Too Crowded At The Top

Treacherous Triumph
May 29, 1996
Going Places
July 3, 1996

Too Crowded At The Top

GOING up Mt Everest is optional but coming down is mandatory,” says Ed Viesturs, a US-based mountaineer, who has scaled nine peaks over 8,000 metres, including Everest, which he has climbed times. This year the maxim seems to been lost on members of various expeditions taking a shot at glory by trying reach the summit. The number of expeditions rose to 11 on the Nepalese side—from just two in 1995—after the one route-one team restriction, in force since 1993, was lifted. And the government failed to enforce a screening process which would establish the credentials of the expedition members as climbers.

For instance, there were 16-year-old Mark Pfetzer from Rhode Island (US) and Pete Schoening, 67, on the mountain face. The two would have been the youngest and oldest persons to make it to the top if tragedy hadn’t turned them back. Says Robert Schauer, veteran climber and two-time Everest summiteer: “The base camp resembled an Indian railway station this year. In 1978, when I climbed Everest for the first time, there was just one expedition in the pre-monsoon period. This year the base camp was spilling with over 200 people.”

Incidentally, of the 10 people who recently died on the mountain, only a Taiwanese had failed to reach the summit. The others perished on their way down. Says David Breashears, leader of the successful IMAX filming team which put five members and an equal number of sherpas on the summit on May 23: “For years people have been escaping by the skin of their teeth. This time the mountain just took a swat at them. Reminding them not to take it for granted.”

Which is what climbers have been doing since the late ’80s. In short, all you need is strong legs, a stomach for heights, some 5,000 metre peaks and $25,000 to join a commercial expedition. One without guides and little else, where you rely solely on your hard work and climbing skills to scale 8,848 metres. If you feel the need for guides and accomplished mountaineers, the fee could go up to $60,000.

All this, of course, on the less arduous South Col route which most of the expeditions target. If you plan to spend less but climb the hard way, you go to Tibet where you can jeep it right up to base camp at 5,300 metres. Says Ang Tshering, partner in Asia Trekking which has handled over 300 Himalayan expeditions and is the sole GSA for the China-Tibet Mountaineering Association: “For a team of 10 and three sherpas the costs on the Tibet side, including royalty, would total $60,000.” Royalty alone for a team that size on the South Col would be $100,000.

Schauer calls Everest more than exhausted now and crammed with people who have no business being there. Says he: “It’s turned too commercial now.” The commercialisation starts right at the dangerous Khumbu icefall section which is just before Camp 1 and has claimed numerous lives. The British team led by Malcolm Duff, which secured the route through it, charged every other expedition $2,100 to cross it.

While the practice itself is not new—it was first begun by an American expedition in 1989 when they cut through the icefall—the episode just crystallised as an unethical event. Says Wongchu Sherpa, director of Peak Promotion and sardar of four expeditions to the Everest this year: “Previously, the team cutting through the icefall had first usage rights. Now they charge toll. They don’t come to climb Chomolungma. They want to earn some money.”

Complicating problems on the mountain on May 10, when nine people died, was lack of qualified guides in the commercial groups. Says Breashears, a three-time summiteer: “None of the guides had compasses to find their way back to South Col. Besides, they were under too much pressure from the clients to take them to the summit.”

With nearly all the expeditions on the mountain this year being commercial, client pressure was a major factor. Says Viesturs: “Guides have to learn to be strict with clients. They have to set time limits between camps and not allow them to proceed to the summit if they can’t keep them.”

Part of the reason for the tragedy was that the clients were too slow and technically ill-trained. Says Schauer: “It was like a snail-trail up the mountain face. And most of the clients were digging just the front of their crampons into the snow. That’s tiring like hell. Also, there wasn’t a blizzard or anything up there. The media just played that up to make everyone feel better. It was a typical afternoon wind, a little harsher than usual. The thing is if you want to climb Everest you have to be prepared for worse conditions and not just hunky-dory weather.”

In fact, it was the windy conditions that forced the  IMAX expedition down to Camp 2 on May 5, and May 10 itself was a perfect day for climbing except that the slowness of climbers and various bottlenecks on the way, like Hillary Step, made everybody reach the top late afternoon. Says Brad Ohlund, expedition member in the IMAX team: “The bottom line was everybody reached too late and got caught up in the winds.”

And it’s not only your life you put in danger but also of the rescuers. Wangchuk Lama Sherpa, a member of the Everest Cleaning Expedition, had his skull fractured in a rock accident as he was moving up to South Col to assist in rescue operations.

But the tragedy has prompted the authorities to station a four-man rescue team at South Col from next year. Says Nepal Mountaineering Association President Dawa Norbu Sherpa: “We are also planning to place lifesaving apparatus like oxygen bottles between the summit and South Col.” While that may detract from the thrill of scaling the mountain, it will certainly add to the load of the cleaning expedition. The estimated rubbish dump on Everest is about 16,000 tonnes and what the expedition brought back this year with the help of 15 climbers and 15 yaks besides dozens of porters was a mere 1,860 kgs. Says Sonam Gyaltsen Sherpa, leader of the expedition: “By 1998, the Visit Nepal year, we plan to declare South Col a pollution free area.” That may sound ambitious but with the government under pressure to spend a big chunk of the $1 million it earned in royalty from Everest on cleaning up the mountain it could be achievable.

What might, however, be a tough task is keeping a check on the number of expeditions, especially on the South Col route. With corporate sponsorship virtually nonexistent and amateurs forcing their way in through dollars, the task before the Nepal government is simple. Either limit the expeditions which would curtail revenue or hope that the climbers have some mountaineering commonsense. By all accounts, commonsense was what a lot of climbers lacked as they rose to touch the stars.

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