Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The problem with Everest

One hundred years ago the summit of Mount Everest was a prize; a prize that was sought after by the world’s greatest mountaineers. Today Mount Everest is a prize that can be bought by anyone for the right price. Listening to the radio today my ears perked up at the mention of the peak, having spent some years of my childhood in Nepal and having trekked up to base camp as a graduation present from my parents three years ago.

A Canadian woman had succumbed to death on Saturday on her descent after summiting. It has been determined that the cause was altitude sickness and exhaustion. Now this is nothing new on Everest. During the 1996 Everest disaster which still to this day has claimed the most lives at one time on Everest Scott Fisher, a renowned climber, told my father that when on the mountain it is not the altitude but your attitude. Fisher died just days later. As a guide I believe he was under terrible pressure to get his clients to the summit and this is just part of the problem that I believe is surrounding the mountain. Clients pay upwards of $40,000 for the chance to say they’ve climbed Everest, meaning that rules are broken to get people to the top, often resulting in death.

What disturbed me the most about this woman’s death was that she trained for the climb by hiking hills around Toronto. Having grown up in British Columbia, and as an experienced alpinist, I wouldn’t even consider that proper training to take on an 11,000 foot peak in the Rockies. Conditions on Everest this weekend were considered “overcrowded,” and this just feels so unacceptable. When I was at base camp I met with climbers who would tell me stories about people who attempt the world’s largest peak without ever having put on cramp-ons before. When did Everest become something that could be bought? Something to be ticked off on hundreds of inexperienced people’s bucket lists? When did the dangers of this mountain become so downplayed? Now Everest while the highest peak in the world is by no means the most dangerous. I believe that prize goes to K2 in Pakistan but does this warrant the peak becoming such a tourist attraction?

Altitude sickness is something that cannot be ignored. Even trekking up to the base camp I monitored my body daily for signs of it. Even at a paltry 18,000 feet the altitude can be deadly. This is where inexperience and pressure lead to fatalities, yet the 200 plus successful summits per year seem to overshadow this problem.

When people hear that I’ve trekked to base camp they either think that I’ve climbed Everest or ask my why I didn’t go all the way. For me it wouldn’t be worth it, and while I will never settle to simply hike around the hills that surround Toronto I will never ever underestimate the dangers that come with mountaineering at 11,000 feet or 29,000. 

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