When adventurer Alison Levine arrived at Everest base camp in 2010 as a client of Alpine Ascents International — the Seattle company at the center of Mount Rainier’s worst climbing accident in decades — she was shocked.
Levine had made the arduous treks to the North and South poles. She’d climbed the highest peaks on six of the seven continents. She’d even been within 300 feet of Everest’s summit, back in 2002.
Yet her guides set up a fake “Khumbu Icefall,” and made her and every other client train for hours walking in crampons, clipping into ropes and climbing with ice axes, just to refresh and hone basic skills.
“They made me practice walking across ladders,” she said. “Do you know how much time I’d already spent walking across ladders? They were incredibly safety conscious — almost to the point of being annoying.”
But in the high-stakes world of mountaineering, being careful isn’t always enough.
The events that led two Alpine Ascents guides and four clients to fall or be swept 3,300 feet to their deaths last week while trying to climb Rainier’s Liberty Ridge probably won’t be known for weeks, if ever.
But the fact that the accident came barely a month after five Alpine Ascents Sherpa guides were killed by an avalanche on Everest is less a reflection on the company than it is a tragic glimpse into the inherent dangers of alpine climbing, experts and even competitors say.
“When you’re guiding, safety is paramount,” said Washington mountaineering legend Ed Viesturs. “You manage the risks as best you can, but obviously there are things in the mountains that even the best guides can’t control.”
Alpine Ascents is a global player in the cutthroat world of guiding, helping clients scale famed peaks such as Mont Blanc and The Matterhorn or Alaska’s Denali and Africa’s Kilimanjaro.
Many of its senior guides have incredible résumés, from Pete Athans, who has topped out on Everest seven times, to Vern Tejas, who made the first solo winter ascent of Denali more than 25 years ago and, in his late 50s, set a speed record for climbing the highest peaks on each continent.
Viesturs, who has known Alpine Ascent’s founder Todd Burleson for decades, described Burleson’s operation as top notch. Alpine Ascents has been in business for 28 years.
“It’s high-end — he doesn’t skimp,” Viesturs said. “He’s got really good guys. It’s by-the-book.”
Even Burleson’s competitors speak highly of Alpine Ascents.
“This industry is a challenging one, and your reputation is everything,” said Mark Gunlogson, owner of Seattle-based Mountain Madness. “Any company that’s been able to stay in the business as long as they have is doing something right.”
Among the nonclimbing public, Athans and Burleson are probably best known as some of the commercial guides who in 1996 left their own clients back at camp and pushed ahead to help rescue other climbers trapped by the Everest storm captured in Jon Krakauer’s best-seller, “Into Thin Air.”
They were the duo who found Texas pathologist Beck Weathers – mostly blind, his face black, his frostbitten arms frozen before him like a statue – wandering, then helped him down the mountain.
“I don’t generally talk about mountaineering anymore,” Weathers said. “But you mention their names, and I want to go on record saying these are selfless, high-quality individuals. I can’t speak too highly of Todd’s character.”
In the days after April’s avalanche on Everest, as anguish within the Sherpa community grew, Burleson’s was the first company to cancel the rest of its climbing season – an act many saw as an attempt to show respect for the scale of the tragedy. Burleson also spent time with each of the families.
“He knows it’s about more than the bottom line,” Levine said. “I’ve seen him send unprepared clients home rather than let them be a risk to themselves or others.”
Most competitors are often quicker to understand than the public.
“Were they (Alpine Ascents) at fault for losing Sherpas and we weren’t because we didn’t? It doesn’t work that way,” said George Dunn, who leads Rainier climbs for a rival guide service that also operates in the Himalayas. “It’s a roll of the dice.”
In the world of Rainier climbing, Burleson was a bit player until 2007, when the National Park Service finally broke Rainier Mountaineering Inc.’s virtual monopoly on guiding in Mount Rainier National Park. Since then, Alpine Ascents and Eric Simonson’s International Mountain Guides have helped transform guiding on Rainier.
While RMI, owned by mountaineering’s famed Whittaker family, still has clients at Camp Muir every day, the two newcomers alternate days on the most popular climbs and split time on lesser-known routes, such as Liberty Ridge. Guide-to-client ratios on all the routes are smaller now, thanks in part to the new competition.
“At the end of the day, it was good for everybody – the public, the park and us,” Simonson said. “Everybody has stepped up their game 100 percent. The level of guiding keeps getting better.”
The companies compete fiercely for clients, but most guides, regardless of employer, are friendly with one another. They’re often first on scene at any accident, even with other firms’ clients.
“Once we get on the hill, we’re all talking,” Simonson said. “We all have each other’s frequencies programmed into our radios. We have really good communication.”