It’s Time to Shut Everest Down
Everest has had a good run in mountaineering lore and public fascination. At 29,035 feet the world’s highest mountain, it once inspired George Mallory’s famous zen-like justification for mountain climbing in general, “Because it’s there.” It has seen its tragedies (Mallory’s disappearance, along with co-climber Sandy Irvine, in 1924), and its triumphs (New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent of the mountain in 1953.)
Lately, it seems, all the news from the mountain has been sad, or sordid, or both. It’s time to close down the show.
In 1939 a tragedy took place high on the slopes of another mountain in South Asia, K2, at 28,251 feet the world’s second highest mountain, located in the Karakorum range on what is today the Pakistan-China border. An American expedition was attempting the first ascent of the mountain when one of the climbers (a wealthy amateur named Dudley Wolfe who never should have been selected as a member of an expedition attempting such a dangerous peak) found himself too weak to descend from his high camp to safety below. Three Sherpas, high-altitude guides from the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal, known for their toughness and ability to acclimatize to thin air, were dispatched to rescue Wolfe. None of them ever returned and their fate remains a mystery.
Afterwards, Wolfe’s older brother hired a lawyer to investigate the disaster. Jack Durrance, one of the American climbers, was questioned closely as to why he turned back from another attempt to rescue Wolfe. One of the Sherpas had gotten sick, he explained, and he had to help him down the mountain. Wolfe’s brother exploded: “Of course, in my viewpoint the life of a Sherpa is nothing compared to Dudley’s.” To which Durrance responded immediately, “Of course it isn’t. We didn’t treat it as such.”
No foreign climber visiting a high peak in Pakistan or Nepal today would dream of saying anything so callously indifferent to the lives of Sherpas. Indeed the Sherpas, who provide much of the labor that has allowed thousands of foreign climbers to reach the summits of K2, Mount Everest, and the other giant eminences of the Karakoram/Himalayan mountain chains, are now rightly lionized by the westerners who employ them.
And yet, as recent events on the slopes of Everest suggest, the lives of Sherpas in the service of western climbers are still dispensed with all too cheaply. On April 18, an avalanche swept the upper reaches of the mountain’s Khumbu Icefall, where a group of fifty Sherpas was fixing ropes for use by the big commercial expeditions and their clients waiting below in Base Camp. The Khumbu is a key choke point on the mountain, a jumble of constantly shifting ice towers and yawning crevasses. Westerners spend as little time in it as they can. But Sherpas, fixing ropes, and ferrying supplies, are not so fortunate.
Thirteen Sherpas were killed that day and their bodies recovered; three more are missing, their bodies presumably buried beneath tons of ice. All told it was the deadliest day in the mountain’s history. “All the hard work is done by Sherpas, that is the reality,” Pasang Sherpa of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association told a reporter from the New York Times following the avalanche. “The client will say, ‘I did the summit three times, four times.’ That is our guest, and we have to accept it. Our job is to make a good scale for the clients, to make this comfortable. We have to do that.”
In the days that followed many Sherpas refused to go back on the mountain, reasonably insisting on an appropriate period of reflection and mourning. The Nepalese Government, eager to salvage a situation on which it relies for a great deal of foreign income, offered the astonishingly paltry sum of 40,000 rupees (about $408) in compensation to the families of the dead, but the Sherpas, on this occasion, would not be bought. While expedition leaders flew off by helicopter to confer with government officials in Kathmandu, they voted with their feet and returned to their villages to grieve. With that, indispensable as the Sherpas are, the climbing season on the Nepalese side of the mountain came to an end.
Such a breakdown has long been threatening. Only last year, in fact, an ugly confrontation took place between three renowned western climbers and a large group of Sherpas fixing ropes on the Lhotse Face. But 2014 may well mark a turning point in the history of Mount Everest, as important as that of its first ascent via its southeast ridge by Hillary and Tenzing sixty-one years ago. There has been no real mountaineering taking place on the Nepalese side of the mountain for years, just a crass commercial enterprise, a kind of high altitude conspicuous consumption that satisfies the egos of wealthy individuals at an unacceptable cost in environmental degradation and Sherpa lives.
True, Sherpas are paid much better than they once were, but the days of shared danger and privation on the mountain are over: a new kind of commercial hierarchy based on the cash nexus has replaced the older colonial hierarchy based on the status and privileges of imperial rule. Both hierarchies should be equally stigmatized by the mountaineering community and by public opinion alike.
There are plenty of other mountains to climb in Nepal, and elsewhere, offering genuine challenge and adventure, without those costs. Everest is over—or should be.