“Because it’s there.”
For those who grew up on George Mallory’s famous explanation for his yearning to scale Mount Everest, with all the romance, danger and spirit of exploration it implied, that viral photograph of an endless line of climbers in puffy parkas inching their way to the summit came as a profound shock.
Danger there is. At least 11 people died on the mountain this year — as did Mallory in 1924, the year after that interview with The New York Times, leaving forever open the question of whether he had first reached the summit. All but two of those who died this climbing season perished on the way down, overcome by altitude sickness and exhaustion after the hourslong delays created by the traffic jam in the oxygen-starved atmosphere above 28,000 feet (the other two fell). As the snow and ice on the mountain succumb to climate change, it is becoming common for climbers to come across the remains of those who died over the years.
But romance? For Mallory, the need to reach the highest point on the planet was “instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.” The conquest, however, has turned out to entail a landscape littered with tons of plastic bottles, food tins, excrement, ropes and tents and scores of oxygen-starved tourists lining up to take a selfie on the summit.
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The fatalities this year were more than double last year’s, and the estimated 810 climbers to reach the 29,029-foot-high (8,848 meters) peak were the most ever. As the climbing season came to an end, the recriminations began, many focused on the loose standards set by the government of Nepal and the proliferation of dubious expedition companies. China also runs expeditions from its side of the mountain, but fewer use that route and the controls are said to be tighter.
On the Nepal side, anyone can pick up an Everest permit for $11,000, and the total package, with guides, equipment, food and lodging for a six-week expedition can easily exceed $50,000. In one of the world’s poorest countries, that’s a flow of money the government is loath to reduce.
Nepalese officials are belatedly considering setting proficiency standards for climbers and limiting the numbers on the mountain to reduce congestion and garbage at the summit. That should happen before the next climbing season begins.
But however disturbing the deaths and the queues, Everest still poses one of the greatest physical and mental challenges our planet has to offer, and trying to deny it to people is as futile today as it was when the Times writer interviewing Mallory concluded with this appeal: “Be not beguiled, O armchair explorer! Stick to the comparative security of your subway strap.”