The tragedy and reality of Everest

22 Apr 2014

Along with the outpouring of condolences for those lost, it wasn’t entirely surprising that before the snow from last week’s tragic avalanche had even settled, comment, blogs and articles were pouring in on the ‘commercialization’ of Everest, ‘queues up the summit’ and the ‘exploitation of Sherpas’. Articles that could and should have waited as a courtesy and respect to the sixteen lives lost, their grieving families and the Sherpa community that is in such shock. But this is Everest. And drama on Everest is always news. Big news.

Climbers are killed every year on the mountain - most notably in 1996 when the death of eight climbers on a single day and fifteen in total that year, spurned nearly as many books on the tragedy as the lives lost. And then again in 2006, the year I summited, when eleven died; 2012 when there were ten fatalities; and 2013 with nine. 

But this tragedy, the most ever in a single year, let alone day, seems to have caused an unprecedented impact in Nepal. Experienced friends in base camp tell me they have never seen such a morbid atmosphere – or indeed tension. Grief, sorrow and mourning is being combined with demands, negotiations and calls to end expeditions this season.

What transpires remains to be seen, but if the season is indeed called off – as leading company Alpine Ascents have announced today as a mark of respect for those killed – it will be a remarkable but admirable decision.

Because Everest means money. Money for the commercial expeditions, money for the Nepalese government from peak fees and, lastly, money for the Sherpas whose livelihoods are made from high altitude guiding. A factor that is so often forgotten in the often aired criticism of commercial expeditions.  

And yet a different mindset seems to have emerged from the debris left behind on the Khumbu icefall. A feeling that this was an accident waiting to happen, which could have occurred any time in the past few decades. A realization that the fact all sixteen deaths were Sherpas a painful reminder of the dedication, hard work and reliance we place upon the men from the mountains. And a reality check that we had all begun to take the mountain for granted………

For Everest has, in the past few years, started to be viewed as routine, straightforward and even relatively safe. Yes, people fail but many more are achieving their goal – summit successes up from approx. 18% in 1990 to 37 % in 2006 and now well over 50%. Yes, it is hard work but a 13 year old boy summited in 2010 and an 80 year old pensioner in 2013. And, yes, people die every year, but so many people are now attempting and summiting the mountain that the fatality rate per summit is now less than 2 % - fare odds for many compared to the now evens chance you will reach your dream.

This tragic disaster is what some say is nature’s response; a reminder that it is far more powerful than all the expensive equipment, weather forecasting and siege tactics used to make the mountain climbable.

It won’t, however, stop increasing numbers of people attempting Everest. Because the mountain is merely a metaphor for the changing attitudes of many in the western world to wish to achieve something special in their lifetimes. A mindset that spurns over half a million Americans to run a marathon every year that was once the preserve of a few thousand. One that inspires nearly 100,000 triathletes to complete a grueling Ironman triathlon annually, that  was once deemed for only supermen. Or what causes an estimated 25000 people to climb Kilimanjaro every year that was once the preserve of serious mountaineers – and a mountain that is even more ‘commercial’ than Everest but rarely receives such similar criticism.

That is why more and more people will continue to attempt and succeed on Everest. And where there is demand, so will there be supply, bringing vital income to an impoverished but amazing country.

Everest is no longer the experience it once was - there are far too many people attempting it; many climbers are vastly inexperienced and basecamp now resembles a large village with all modern facilities.

But the mountains are for everyone and Everest remains a magnificent icon, a mountain that hypnotized me from the moment I first set eyes on it from the top of a distant peak in 1998 and one that still puts most people who gaze upon its lofty heights in a mild trance. For the upper reaches of Everest signify a world that is fast disappearing in the valleys below; a true wilderness absent of roads, cars and hotels and one that even people cannot reach without the most almighty effort. It is a name that remains the metonymy for the highest of goals and achievements, but from which we must all return.  Or as one summiteer eloquently put:

"The true test in life comes after Everest. We cannot survive on top for long anyway, and surely it is the people and the valley below which sustains us. As our Sherpa friends say, “ When you get to the top, keep climbing!”

It is my personal hope that commercial expeditions do indeed call a halt to their attempts this season. That would be the ultimate respect and tribute to the debts we owe those Sherpas who have sacrificed so much to allow us to reach the summit. And the recognition, finally, that lives are indeed more important than goals, trophies and dreams.

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