In amongst articles predicting nuclear holocaust and/or an attack on Iran I found a dusty old traveling article on the BBC website. It grappled with the morality of sending budding amateurs to the top of the highest mountain in the world (sometimes to their death) for $50,000 or so a pop.
My trip to the top
I hit land and hiked to Everest Base Camp over New Years’ 2012 stashing the obligatory bottle of Champaign in my bag. It seemed consistent with the supplies of the early explorers, although not quite to the same lavish scale. The 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition, for example, included 60 tins of quail in foie gras and four dozen bottles of champagne; but then they were aiming for the summit and not merely strolling around the trails like me.
Over the New Year period, the usually packed trails become much quieter but still far from solitary, a sort of family atmosphere develops between those you do meet. In the same way, one becomes familiar with a few faces while floating between southeast Asian bars and hostels on a sabbatical. I collared a few experienced climbers into the ‘so what are you doing here’ conversation. Surprisingly they were quite happy to chat with a rank amateur about mountaineering and philosophize on Everest as a mountain, the people that aim to submit it, and how absurd it all is.
While accepting the thin air at 33,000 feet is a significant challenge; to them, Everest is simply the world’s tallest hike, a factual point of reference rather than an unparalleled achievement. They’ll tell you it’s ‘not a technically difficult climb’ and define it as not a climber mountain. This of course is somewhat bravado. It’s also certain though that they don’t climb by numbers and the real ‘exposure’ is to be found on vertical hells like the mountain K2 in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. K2 is the second-highest mountain in the world by the way and only fractionally smaller than Everest.
These mountaineering Titans chase the peaks that like K2’s are close to Everest’s 8.8 Kilometre height but require superior technical climbing skill, experience, and a true sense of where the line between achievement and death hangs from. More than anything, these ‘exposed’ climbs require testicles the size of watermelons.
The desire behind the first attempt to summit Everest is broadly the same as that driving subsequent expeditions, despite the previous failures and fatalities. It’s the ambition to be at the top of, well the top. It’s generally accepted that Edmound Hillory and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first summited the world’s highest peak. Which of the two had nowhere left to walk before the other will probably never be known.
Tenzing famously replied to the inevitable press conference question ‘who summited first?’ with ‘there were two of us and I wasn’t second’. At the risk of his financial reward, he’d been expressly forbidden to not claim he had reached the top moments before Hillory.
Summit fever victims
Who are the have a go Charlie’s then that pay exorbitant amounts of money to be lead up Everest so they can say they’ve climbed the world’s highest walk? They are driven for sure, perhaps too much so. The death toll of those who lost rational logic in what has become known as ‘Summit Fever’ speaks of men obsessed with reaching the top at all cost.
To their credit, these ‘I can achieve anything’ types often have the makings of the pros but lack the experience and dedication. Instead, opting to pour money into their expedition to such a degree that they so heavily invested it becomes impossible to accept failure.
With a seemingly unlimited supply of flossy chancers, there will always be a market for expedition operators to hear the ‘been there got the t-shirt’ bunch to the world’s highest peak. In 2007, the record number of 633 summited the mountain, a far cry from the wilderness and exposure of expeditions to other less coveted mountains
For now, the dead bodies and oxygen canisters left behind are a matter of personal liability. How long that can remain the case will surely be dependent on the diligence of the adventure companies and the continued climate of public and political resignation to the dangers of mountaineering.
Paul Hudson spends most of his time traveling the world and working as a yacht crew.