NZ and the Debacle that is now Everest

April 20th, 2014 at 8:30 am by Kokila Patel

<8708992.jpg>As we celebrate death,  resurrection, and ascension this Easter, we have the news of another massive human tragedy on Everest. 12 or 13, perhaps as many as 20, climbers are dead. Chomolungma has reasserted her majestic terror.

New Zealand obviously has a close cultural affinity with Everest through Ed Hillary’s first ascent with Nepalese Indian Sherpa Tensing Norgay on 29 May, 1953 (61 years ago). There was also the 1996 death of Rob Hall at the summit staying with his trapped American client Doug Hansen, as his legs and hands failed (made all the more poignant when his final satellite phone call from the summit to his wife was played on the radio, “Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much“).

John Krakauer was one of the lucky survivors of that ill-fated 1996 expedition and was covering the climb as part of a commercial deal for Outside magazine.  He later wrote the Into Thin Air book which was made in to a film.


Rob Hall

The Neil Finn song “The Climber” is also about that event.  On 22 Feb. last year, it was announced Christian Bale will play Rob Hall in another movie of that 1996 tragic climb (Universal Pictures, Working Title working with Emmett/Furla Films).

So, the commercialisation of Everest and the issues surrounding its ascents continue. This was certainly something Ed Hillary lamented and was critical of.


Brain Blessed

Also last year, during a visit to NZ (to make ads for an Australian bank in NZ) British actor Brian Blessed (‘father’ of Blackadder, series 1) currently starring in a series of NZ bank ads, said adamantly, “I don’t think there should be any expeditions to the mountain unless they are climbing it without oxygen – 29,035ft is just high enough to be climbed without oxygen.

“It’s achieving nothing in the development of human will and human achievement and in the spirit of adventure. It’s all vanity.” He said first Everest conquerors Hillary and Tenzing were different because they were “going into the unknown”.

“Blessed said people did not appreciate how dangerous an Everest ascent could be. He described the need for weeks of acclimatization and the difficulties of conquering the various stages of the climb.

On the eve of the 6oth anniversary of Hillary & Norgay’s ascent, mountaineers revealed a new insult to the great mountain – a ladder across the Hillary Step. This is a tricky 12m high outcrop of rock just before the final stretch to the summit itself.  Hillary climbed it by working his way up a crack or fissure of the rock face, which is why it carries his name.

Congestion and waits of longer than 2 hours (serious at this altitude) are now occurring at the Step, which is a natural bottle neck and has caused so many deaths, particularly during the 1996 season when it was discovered by Hall that there was no fixed rope at the Step. 520 climbers have reached the summit of Everest in the last climbing season.  Similar commercial congestion caused the 11 deaths on K2 featured in the film The Summit K2 (2013), now surpassed by this 2014 Easter tragedy.

The Guardian covered the plans to put the ladder up the Hillary Step to ease that congestion.

Frits Vrijlandt,  president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, said the ladder could be a solution to the increasing numbers of climbers on the mountain. I think the solution would be to restrict the ascents to 100 a year, and run a lottery.

Apa Sherpa, who climbed Everest a record 21 times before retiring in 2011, described the Hillary Step as “very hard” and said a ladder was a good idea.

Pertemba Sherpa, who played a key role in the British expedition led by Sir Chris Bonington, and climbed Everest’s south-west face for the first time in 1975, told The Guardian that the security of the sherpas working on the mountain should be paramount.

“The route is changing, there is more rock, less ice and snow. It’s very dangerous,” the 65-year-old said. “For [the] safety of sherpas, this is good.”

So, differing views.  Putting a ladder up would reduce the congestion (not much) and probably increase the number ascending, so the bottlenecks may remain or even get worse.

For me, the issue is about the growing commercialisation of Everest and the “need” to ascend, as some form of personal development or enrichment or “vanity” as Brian Blessed rightly calls it.  This is what I would do:

1. A no-climbing moratorium for 5 years to allow a pause in the rapid commercialisation process and to allow the fraternity to reflect and refocus.

