Last week’s picture of a queue of 250 or more climbers waiting to reach the summit of Everest has rightly caused much dismay and comment across the world. Controversy is nothing new to Everest, of course, and every year there is some incident that incurs the wrath of mountaineers, journalists or the general public. The infamous 2012 picture of a queue of climbers climbing up the Lhotse face from Camp 2 to Camp 3 stands out amongst these.
But there was something deeply unsettling about an image of hundreds of climbers stacked up along the final summit ridge that leads from the south summit to the top of the world. No-one can survive at these altitudes for long, even with supplementary oxygen, and the situation reportedly caused at least three deaths of the total of 10 on the mountain this year to date. For comparison, the second picture attached was taken on my own summit of Everest on 25 May 2006 – an empty summit ridge with just my few team mates ahead of me.
Much has been written about the reasons for the human traffic jam. In 2006 there were a total of 175 climbers at Base Camp Nepal side – thus far from being deserted. But much has changed in just 13 years. This year Nepal issued 381 permits, a record. But it isn’t just that number which explains the situation; the numbers of Sherpas accompanying them has also multiplied to more than 1:1. That resulted in the total of 750-800 climbers on the Nepal side. On the Chinese side there was a less, but still substantial, number of around 300 climbers including Sherpas. That means over 1000 people trying to reach the summit of Everest in a normal short period of a summit window of mid to end May.
The high numbers of Sherpas are also explained by the experience, or lack of it, of many now attempting Everest. Colleagues at Base Camp have told me that a substantial amount had never climbed an 8000-meter peak before. Many had come from the overblown commercialised ‘Seven Summits’ – the highest mountains in each of the World’s continents, being attempted by many hundreds each year, none of which go above 6,900 metres. And there are some who’ve never been above 5,000 metres – just above the height of Mont Blanc. There is a world of difference between these and an 8000-metre mountain in the ‘Death Zone’ and there are indeed men and women at Everest Base Camp who don’t know a crampon from a tampon.
Other reasons for the deluge include the increasing numbers of cut-price local operators who have now made Everest an ‘affordable’ £20,000 as opposed to the house mortgaging £50,000 price of recent years. Success rates have also risen from around 18% in the early 90s to approx. 36% in 2006 to over 50% today, thus making the risk arguably worthwhile. A shorter than normal weather window has, unconvincingly, been claimed by the Nepalese authorities for the jam. The normal mad rush of expedition organisers to get their clients up in that window, rather than wait until the end of May, another.
As to what can or should be done, limiting permits numbers, a ‘qualifying system’ similar to the London Marathon or competing in the Hawaiian Ironman have all been mentioned, but are likely to fall on deaf ears to the money hungry Nepalese Government. And the environmental consequences have been well recorded. Everest can absorb the waste of a few hundred climbers, but not 1000. The mountain is arguably a metaphor for a world that can absorb 6 billion people but is struggling under the pressure of 7.5 billion and growing.
But none of these reasons or remedies delve into the deeper causes of why so many people now want to reach the highest point on our planet. In my new book, One Man’s Climb: A Journey of Trauma, Tragedy and Triumph on K2, which tells the story of my unsuccessful and later successful attempts on the World’s notorious and far more technical second highest mountain, I discuss the main reason in detail.
And that reason is the basic human need for significance… A need that, until recent times, was found by almost all of us in examples such as our job, house, children, travel or a nice car. Only a few people sought this through extreme adventures, and they did it primarily for reasons of internal, or intrinsic, significance – personal goals, personal challenge, a passion for achievement, self-worth or self-respect and similar.
What has changed in recent years, like so many situations in the world, is the effects of social media. Far from attempting major feats for these internal reasons, we are now being driven, consciously or sub-consciously, to do this for external, or extrinsic, significance – attention, respect, recognition and, at its most extreme, fame or infame. Like it or not we are all caught up in an unstoppable personal PR machine of displaying our significance to the world. Or, in layman’s terms ‘Look where I am’, ‘Look what I’m doing’ or ‘Look what I’ve got’. Although few of will want to admit it, basically it’s all a ‘Look at me’.
The examples are numerous – profile pictures, selfies galore, exotic holidays, a business class air ticket, ‘great works for charity’, marathons to ultramarathons, triathlons to Ironman’s, Ben Nevis to Everest. All displayed on social media for the world to see. And, at times, the evil manifestation of this as in terrorists or mass murderers.
And amongst this trend, an accompanying desperation for publicity, fuelled by an increasingly dumbed down Guinness World Records, which has led to dubious ‘records’ and gimmicks. From the fastest time to run the London Marathon wearing a Nurses Uniform to the first person to summit Everest with an ingrown toenail; youngest, oldest, fastest, slowest or first transgender, there’ll be a record waiting for it somewhere.
In addition to this, increasingly prevalent economies with the truth on expeditions and a lack of honesty about why we are doing these things. Do we really climb Everest to ‘raise money for cancer’? Trek to a Pole to ‘raise awareness for climate change’? Or row across an Ocean to ‘show others they too can achieve their dreams’? Sorry, but, with a few exceptions, that’s bunk. Whilst they may all be worthy causes, why not spend the two months, and give the massive moneys involved, direct to the cause instead. No, we do these adventures primarily for ourselves.
In the once worthy ‘adventure for charity’ world, the overdose of justgiving.com claims nowadays is that most will raise moneys that are a small percentage of the time and funds the expedition costs.
What is worrying to those, like myself, who have been adventuring since my teens, is how are we being challenged by social media. When I climbed K2 in 2013 and 2014, I posted regular updates on social media, but looking back I now ask myself how much was I doing this still for myself – as I have throughout my life – and how much was it to show for others? I believe Alex Honnold of ‘Free Solo’ fame was also compromised by the documentary. A guy who has done amazing things all his life, largely anonymously, for, in his own words ‘the pursuit of excellence’ now confronted with the promises of ‘fame and fortune’. It didn’t sit easy with this integral and amazing climber.
What is also worrying to the adventure world is how many more deaths will it take to stop the circus on Everest. And, as Everest becomes ‘easy’ how long will it take for K2 to be subject to the same pressures. For, believe me, the World’s second highest mountain is in a different league – remote, appalling weather, deep snow, rock fall dangers, avalanche dangers, and a steep rock and ice climb requiring technical expertise. I await with some trepidation how many will flock to Pakistan in the June/July season for the Karakorum. And a queue like last week’s on Everest could cause a major loss of life beyond any comparison.
What is, above all, needed is an awareness and consciousness of the increasingly unreal world we are living in. And, for anyone attempting a major goal to ask themselves ‘what exactly am I trying to achieve here’ and ‘for the sake of what?’. That may just bring back some integrity to the increasingly un-integral claims of those attempting major adventures – and may just lead to a return to climbing mountains for the great joys of climbing, rather than showing the world our desperate desire for recognition.