IMG Guided vs. Non-guided vs. Sherpa Guided
by Eric Simonson
What does it all mean?
Customers that have been on Rainier, Denali, Ecuador, Aconcagua, etc with a guide service have a pretty good idea of what "guided" is all about. Bottom line is that the guides really pay attention to what the clients are doing. In tenuous places the guides and client are tied together with a rope. There is a high degree of oversight and safety.
In the Himalayas the climbing routes are typically equipped with fixed ropes. Unlike the Headwall on Denali (which is also fixed but which is typically climbed by climbers tied together on a rope team) the ropes on Cho Oyu and Everest are always climbed by climbers moving independently (not tied together in rope teams). There are several good reasons for this. For greater safety you do not want to have multiple people with their weight on one anchor, so it is safer if people are more spread out on the ropes. Also, at high altitude, it is common that people travel at different speeds and they get more spread out on the fixed ropes. It is common that people are "passing" on the ropes going up and down (especially Sherpas who move much faster) so there is often traffic which is mitigated by not having everyone close together.
If it's not one-on-one...
Having people spread out on fixed ropes makes it difficult to "guide" with the same assurance of oversight and safety that we can achieve on Denali, Rainier, Aconcagua, etc. because we are physically not with people all the time. This is where I have a problem with the assertion that it is possible to "guide" on Cho Oyu or Everest. Bottom line, unless you are talking about one-to-one guiding, with the guide immediately next to you, watching everything you do, then I personally don't think it is really "guiding." If your "guide" is more than one arms length away from you, they might as well not be there at all, because there are many places that if you make a mistake, nobody can help you.
The bottom line is that all climbers must be able to climb independently, clipping and unclipping at the anchors and rigging their rappels going down. While the steeper parts of the climbing routes on Everest and Cho Oyu are normally "fixed" there may also be times on a climb when there are no fixed ropes. Maybe the ropes have been damaged, buried by snow, or have not been installed. It is important that climbers need to be able to travel on moderate terrain with no rope. Climbers need to be confident in their ability to walk in their crampons without tripping. Even when fixed ropes are available, climbers still must pay attention to assess the rope status a falling rock, for example, can damage a rope and everyone who is climbing needs to be observing for any signs of damage. If climbers can not do these things, they should not be climbing in the Himalayas.
If you want to hire a guide to climb with you who will really pay close personal attention to what you are doing (given the caveats above) then you have two choices, either hire a western guide or a Sherpa guide. IMG has many great western guides available who would be available to be a private guide. They do a great job and they are not cheap. If you desire additional support and wish to hire a personal Sherpa guide we can also arrange this (climbers on the Everest "Classic" program are assigned a personal Sherpa guide). We have an excellent list of Sherpas with IMG who have summitted Everest and Cho Oyu, speak reasonably good English, and work very well with foreign climbers. Many of them have now graduated from the Alex Lowe Climbing School.
For Leadership on the Cho Oyu and Everest programs, IMG provides a top western Leader and also a top Sherpa Leader. The job of the trip Leaders is to keep the trip running smoothly, work closely with the participants to get them as fine-tuned as possible for the climbing. In many cases the trip Leaders will be climbing with the team, but this might not always be the case. The head Sherpa (sirdar) is responsible for making sure the Sherpa team functions well and gets the job done on the mountain. In additional we assign a number of our top Sherpa guides to support the climbers in different ways including establishing the route and camps, carrying supplies, and also helping the team members along the way. During the summit bids (on Cho Oyu) a number of the Sherpas will go to the top with the climbers. On Everest during summit, Sherpas carry oxygen to the Balcony, and some of them will continue to the summit and some will go back to the Col to standby in case of emergency.
IMG feels that this is an honest and reasonable way to conduct a Himalayan expedition. We do not promise "guiding" unless it really is "guiding" - which we feel means one-to-one ratio. Up high on Cho Oyu or Everest, if you have an oxygen mask on your face and your hood bundled up around your head you will be incapable of communicating with someone more than about five feet away from you unless you use a walkie talkie. NOTE: We provide Cho Oyu and Everest climbers with their own walkie talkie. So do not allow solo climbing (meaning that there are not other IMG team members in the vicinity who can assist in a reasonable amount of time if there is a problem.)
Consulting on Climb Strategy
IMG Leaders are available for consultation on climb strategy. For example, on Everest, there is debate whether it is better to go up to C1 and then to C2 on your first rotation, or just to C1 and come back to BC. How many nights to stay at C2? Is it really necessary to sleep at C3 before summit bids and if so, how many nights? What happens if you get sick? Similar debates about climb strategy are often held on Cho Oyu: How many trips to C2 prior to summit bid? How many nights at C1 or C2? What happens is you get sick and get "out of sync" with the team? This kind of planning is not written in stone and will be affected by other factors such as your health, weather, and the movement of other team members on the mountain. You will each have considerable flexibility on the mountain to adapt your climb, especially down low. We would expect for the team to break up into a couple different "rotations" as each person finds the schedule that works best for themselves. HOWEVER, this is not a "free for all." You are a member of an expedition team and everything you do on the mountain will have to fit into the larger picture, especially when it comes to planning summit bids and time in the upper camps.
If you are a strong climber who wants to climb with great logistical support, we encourage you to consider our Cho Oyu or Everest Programs. I hope this helps to clarify the "guided vs. non-guided vs. Sherpa guided" question. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.
Eric Simonson, IMG Himalayan Programs Director