I’m sure most readers have heard about the lines and the crowds and the deaths that take over the top of our planet’s highest mountain each May. You’ve seen the recent photos of over a hundred people in line on an absurdly steep ridgeline, waiting to stand on a pool-tabled sized bit of rock and snap photos. You’ve read Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, which documented the 1996 climber die-off on top of the mountain. You heard about the tragic deaths of 16 Sherpas in an avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall in 2014. Apparently none of the message got through: this year 11 people have died trying to climb Everest, yet the crowd of “peak baggers” grows bigger every year.
Welcome to one of the world’s priciest and most sought-after tourist experiences: summiting Mount Everest. You spend about what half a house costs to do this, need to begin in April, endure completely awful physical deprivations and ailments, and may just end up dead for all your trouble.
Until about two hundred years ago, there was nothing inherently noble about mountain climbing. Mountains were just obstacles in the way; and people detoured around them to get where they needed to go. Now mountaineering is the fashionable I’m-a-Rugged-Human thing to do. Everest used to be something people trained rigorously for. Now it’s just a matter of money. You can be out of shape, have a heart condition, whatever. All you need do is hire the right outfitter and pay some Sherpas, who, in some cases, will actually clip you to a safety line and drag you up and down the mountain if you aren’t able to do it yourself.
Most climbers actually have to stumble over the corpses of others who have succumbed to oxygen deprivation and for whom the top 500 feet of the world is now their final resting place. Most need assistance to get back down to an altitude where they’re not in the process of dying.
I live in Wyoming — I get the adventure thing. While I have not climbed a mountain in some years, I understand the thrill of mastering an athletic goal you personally set for yourself in the great outdoors. However, I am also beginning to think that quests to climb the highest mountain on every continent and be on top of the planet have become just a little too elitist, too first-world, and too environmentally costly.
Sixty-six years ago the highest spot on the planet was untouched by any human or even animal presence. Now it is littered with discarded gear, empty oxygen canisters and cadavers, which don’t rot or blow away in a few months. There’s something to be said about the situation when the environment is so extreme that nobody can expend the energy to pick up dead people, much less garbage. The lower camps are so full of trash and mounds of human waste that it would take years to remove it all. People’s life goals to “conquer Everest” have turned it into the world’s highest garbage heap. I don’t even want to see trash at 7,200 feet, much less on a very expensive, months-long expedition.
The governments of Nepal and China, who issue the climbing permits, aren’t terribly motivated to do anything about this entirely human-caused deathtrap/environmental mess. Every potential Everest climber brings a mint of money into their countries. Nepal especially — a crushingly poor country — can hardly be blamed for wanting the gravy train to continue.
Laramie resident and National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins, who makes it his business to go on jaw-dropping expeditions, gave a talk about climbing Everest seven years ago. It was a riveting, fascinating and informative evening, but he also frankly described the trash piles, the increasingly physically unfit people attempting the climb, the daily risk of death, the expense, the exploitation of poor people and the governments that fail to manage any of this in a responsible fashion. Mark’s takeaway message was:
“If you’re thinking about climbing Everest, just DON’T.”
“You can have an intensely challenging mountaineering experience in South America and spend a quarter of what it would cost to climb Everest,” he said. “Your money can support a climbing guide’s family for a year, you don’t have to deal with the crowds and the filth, you’re probably not enriching some corrupt government and it doesn’t take three months to do it.” He did not mince words, and while of course National Geographic didn’t pay Mark to tell people how awful the experience of climbing Everest has become, it was clear as day to those of us who attended that lecture.
It’s time for this madness to come to an end. Nepal and China need to more carefully regulate the Everest climb, impose strict physical fitness standards, issue a set number of permits and include in those fees something to go toward the cost of cleaning up our planet’s highest cemetery/garbage heap. And adventurers, however intrepid, need to think about finding some other way to vent their wanderlust than contributing to this increasingly tragic and dangerous situation.
Of course it’s not the same thing, but each day thousands of people view the planet from the top limits of our breathable atmosphere. They board jets, sit by the window and wait for the beverage cart to come out at cruising altitude. One is, at that moment, higher than anybody on Everest.