2. A covenant that a party must climb to a certain height, and bring down a certain weight of rubbish (tents, used oxygen tanks, etc), or a dead person for burial, as part of a compulsory acclimatization and a prerequisite before they are allowed an attempt at the summit. (A bit like foresters required to replant trees after they harvest stands of wood).

3. Perhaps an absolute age range limit on the mountain and certified years of climbing experience.

I’d be interested in David’s thoughts and his impressions of the risks we impose on Sherpas, Nepalese and other poor Third World mountain people (such as the Pakistanis on K2) porting, guiding and otherwise servicing our Western obsession with climbing these mountains.  Why not just go to Base camp as he is doing: enjoy the scenery, the challenge, support the Nepalese, but don’t risk their and other climbers lives insisting on climbing to the summit?

16 Responses to “NZ and the Debacle that is now Everest”

  1. mikenmild (23,665 comments) says:

    What would all the guides do for a living during a five-year moratorium?

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  2. BeaB (2,512 comments) says:

    “Chomolungma has reasserted her majestic terror.”

    This kind of purple prose sits awkwardly with the rest of the article.

    I always liked Hillary’s refusal to anthropomorphise Everest, or any mountain.

    And how exactly do you determine the gender of a mountain? Is Mt Cook a ‘she’ too?

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  3. mikenmild (23,665 comments) says:

    I thin it all comes from ‘Mother Earth’.

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  4. Jack5 (9,300 comments) says:

    Let’s hope a fund is opened in NZ where we all can make donations to help the families of the Sherpas who suffered. An international fund would be better.

    The Sherpas have nothing. If the thousands of mountaineers and tourists who have used them gave generously that would be a good start.

    It’s easy to sneer at the “commercialisation” of Everest, but the mountaineer-tourism surely provides economic help to the Sherpas and their families. IMHO, providing them with income should take precedence over Greenie platitudes about “commercialisation”.

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  5. Nostalgia-NZ (6,435 comments) says:

    Sounds like a bit of good old colonisation, telling them what is good for them and what they must do.

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  6. gazzmaniac (2,842 comments) says:

    Typical hippy douchebag greenies. Don’t like commercial development so they try to ban it.

    If there is a market for it, and the people who live there want it (they do, their livelihoods depend on it) then I see no problem. If people want to risk their lives to climb a mountain then let them.

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  7. iMP (2,665 comments) says:

    BeaB, the respective Tibetan and Nepalese names for Everest are (the Chinese insisting on the latter) are:

    Sagarmāthā, “Saint Mother”

    Chomo-lungma “Goddess Mother of the Universe/Earth/World/Snows/whatever”

    So, I think the gender anthropomorphism of the mountain is well determined.

    The locals would not be disadvantaged in anyway by Westerners not necessarily summiting, infact, there may be more, and safer, expeditions, which would actually benefit them. No Q. many of teh current Western expeditions are packing up and going home after this; we have a debate to have about the risks we place the local people in, with this increasing adventure-tourism. Why don’t Westerners carry their own stuff, and set their own ropes?

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  8. BeaB (2,512 comments) says:

    Sorry iMP, I didn’t realise the Tibetans and Nepalese had the last word on gender assignment.
    It’s all a bit Pantheistic for me.

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  9. hj (8,596 comments) says:

    Good that those darkies shoulder the risk for us rich chaps

    The disaster has focused attention on the Sherpas, members of an ethnic group known for their skill at high-altitude climbing, who put themselves at great risk for the foreign teams that pay them. Among their most dangerous tasks is fixing ropes, carrying supplies and establishing camps for the clients waiting below, exposing themselves to the mountains first.

    A Sherpa typically earns about $US125 ($134) per climb per legal load, which the government has set at about 9 kilograms, though young men will double that to earn more, guides say. Raised on stories of wealth earned on expeditions, they also have very little choice, coming from remote places where there is little opportunity other than high-altitude potato farming.

