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.
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.
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?