Tragedy on Mount Everest

By now, I’m sure you’ve read the headlines. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake has struck Nepal, killing at least 18 and injuring dozens more in Mount Everest base camp. More than 2,500 have died in Nepal and neighboring countries. Aftershocks shake the region as the death toll continues to rise.

…there is no ethical, sustainable way to climb Everest.

Some years ago, my wife made me promise I’d never climb Mount Everest. It was an easy promise to make, as it had never even occurred to me that I’d ever be interested in taking on such a specific challenge, especially one so outside of my expertise in the deep ocean.

800px-Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2_PLW_editThat being said, I am keenly interested in adventurers and explorers from all disciplines, and mountaineering has become a favorite research and reading topic. And the more I’ve read about Mount Everest, the more I know I will always keep my promise to my wife.

The controversies of Everest are many, and have become increasingly disturbing as time goes on. First conquered in 1953 by Edmund Hilliary, more than 5,000 ascended by 2010, a number that continues to grow. Many are familiar with the 1996 disaster where 15 died, a tragedy best covered by Jon Krakauer’s Outside magazine assignment and his subsequent bestseller, Into Thin Air.

2014 Avalanche

This grim record stood for nearly twenty years, only to be eclipsed in 2014 when a sudden avalanche killed sixteen Nepalese guides. And just yesterday, no less than 18 bodies have been recovered by the Indian army mountaineering team following the earthquake and avalanche.

Everest is overcrowded. There are too many people on the lines, there is an unmanageable amount of waste and the situation has resulted in deaths. Given the recent spate of terrible news from the mountain over the last few years, it’s clearly apparent that the half-measures taken to date have failed.

Worse, when looking at the names of those who have died on Everest, it becomes immediately apparent the high percentage of them of Nepalese origin, specifically the Sherpas who rig routes, carry equipment, food, human waste, oxygen bottles, work as guides and often rescue foreign climbers. Relations between climbers and Sherpas are not always harmonious, and have resulted in physical altercations at least once before. Make no mistake–the Nepalese Sherpas are hired hands, and these brave men take on an unacceptable level of risk with the current Mount Everest system. The attitude of the climbers is too often that all are “responsible for themselves,” ignoring the fact that by paying Sherpas to serve as guides, they are responsible for other human beings taking on the most dangerous roles on the mountain.

Even under the best of circumstances, a climber making for the top walks through a graveyard. One of the main summiting landmarks is “Green Boots,” an unidentified climber who died beneath a small limestone overhand in 1996. The rope leading to the final push passes within a few feet of the dead man. Others lay along the path as well, alternatively revealed and covered by shifting snows.

Worse, that graveyard too often contains the living. For instance, amputee-climber Mark Inglis revealed that his climbing party and others passed dying climber David Sharp without attempting any sort of rescue. It’s said that as many as forty passed without rendering assistance. Similar situations have been reported by others, including in Krakauer’s book.

“Green Boots”

All this gets so much uglier when you consider Everest’s pay-to-play economics. Though it is theoretically possible to climb on a “budget” in the mid-to-low five figures, a well-supported expedition may well cost $100,000 or more, limiting the climbers to the ranks of the extraordinarily rich or well-supported.

While Everest may forever remain an ultimate goal among mountaineering circles, I predict a souring among the public at large. The 2015 avalanche may well be the tipping point, where the last of our romantic notions are dashed against reality.

There was a reason I chose Green Boots as the thumbnail for this piece, and not one of the photos from yesterday’s tragedy. Even under the best of circumstances, climbers must turn a blind eye to one of their own; and have historically often done the same to living, suffering people for a chance at the summit. David Sharp’s death may have been unavoidable; but even simple recognition of his suffering was worth more than a conquered summit. It’s time to hold mountaineers, especially Everest climbers, to the same ethical standard as every other outdoor sport.

I never intend to climb Mount Everest. But if this is something you would like to do, please consider waiting, because right now there is no ethical, sustainable way to climb Everest.

Taylor Zajonc | Author, Historian & Shipwreck Expert

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