06 November 2009

Everest: an unhealthy obsession

The route to the summit is glaringly obvious from this angle: follow the path of steep ice which flows relentlessly from the interior of the three giant peaks, Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse; shin up a steep ice wall and take a left turn where it's a mere hop and a skip to the top of the world. By all accounts Everest is not a technically difficult mountain to climb. An ambitious novice with excellent fitness, a steely nerve for heights and a huge bank balance can have a fair stab at it.

Armchair enthusiasts are developing high expectations, fostered by the latest high definition TV documentaries in which a cosmopolitan range of middle-aged adventurers reach for the sky and send video messages home to loved ones. True, today's synthetic materials have previously unimagined thermal qualities and mountaineering equipment is now stronger yet lighter than ever but it is money that is at the heart of the problem with Everest. Elite Guiding Companies all but promise to get you safely to the summit (and back) for a barely credible fee of $70,000, per client.

Bottled oxygen has become standard issue above 23,000 feet, an altitude above which the natural atmosphere does not sustain human life for more than a couple of days. A seemingly inexhaustible supply of altitude-adjusted Sherpas are keen to enlist as expeditionary guides and porters, at $2,000 earning ten times more than their farming income. The Nepalese Government long ago spotted the financial advantage of charging ludicrous sums for permits to climb the country's greatest asset.

Put simply, commercial pressures are putting too many people on the mountain, many of whom would never make it there on merit. These figures tell a story of rapid acceleration:

One might deduce that the mountain is becoming safer to climb but these statistics by decade are masking years when fatalities ran at higher percentages. A combination of weather and over-crowding in 1996 resulted in fifteen deaths in a year when ninety-eight people reached the summit and considerably fewer returned.

Despite the increasingly friendly statistics, this is no hike. Some people suffer the ravages of altitude sickness even before the real climb has begun. Base Camp is at 17,000 feet above sea level (already comfortably twenty per cent higher than the highest Alpine peak, Mont Blanc. As you climb toward the Troposphere, pulmonary and cerebral edemas occur frequently even among apparently fit people as bodies stop working in this hostile realm. Helicopters can barely stay aloft in the thin air of Base Camp so evacuations high on the mountain are simply not possible. If you get sick then your companions are unlikely to be strong enough to carry you down to safety. You will be abandoned to your fate and join the corpses of those who lie where they fell, frozen hard as ice. That is the code which has developed although it is one over which bitter debate rages.

Base camp, a collection of tents not visible from the high altitude photo above, lies at the bottom right corner of this view, just below the Khumbu Ice Fall. The classically climbed route involves negotiating more than a mile of Khumbu's five-storey high-ice-boulders and sickeningly deep crevasses before ascending the Western Cwm to the Lhotse Face - a thirty degree sheet of hard blue ice. After spending a night under canvas on a ledge halfway up this nightmarish slope you continue to a barren, windswept saddle slung between Lhotse and Everest, known as the South Col. A few hours sleep there and you have to choose whether to try for the summit or return to base.

Those who feel well enough to attempt the summit will strap on oxygen masks and draw several breaths for each step as they climb ever higher, then traverse nauseating knife-edge ridges with a choice of sheer drops into Tibet or Nepal, until they reach that crest where there is nowhere higher to climb. I salute those brave souls and I fear for them.

Websites now regularly report dangerous overcrowding in horrendous places like the Lhotse Face, the Balcony and the Hilary Step. Pedestrian bottlenecks at the same altitude as cruising airliners, are jeopardising the lives of ambitious but ordinary people. It is just possible to climb from final camp (The South Col) to the summit and back in the hours of daylight if all goes well. But the sudden onset of hurricane force winds with thick snow and bone-chilling temperatures and the ever-present threat of avalanches can thwart even the best-lead expeditions. Now imagine queues forming as dozens of light-headed, oxygen-starved climbers wait their turn to clip onto fixed lines, to slowly plod their way through knee-deep snow in the "death zone," to climb their personal Everest.

Now remember among these are often men and women with little or no experience, suffering hallucinations and at the very limits of their endurance. Yes... Everest is dangerously over-crowded.

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