Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Rant: Mount Everest

I recently read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and then spent a couple of days on the internet looking up information about Mount Everest and the people who attempt to reach its summit. To my mind, the most important aspect of the Mount Everest tourism industry, and the thing that is virtually never discussed, is the barbarity of the people involved in it.

I had heard about the mountains of garbage left by the "climbers" (they're not really climbers; Krakauer says few of them have any climbing experience at all, and you can read accounts of people reaching the summit who are blind, legless, elderly, or have severe rheumatoid arthritis - better to call them tourists). Apparently someone started a fund to pay Sherpas to haul down discarded oxygen tanks and other junk, so that's supposedly getting better, although recent photos still show lots of garbage.

I had heard about nearby valleys being clear-cut for firewood for the base camp. That's bad enough.

What I didn't know is that the hiking route on Everest is littered with dead human bodies. The tourists sometimes have to step over bodies on the trail. There have been dead bodies lying near the tents where they camp - lying there for years. The tourists give the bodies jovial nicknames; apparently one there right now is dubbed Green Boots. While watching videos about Everest I saw tourists pass several dead bodies, and nobody even winced.

It's not just the tourists who die. The Sherpas, who are paid a pittance compared to the western tour guides, also are regularly killed or injured. So many of their deaths, like those of the tourists, seem to be wholly preventable. People get outraged at sweatshops but the plight of Sherpas seems to me to be much more serious.

The tourists who walk up the slope don't just tolerate the bodies; in some cases they contribute to the headcount with their single-minded drive to get their money's worth and reach the summit.

At the time of Krakauer's book there was very little done to rescue people. A guide or Sherpa would refuse to help someone if they were a client of a rival tour company. In Into Thin Air, two living people were left outside, unprotected, overnight in -40 weather only 200 feet from camp - on the flat - because they couldn't walk. Basic alpine rescue equipment, like a toboggan to drag the injured, was not available.

The tourists often don't help other tourists, and even refuse to turn back to allow others to rescue someone. In just about every description of someone dying, other tourists walk past and don't help. They manage to find the time to take photos though. In this picture, note the ropes. The tourists hang on to the ropes as they walk up the mountain, so these bodies are right there.

Compare this behavior to boating, another sport that is both dangerous and held in an isolated location. It's a rule of the high seas that you can't abandon a sailor in distress. If you're in a regatta and another boat gets in trouble you are obligated to stop and help, even if it costs you the race. You'll be disqualified if you don't, and probably charged with a criminal offence.

Another issue is whether the tour companies provide adequate supplies. Oxygen could be brought up in advance and cached, but despite charging as much as $110,000 a head for the bragging rights of "climbing" Everest, the tour companies seem to operate on a shoestring. At times 300 tourists are jammed together on the trail, and tourists complain that they can't pass the slow people so everyone is slowed down and everyone's oxygen runs out. Wouldn't that indicate, at the least, that they have insufficient oxygen? This happens all the time, and just happened again in spring 2012 when a bunch of people died (link).

There seem to be lax standards, little coordination, no regulations, and precious little human decency about the Everest tourism industry.

The inhumane treatment of the injured and dead can only be happening because there's no enforcement of civilized rules of conduct. There are no police at 26,000 feet. Nepal is dirt poor and the Everest racket brings the country over $10,000 a head, so presumably there's not much incentive in Kathmandu to find a solution.

You would think that the countries that register the tourist companies (the US, New Zealand, Switzerland, etc) would create and enforce some regulations. Or that responsible tourist companies would form an organization.

I know there is at least one responsible tourist company because at the beginning of this spring's climbing season, one company decided that the conditions were too unsafe, and cancelled all its climbs. The rest carried on, and as a result several people died. But for next year, that event sets up the same sort of tragic scenario that Krakauer documents for the 1996 season: the most responsible tourist leader had turned people back the year before, and so in '96 was under heavy pressure to get everyone to the top. As a direct consequence, he and some of his crew and clients died.

