I am an unlikely mountaineering fan. I could never make it up a mountain and would never try. Altitude affects me, for one and for two, I’m too lazy to train that hard and just not that interested in actually doing it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the commitment and the accomplishment.
Mount Everest has always fascinated me. Massive, cold, foreboding: Everest is an adversary few have conquered. Me? I conquer it from my armchair.
Over the years I’ve seen every movie and read just about every book written about summiting Everest. But as the years passed, I began to notice–and read articles about–the change in mountaineering, at least as far as Everest goes. The mountain had become a mountain of greed.
Climbing Everest has become big business. Everyone wants to do it and the mountaineering companies that do business there get upwards of $50K per climber. Since the expeditions rely on Sherpas, who are fairly cheap labor, there’s likely a lot of profit in that business.
Now, you’d think that professional mountaineering businesses would be selective about the qualifications of those they let on their expeditions. After all, it’s a risky business. And they are: if you’ve got the money and are fit, you’re in. But fit doesn’t mean you can climb safely.
Here are a few examples of those who have signed on: People who hadn’t climbed for a decade and wanted to try the big hill. An athlete who had a complete and rare knee transplant that affected his mobility significantly. Another whose legs barely worked after an accident. All were accepted and most made it to the top. When dysentery ran through an expedition, several made it to the top despite severe incontinence on the way up. Some got deathly ill on the climb but staggered up successfully.
That’s the dirty little secret: they made it to the top with a whole boatload of help. Supplemental oxygen. Steroid supplements. Base camp medical care. Sherpas did all the heavy lifting and carrying and in some cases, they actually have pulled climbers to the top. Or carried them down. You might say they made it to the top, but with training wheels.
When Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first recorded summit, they did it without all that. They did it purely. But today, there are people on that mountain who don’t belong there.
In fact, there are too many people on Everest. It’s become a mountain of greed and one day that will pose a safety issue.
Observers with any common sense at all recognize that long delays caused by the line-up of climbers attempting to summit during the short climbing season is a big problem. Staying warm that high up requires constant movement. Standing still for long periods of time at super-low temperatures can cause frostbite and worse. On top of that, frustrated climbers sometimes unhook from their safety lines to pass other climbers, sometimes on frighteningly narrow passages with sheer drop-offs. And should any single climber lose their balance and pull others sharing the rope with them, it’s conceivable that the total weight on a safety line could bring it down–and all the climbers and Sherpas with it.
The government of Nepal makes a whole lot of money on these expeditions. They issue too many permits.
Expedition companies also rake in big bucks and allow marginally experienced climbers into their groups.
Rich men are greedy for their next challenge. First a startup, then Everest. It’s just another notch in their belt. Forget that their own backpacks contained only water, lunch and an extra jacket. Forget that the Sherpas had everything else including extra oxygen. Forget that some of them pooped their pants from dysentery on the way up. What counts is that they got there.
Greed has permeated our world culture in so many ways. The commercialization of Mount Everest is just another. But for some reason, it bothers me more, maybe because these greedy amateurs put serious climbers at risk, as well as rescuers.
Although the most dramatic deaths are from avalanches on the mountain, it’s not uncommon for unprepared climbers–usually those climbing independently– to die from hypothermia. And to be fair, the big expedition companies do their best to help prepare clients and keep them safe. Still, they take too many marginal climbers on, in my opinion, and that puts everyone on the mountain at risk.
The big 1996 tragedy was a combination of bad decisions and bad weather. Both played roles in that terrible scenario.
I fear that it’s only a matter of time before something on that scale or worse happens again.