean-up expeditions, the saddle below Everest still has expedition detritus.

“Unless environmental protection is prioritised by all, and backed up with the government regulations it will be difficult for Everest to maintain its pristine image,” he warned.

Furtenbach’s expeditions ensure ‘sustainable climbing’ with garbage management, removal of human waste, reducing carbon emission with solar panels, and waste water treatment at Base Camp.

But he has gained a reputation (and quite a lot of criticism) for his ‘flash’ mountaineering style. This season he bested his own record by taking 17 clients from Europe, USA, and other places of the world up the mountain in just 16 days after acclimatising in the Alps in special hypoxic tents with depleted oxygen before even arriving in Nepal.

He denies dragging clients with little experience up the mountain on fixed ropes, and providing them high flow bottled oxygen. Furtenbach admits his climbers use up to 8 litres of oxygen per minute, but only on technical sections at higher altitudes so as to avoid bottlenecks.

Besides Mt Everest, Furtenbach also works with Nepali guides on Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, and Annapurna, among others. As a foreign expedition operator, he said having good local partners has been the key to his success.

“I am still working with my Sherpa partners from 22 years ago, connection with good people is really important,” said Furtenbach, but added that the bureaucracy and over-regulation by the government was discouraging foreign expeditions.

Furtenbach charges a steep €95,000 to get his clients to the top of Everest, and has also been criticised for the lavish accommodations. But he says he is just making sure that those who pay him to get to the summit are safe and taken care of.

He is full of praise for Nepal’s high altitude guides, and is a strong advocate for them to be treated right and paid well.

“Without Sherpas or high-altitude workers, no expedition above 8,000m is successful in the Himalaya,” he said. “Their support during my expeditions has been a blessing. I have faith in them and their hard work.”

Nepal’s mountaineering community, families of guides and tourism suffered heavily in the last two years during the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their livelihoods. Furtenbach’s company also took a hit.

But with things returning to normal, the Austrian is excited to see climbing restarting. He is already planning expeditions in September on Ama Dablam, Manaslu and Dhaulagiri.

Added Furtenbach: "At the end of the day, understanding Nepal and its tourists are what will keep entrepreneurs like us afloat.”

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