    Friday’s avalanche, which killed no foreigners, left many thinking about this calculation.

    “All the hard work is done by Sherpas, that is the reality,” said Pasang Sherpa, of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association. “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.”

    He added: “Normally our culture is like, we say, ‘the client is our god’.”

    Read more:

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  10. iMP (2,665 comments) says:

    Well BeaB, the Chinese being a third of the whole earth, and the Tibetans and Nepalese being the locals (ie their mountain) with ALL of them assuming a female gender anthropomorphism, kinda settles the argument of referring to Everest as “her” for me.

    But call me misguided, I bow to your icy insights on this.

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  11. nasska (16,768 comments) says:

    ….” Why not just go to Base camp as he is doing: enjoy the scenery, the challenge, support the Nepalese, but don’t risk their and other climbers lives insisting on climbing to the summit?”….

    Why not ask the guides who actually do the climbing? If we presume that they are not forced up the mountain at gunpoint then they are making a commercial decision with full knowledge of the risks involved.

    It’s a big ask but perhaps the local desk jockeys might consider that even in the Glorious Peoples’ Socialist Nation of Aotearoa working people such as farmers, foresters & fishermen actually take risks to make a few bob too.

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  12. gazzmaniac (2,842 comments) says:

    Why don’t Westerners carry their own stuff, and set their own ropes?

    Because the Nepalese government mandates that westerners use local guides.

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  13. PaulL (6,061 comments) says:

    I feel the same way when NZers die trucking logs to port. Those evil chinese, forcing us third world people to do their dirty work, where are they when a logging truck rolls. What’s that, we don’t let the Chinese come over here and drive our trucks? Why on earth not?


    The point is that nobody’s making anyone do anything here. Individual people are making choices. For what reason would we second guess their individual preferences? Climbers clearly would prefer to climb than not climb, even with all the risks. And I can see that – who are we to tell them that climbing with oxygen shouldn’t be allowed. What about if you’ve only got one leg – is that enough handicap already that you’re allowed oxygen? What if you’re 65 years old? Why would we turn this into a handicap sport anyway?

    As for the Sherpas, clearly being a guide is better than the alternative. If fewer Sherpas wanted to do it, then presumably the price would go up. Pointing out that people die in third world countries in accidents isn’t exactly news, the solution isn’t to legislate away their jobs so that they can’t die at work. The solution is to allow them to commercialise as much as possible, and allow them to maximise their income. And to not throw up objections when they try to make their workplace safer (by, for example, putting up ladders).

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  14. Colville (3,126 comments) says:

    Yeah lets ban drinking wine. Afterall people die making wine. How dare we exploit winemakers!

    FFS !

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  15. berend (1,912 comments) says:

    DPF: but don’t risk their and other climbers lives insisting on climbing to the summit?

    They’re not indentured servants, but people who offer their services. I think treks like DPF does are a good thing too. But your attitude of benign westerners imposing a moratorium on climbing (seriously, how are you going to enforce this, with the NZ Air Force?), reeks of a too typical attitude here in NZ. Please seriously, can people make their own decisions?

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  16. Dean Papa (788 comments) says:

    In the timeless words of George Mallory,

    I suppose we go to Mount Everest, granted the opportunity, because—in a word—we can’t help it. Or, to state the matter rather differently, because we are mountaineers…. To refuse the adventure is to run the risk of drying up like a pea in its shell.

    How to get the best of it all? One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end — to know there’s no dream that musn’t be dared…Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful, soberly astonished. Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No…and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction…fulfilled a destiny. To struggle and to understand — never this last without the other; such is the law.

    And in this series of partial glimpses we had seen a whole; we were able to piece together the fragments, to interpret the dream…

    For the stone from the top for geologists, the knowledge of the limits of endurance for the doctors, but above all for the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man.

    The highest of the world’s mountains, it seems, has to make but a single gesture of magnificence to be the lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy.

    The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.

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