Meanwhile, tragedies (like the one in 1996 that Krakauer writes about so critically) only serve to make Everest tourism more popular. Everest is the Brangelina of mountains: no publicity is bad publicity.

The bottom line appears to be this: the tourists are so determined to reach the summit that they will not pause to save a human life, and the tour companies are so greedy for cash that they do not provide the supplies that could save lives. The entire industry is beyond barbaric. The idea that these tourists are presented as courageous heroes is mind boggling.



Anonymous said...

yes.. it is a rant .. you wrote.. about Mount Everest ..

I've also read 'Into Thin Air' among dozens of other books and essays .. and attended presentations by climbers who 'summited' or had to turn back. And not just on Everest, but on Lotse or K2 or other high peaks.

Somehow you've decided its OK to brand everyone as 'tourists' or suppliers to tourists.. and that they all politely but resolutely step over or around the dead bodies littering Everest ... Its as if they are sipping latte's as they follow the rope upwards to easy glory.

I think Krakauer would take you to task wickedly for the loose assumptions you have arrived at. So too would any sherpa. You tackle pertinent aspects of the Everest reality and mystique.. but have ventured too far as an armchair critic. Best to retreat.. you're way out there on a rotting cornice, enjoying your splendiferous view.. Its a long way down.

I have a lifelong interest in all things Everest.. but have not, and never will, be a climber.. or a visitor to Base Camp.. or help remove oxygen tanks or bodies from the higher levels.

Read more.. expand your horizons re Everest ...

Yappa said...

Hi diamondwalker,

Actually, I knew something about summitters of Mount Kilimanjaro before my recent reading about Everest, and I was appalled at the tourists on MK as well (although the situation is very different). I saw them first hand because I had a friend I used to visit in Moshi, at the base of MK. So this has been a developing rant.

You are absolutely right; there are doubtless good people who go up Everest. But. Name me a time when something like the following has happened: a big group is bunched together on the ropes, heading for the summit, and near the top one person's oxygen mask clogs (or their feet get frostbitten so they can't walk anymore or they fall down from hypoxia) - and everyone behind that person turns back from the summit in order to rescue that person. Has that ever happened?

In what sport or hobby or whatever do participants care so much about winning that they leave their colleagues to die?

I have had a (very) little experience with skiing in the Alps (another dangerous alpine sport) and it's the polar opposite in terms of basic humanity and caring, safeguards, regulations, etc.

One of the needs for a rant on this issue is that despite the tons of stuff written about Everest, there is still this starry-eyed view of it as a place to go to be free and test your mettle and become a hero and all that. To me, it is just the opposite. It's tawdry and barbaric. It's about cheap thrills and showing off. It's a nasty kind of tourism. That some good people get caught up in it is not the point.

(Sorry - I usually try to be more conciliatory but I'm still in rant mode I guess.)

the salamander said...

Your rant is good.. and I admire your defense of it as well. I've followed the mystery and often fatal allure of Everest since I was a child.. The story of the discovery of Mallory's body recently is startling.. Here's a sample of excellent 'take you there' writing.. The descent is a killer.. http://sixthsymph.com/2012/06/04/everest-2012-the-descent/

Yappa said...

Hi salamander,

I read the link. Thanks. Beautiful writing. A couple of reactions...

I read the account of Margaret turning back before the summit knowing that going on could jeopardize the Sherpas' lives, and it boggles my mind that it was her decision. Some other climber who doesn't have the money to come back or has more ego would press on even though it endangered the lives of others.

The writer went up with a personal guide. I have been checking out Everest tour companies, and this 1:1 service is the highest-charge, primo tour. There are still people going up who don't have a private guide. It sounds like she would not have survived if not for that person.

She ends by saying, "there’s something enormous, dark and cold stuck in my chest..." which sounds to me like her early reaction to the experience was quite negative. But in the comments section people congratulate her effusively on her courage and she starts to believe the hype. I'm afraid I just find that pathetic.

I would congratulate her though on her writing ability and her fierce honesty.