As I look forward to attending the UK premier of ‘Everest’ in London on Monday 7th September, some personal thoughts on mountaineering films and the Everest bandwagon.
Mountaineering films have traditionally been slated by critics for their over dramatization, unrealistic feats of superhuman endeavour and complete lack of any understanding of the realities of high altitude climbing. ‘Vertical Limit’ (2000) tops the list for a comic book portrayal of climbing K2, while ‘Into Thin Air (1998), the first film on the 1996 Everest disaster, contained appalling acting together with a location that made no real attempt to even look like the Himalayas. Historically, only ‘Touching the Void’ (2003) the documentary based film of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates survival epic in the Andes, stands out in film history as being one of the 100 greatest documentaries to be produced. More recently, other documentaries such as ‘The Wildest Dream’ (2010) on Everest, ‘The Summit’ (2012) on K2, and newly released ‘Meru’ have also been critically acclaimed. Mountaineering films are in vogue.
With ‘Everest’ (2015) the new movie directed by Baltasar Kormakur, we are back to Hollywood and its take on the well documented, many would say over documented, 1996 Everest disaster - where eight climbers were killed on 10/11 May 1996 due to an unexpected storm hitting the mountain and a total of 12 that season. Just about anyone who was on the mountain that day seems to have written their own account of the events – prior to the 2014 avalanche and 2015 earthquake, the highest deaths recorded in a season on Everest.
What made the 1996 tragedy so notable amongst the many mountaineering deaths over the preceding 40 years, was the exposure to the world of commercial expeditions, with the press slamming the assumption that inexperienced climbers were paying to be guided up the world’s highest mountain. Commercial expeditions had commenced four years earlier largely un-noticed but the disaster caused a furore of seismic proportions.
After the disaster there was a re-alignment by most operators of the experience required to join an Everest expedition. But in 2006, the year I summited, another 12 climbers died during the season, the most since 1996, all of which were in excellent weather. The deaths, particularly of Briton David Sharp – reportedly left for dead by many climbers on their own summit pushes (although not strictly true) - sparked another worldwide press onslaught, with even Sir Edmund Hilary suggesting that the mountain be closed to ‘recover’.
Since 2006 the numbers have grown substantially with hundreds of climbers on both Nepal and Tibet now spending large amounts of money to attempt a shot at the world’s highest peak. And with line fixing, oxygen masks, weather forecasting and infrastructure all greatly enhanced, success rates have grown from 18% in 1990 to around 36% in 2006 and approximately 50% in 2013, while deaths per summit hover around the 2% mark. That is, for every 100 climbers that summit, two will die trying.
Just when Everest was becoming viewed by some as routine, however, nature proved more powerful than any amount of infrastructure. On 18 April 2014 an avalanche near the Khumbu Ice Fall killed 16 Sherpas, the largest number of deaths in any one day or season on the mountain, resulting in the abandoning of all expeditions from Nepal side that year. And on 25 April this year, the Gorkha earthquake caused a huge avalanche to cascade down from nearby Pumori, killing at least 18 climbers at Base Camp, surpassing the 2014 tragedy as the worst disaster to hit Everest in its history and curtailing climbing on both sides of the mountain.
Although many thousands more people lost their lives in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake - as well as hundreds more in the second earthquake of 12 May 2015 - it was Everest that dominated the headlines worldwide.
For, rightly or wrongly, Everest is news and always will be. While K2, the second highest mountain in the world and the ‘mountaineers mountain’ is a far more difficult, technical and dangerous mountain with a death per summit ratio of one in four, Everest is the mountain that makes the headlines, good and bad, year after year.
Since Hilary’s intervention, many more commentators have now suggested that the Everest circus should stop, the most recent of which suggesting that the mountain should close to all climbers and remain as a sacred shrine to those who lost their lives in the 2015 earthquake. Others have suggested that ‘the mountain has spoken’, that nature has given its own answer to the perceived exploitation of the mountain.
All of this, of course, ignores the reasons why many more people are attempting the mountain, which covers a whole range of factors ranging from the rise of commercial operators, accessibility and the realities of the Western world today, where work, stress and lifestyle pressures have caused many to re-appraise what they wish to do with their lives. The latter is the subject of another blog, but what is clear is that no amount of disasters will curtail people’s desire to stand on the top of the ‘Big E’.
Everest has undoubtedly now become a commercial bandwagon, some would say a circus, but in plain economic language it’s merely demand and supply, and it is a big business for both Nepal and the Sherpa community. However it is not the only mountain that is over commercialised – Kilimanjaro is now climbed by 25-30,,000 people each year, up from a mere 10,000 twenty years ago, most on a far too accelerated and dangerous conveyor belt of a mere 5-6 days in order to cram the numbers in. And the Seven Summits – in my view the somewhat overstated and geographically flawed highest mountain in each continent – is now attempted by thousands every year, with a host of commercial operators fulfilling the demand. There are numerous other examples in the great outdoors - adventure tourism is big business.
I was fortunate to summit Everest on 25 May 2006, ten years after the 1996 disaster, and it stands out for me as one of the three defining happenings of my life. Looking down on the world below for a full 1hr 20 mins on the summit did make me see the world differently and life took on a new meaning, and new direction, soon after. Although I could have died on the descent – I summited with a broken oxygen mask and, after 12 hours without O’s, the 7 hr descent to the South Col was the most challenging seven hours of my whole life- I look back on it with a degree of surreal and humbleness.
Overall, other challenges before (eg SAS selection course) and after (eg North Pole or K2) proved harder and still others (eg Greenland vertical crossing) have given me the greatest pride, but Everest remains a life changing moment for me and, I’m sure, many others who have been fortunate enough to stand on the small piece of real estate at the top of our world. But it is clearly far removed from what it used to be.
I expect a lot of smoke, bangs and dramatic gravel voiced quotes from the movie premier next week, as Hollywood goes to task on what was a tragic story of mistakes, over confidence, arrogance or selflessness. But, along with the tragic earthquake disaster this year, it will inevitably re-open the debate on climbing ethics on the world’s highest mountain.
So what’s your views? Should Everest indeed be closed? Limited numbers allowed each year? Minimum experience requirements? Please post on www.facebook.com/adrianmhayes with your thoughts!
Footnote (8 Sept 2015). Viewed ‘Everest’ last night at the UK premier held at the BFI Imax Theatre in London. Somewhat surprisingly, it is an extremely well made, powerful and beautifully photographed film. Ignoring the inevitable flaws, one that would recommend anyone to watch when it is released on 18th September.