I am one of the few Americans that still subscribes to print media. I don’t know if it’s the feel of the pages in my hand, the ability to throw the magazine into the back of my car without breaking it like I would an e-reader, or maybe just the pure excitement of unexpectedly seeing my mag in the mail. That excitement was quelled last summer when I opened my mailbox to the sight of Outside’s ominous cover title, “The End of Everest.”
It was raining when I pulled the magazine out of the mailbox, and I was starving being fresh out of work, yet I stood on the porch peering into the haunting silhouette of the Himalayas under the title. I didn’t need any further indication as to what the article was about. It didn’t matter if you were a climber, an outdoor enthusiast, or if you just had a push-notice from CNN come across your phone, you knew what happened on the South side of Everest that April. Sixteen men, all Sherpas, pulverized by what can only loosely be called an avalanche. For those who were there it was something closer to a meteor. As Outside put it:
“When the serac calved off, it initially fell as a mostly solid chunk of blue ice. It was estimated to be130 feet wide, long, and tall–nearly 2.3 million cubic feet, weighing 64,000 tons”
The tragedy was devastating in its own right, regardless of where you stood relative to the mountain climbing world, but for those of us who do climb, it was heart wrenching. The top-tier climbers lost friends in the disaster, men whom they shared past ascents and experiences with. For the much greater number of us aspiring to summit the world’s highest height, we lost hope.
Before the disaster I had a hard enough time convincing my girlfriend that Everest was safer than ever, rattling off the post-1990 statistics I had memorized by heart. After 4/18, what the hell does a statistic mean? “Never!” she shouted. “You’re never climbing it. I’m glad you’ll never be able to afford it. How could you leave me alone to suffer over climbing that thing?!”
Eva taking solace in the sky-high price tag of climbing the peak has always caused me anxiety; who wants to be told they’ll never attain a life goal because they’re too poor? Furthermore, it sparks bitterness at the bankers and capitalists that trounce up the mountain, often unprepared, just because their wallets are big enough. What Outside was doing seemed cruel though, by insinuating it was all over, maybe for good.
Conquistadors of the Useless
Nightmares in the Himalayas are nothing new. We’ve all seen K2, know about the David Sharp controversy, and have Into Thin Air
on our bookshelves. As much as we may try to ignore this fact, death is an element of most worthwhile outdoor activities. Sometimes, as in high-altitude mountaineering, that may be obvious, but even the mundane has the latent threat of death lurking in the shadows. A friend of mine watched a man collapse from his bike in 2013. She was participating in the leisurely New York City Five-Boro-Bike-Tour. She later discovered the man died of a heart attack, right there on the spot.
The overriding issue has to do with the lucrative business of climbing in the Himalayas, and the individuals who are increasing attracted to the sport. In reality, there’s no real reason why anyone who wishes to set foot on Everest’s summit, must go through the perilous and unpredictable Khumbu icefall, the site of the 4/18 disaster. The North Side climb is by no means easy, but has no equivalent in danger to Khumbu. Furthermore, the the $50,000 buy-in is starting to come with too many perks. One of the solutions for stopping a repeat disaster was to make camp II (where the Sherpas were headed) less “luxurious”, thus requiring the Sherpas and their assistants to carry less equipment.
Then of course there’s the glory factor. Simply standing atop the tallest point in the world isn’t enough anymore, that’s oh-so 20th century. People have to climb to the top and jump off in winged suits, there needs to be a double traverse where the mountain is essentially climbed twice. As I type this article, I’m staring at an Outside issue that features Killian Jornet, the Spanish ultra marathoner that “sprints up” mountains. He’s already done the Matterhorn in less than two hours and Denali in less than ten. What’s next? You guessed it.
In the business of mountain climbing we’ve forgotten that standing atop gigantic rocks, protruding out of the Earth’s surface, was never meant to be useful and certainly not lucrative. When Benton MacKaye was envisioning the Appalachian Trail he called it “a retreat from profit.” MacKaye’s sentiments were echoed by The North Face and Patagonia founders Douglas Tompkins and Yvonne Chouinard, who said they took up climbing because it wasn’t useful to anyone: “We didn’t want to be apart of the military-industrial-complex.” Chouinard goes on to speak of the current generation of high-altitude climbers:
“…they pay $80,000 and have Sherpas put all the ladders in place, and 8,000 feet of fixed ropes. You get to a camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag, and it’s already laid out with a little chocolate mint on top. The whole purpose of climbing Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain; but if you compromise the process, then you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.”
The men and women that stand on the highest points today, covered in corporate logos, resemble Nascars over adventurers. Outside did a good job at highlighting the labor and safety politics behind Everest, but forgot one vital piece of info: Everest ended a long time ago. The mountain is a tourist attraction for the rich and a necessary domino to knock down for stuntmen, who after the tragedy, will both be paying a bit more to corporate climbing companies. The only way Everest can ever start again is for it to become useless again. The mountain, as all mountains, must be an object of desire, not commerce. Then and only then will we be able to “start” Everest over.