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Is Everest a crime scene?

2019 is turning out to be another lethal year in the climbing history of of the almost 9 kilometer high Mount Everest. The dead have reached double figures. Given the traffic jams the uptick in fatalities is hardly surprising, but given the sheer numbers climbing this year, it’s remarkable that more people [queuing for four hours in the Death Zone on the way up, and for almost as long on the way down] didn’t lose their lives.

traffic jam on everest

Fortunately, this year the weather was both a boon and a bane. Narrow weather windows caused bottlenecks, but once the windows were there they stayed open long enough for the climbers to ascend and descend without having to worry about storms.

But why is the madness on Everest persisting, and if anything, becoming more popular?

Because it’s there? And if the trend continues, if the numbers aren’t managed in future, isn’t a disaster that will dwarf 1996 inevitable?

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@benfogle: My view on @nimsdai view from Everest. Its complicated. I’ve been there. I’ve been part of the problem and now I want to help with a solution. Don’t blame the climbers pursuing their dreams. It’s time to limit (not stop) the number of climbers on Everest. I’d like to see the introduction of a lottery style climbing permit. Lots of our wilderness is under stress from footfall. Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat, the Galapagos. There are plenty of examples of places that have successfully introduced limits on visitor numbers. The fee and a donation for this article have been contributed to the inspiring #projectpossible @nimsdai @unenvironment #mounteverestofficial #everest2019

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To address the possibility of a catastrophe means we have to understand the motivations for going there. Because it’s there is not why people climb mountains, and not an acceptable [or complete] explanation for why people climb Everest.

We all go to the mountain, some by choice [to test ourselves], some unwillingly. However we get there, and however high the mountain, the mountain reveals not only the scale of itself, but the smallness of ourselves in relation to our grand illusions.

And illusions are grand. Close your eyes and listen to the clip below for 90 seconds. This is what illusions feel like:

So what is the deal with Everest? Illusions or not, the world’s highest mountain is a symbol above all others. But is Everest a theater for heroism or a playground for the rich and privileged? Is it an arena for humans to express the best of themselves or a wrestling ring tilted near vertical designed to expose the worst in us? In effect, since people die on the mountain every year [and in increasing numbers] has Mount Everest become a crime scene?

Fullscreen capture 20190529 124036

Today marks the anniversary of the first summit of Everest in 1953 [although some claim even the first summit wasn’t the first].  In 1953 man’s ascent of the mountain the locals call Chomolungma felt epic. That achievement was trumped by an even more remote adventure – to the icy wastes of space and the moon in 1969.  

But as Earth’s middle class have streamed to this world’s highest summit in droves, smartphones in hand, Instagram accounts and hashtags at the ready, motivations seemed to have plummeted. Why do they do it? For a hero badge? As the mob push for the summit, increasingly they push one another aside, and part of this selfishness involves stepping over dead bodies on the way to the Holy Peak and again on the way back.

Fullscreen capture 20190529 124048

On May 26th this year, the New York Times described Everest as an unruly, overcrowded “zoo”.

One reason summit fever takes hold of so many is the “sunk cost” of climbing the mountain. Some commit their life savings to the trip, and some make several trips, often returning with fewer body parts each times. Besides the money [anywhere between $35 000 and over $100 000] is the effort involved. After weeks of climbing, with a summit so close, how many are capable of turning their back on the a titillating flagpole marking the world’s highest point, even if lives are on the line?

In an article posted today on CNN we get a topical reply:

“Grinning climbers with frostbite, showing their blackened fingers but refusing to leave the mountain. Climbers who tried to keep going despite hacking coughs that shattered ribs. Those who were about to collapse, but kept going with the voice of their loved one crackling through a radio…”

We see them giving interviews with stubs on their arms that used to be wrists, hands and fingers. They smile below the mountain though their faces are blackened and destroyed as if by death itself.

Those who survive the mountain [like Beck Weathers, pictured above] tend to make speeches [often for money] and publish books. Weathers’ experience on Everest was triumphantly portrayed by the charismatic Josh Brolin, the handsome actor who played the all-powerful Titan Thanos in Avenger’s Endgame. Really? Was Weathers’ misadventure [he never reached the summit, but couldn’t admit to quitting his attempt either] a triumph of the human spirit? Is Beck Weathers a hero, or at the very least, a man with an indomitable spirit [again, he never made it to the summit…]

The poster child for this narcissism is arguably a socialite who was in the thick of the things during the infamous 1996 Everest tragedy. I’ve written three books on the disaster so far. But to get a real feel for the folks climbing Chomolungma today [a name that intuits lungs gasping for breath], read Pitons are served [since removed online].

Further reading:

Socialite vilified after Everest catastrophe breaks silence

The Real Story of Sandy Hill Pittman, Everest’s Socialite Climber

Everest catastrophe survivor burns prayer shawls at Burning Man

False Summit

The Everest Opera on Opening Night

‘Total bull’: Into Thin Air author’s opinion of Everest movie

Stop this deadly Everest free-for-all, says leading mountaineer

Absurd Ascents: 5 Everest Stories We Won’t be Covering this Season

My Mountain Mania books on mountaineering on Everest and K2:

1 Comment

  1. Sally D.

    Excellent piece. I read that Nepal is now considering trying to regulate this insanity somehow. The selfishness of these people has decimated a once pristine place, now littered with oxygen tanks, tons of trash, and dead bodies. Someone actually had plans to open a temporary restaurant ‘experience’ at Base Camp, although I never heard if that actually happened. Everest just needs to be left alone, although that will never happen. I just can’t muster up any sympathy for anyone who suffers consequences of this insanity, although I do feel very sorry for Everest herself.

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