“Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” — Yogi Berra
The sheer power of the written word never ceases to amaze me. Books—whether fiction or nonfiction—can stir the imagination, educate and enlighten, prevent disaster, and move people to action. One such book was Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” It informed, it motivated, and now it is creating disaster.
I first read this tale of the ill-fated 1996 Mount Everest climbing season while on vacation and it riveted me with the sheer scale of the peak and its history as the mountain without mercy.
Aging Walter Mittys
I had thought that this kind of adventure—reaching the roof of the world—would be a transcendent experience for a climber, something akin to a spiritual revelation. Then I read about high-altitude cerebral and pulmonary edema, mountain sickness, nausea, sleeplessness, hypoxia, and exhaustion. With the dangers of the Khumbu Icefall at the base and the challenge of the Hillary Step near the top, the climb seemed to require more endurance than transcendence.
That was quite enough to put my armchair explorer assumptions to rest. Not everyone got the same message. The best-selling “Into Thin Air” made climbing Mount Everest popular and even sexy. It made people think they could do it too—but better and smarter. Those whom Dr. Seaborn “Beck” Weathers of the 1996 expedition called “aging Walter Mitty types” think they can climb Everest without experience or even adequate preparation. The proof is in this jaw-dropping photograph.
Climbing in the Death Zone
And then, there’s the Death Zone. Climbers on any of the 14 mountains worldwide that rise above the 8000-meter mark (26,246 feet), step into a zone above which no amount of training or acclimatization can prevent the human body from dying by degrees. The oxygen level is only one third of that at sea level, which means the body uses up its store of oxygen faster than breathing can replenish it. Climbers in the Death Zone have 48 hours to reach the summit and return—or die on the mountain.
And die, they do. One in ten climbers go up but never come down. Even experienced climbers in top condition fall to its numerous dangers. Mount Everest is, essentially, a vertical cemetery. If you die on the mountain, you stay on the mountain—unless a friend or climbing partner pushes your body into a crevasse or off one of the knife-edged ridges. You end up a frozen corpse, mummified by the cold dry air.
Ignoring the Grim Facts
Somehow, however, these grim facts have evaded people who have set reaching Everest’s summit as a life goal. With increasing frequency they have not trained for the climb, gotten themselves into peak fitness, or gained experience on smaller climbs. They are not prepared mentally and physically for the challenge of climbing Mount Everest. So why do they do it?
In his book “Deep Survival,” Laurence Ganzales introduces a theory called “risk homeostasis,” which states the people accept a given level of risk.
“While it’s different for each person, you tend to keep the risk you’re willing to take at the same level. If you perceive conditions as less risky, you’ll take more risk. If conditions seem more risky, you’ll take less risk.”
It’s difficult to believe that people can see the conditions on Mount Everest as anything but extremely risky. Yet, they do. How else to explain a thought process that allows people who don’t even know how to put on crampons to think they’re up to a highly dangerous challenge? Here’s Mr. Gonzales again:
“One of the things that kills us in the wilderness, in nature, is that we just don’t understand the forces we engage. We don’t understand the energy because we no longer have to live with it.”
The World is Your Theme Park
That means people who have never done anything more challenging than ride a roller coaster or ski a well-groomed black-diamond slope think that Mount Everest is doable. The level of risk they have experienced is at the theme-park level and that makes the rest of the world into just a bigger theme park.
The places they know, like ski slopes, hockey rinks, or even Iron Man events, are safe because they are monitored, evaluated, checked over. Even more risky activities like skydiving or bungee jumping are controlled. They have to meet standards and regulations. Doctors stand by and injured people are helicoptered out to trauma units.
Mount Everest is different. The people in the photograph have set themselves up to stand for hours in the Death Zone, waiting for their chance to reach the summit. They have paid between $45,000 and $130,000 for this privilege and they are going to get to the top no matter what.
They put down their money, bought their ticket, and they want what they paid for, even if they have to lose brain cells and die by inches to reach the summit. Somehow, they think that it’s an achievement to pay Sherpas to push, pull, or carry them to the top and back down again because they can’t do it themselves.
Even for experienced climbers, Mount Everest doesn’t offer the honor of being first. Thousands of people have summited Everest since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it for the first time in 1953. Where is the distinction in becoming just another number?
It’s A Long Way Down
The line of climbers in the photograph winds along the top of the Southeast Ridge and the exposed “cornice traverse” where snow blows over one side in a deceptive white wave. Mistaking the snowy cornice for solid rock will send a climber 10,000 feet down the Kangshung Face. If a climber takes a wrong step to the left, he or she plunges 8,000 feet down the Southwest Face. This is no place for fuzzy thinking—which is exactly what happens when you are deprived of oxygen.
Climbing Season Obituaries
May is climbing season on Mount Everest and every year more people die. This year, the death toll has reached 11 climbers—so far. Most of them have not succumbed to falls, avalanches, or hypothermia. They were not caught in a storm. No, they stubbornly stayed too high, too long and paid the price. People waited in that single line for 12 hours—way too long to stay in the Death Zone on a mountain without mercy.
And for what? The right to say you were 75th in line to reach the summit on a year when hundreds made it? At this point, there’s no cachet to climbing Mount Everest. It has become just another item to cross off a rich man’s bucket list. If you’re willing to risk your life for what thousands of people have done before you, so be it.
Just remember that Walter Mitty only daydreamed his adventures. He never really put his untrained, unfit body on the line. Maybe he had the right idea.