Thursday, May 24, 2012

Are novice climbers to blame for deaths on Mount Everest?

It's become a cliche to mock the cliche of novice, unprepared climbers beating a path up Mount Everest, almost as much as copy editors love to work the term 'death zone' into any article about tragedy on the world's tallest mountain. If they could, I'm sure some editors would replace the entire text of articles with the words 'death zone' over and over, a bit like how Homer Simpson once filled in articles with 'screw Flanders, screw Flanders'.

To be sure, it's not exactly true, as the headline of this Globe and Mail article claims, that Shriya Shah-Klorfine had been preparing to climb Mount Everest since childhood. It's more the case that she had a dream of climbing the mountain and, despite being light on experience, she fit in with her more experienced counterparts in mortgaging her house and putting off children to realize her dream.

Still, it takes an experienced climber to point out that the last stage of the climb from camp 4 to the top of Mount Everest, which now begins at midnight, used to begin at dawn. Where climbers now take 16 hours to make it from camp to the top and back, it used to be that you could take 12 hours to go from camp 4 to the top and descend to a far safer altitude of 6,500 meters (camp 4 is at 8,000 metres).

Still, what kills people is not so much their lack of experience as their sheer numbers and their desire to get to the top at any cost. The desire to get to the top at any cost, in a way, might be indicative of inexperience, but as Jon Krakauer pointed out years ago after the deadliest day on Mount Everest in 1996, the single unifying characteristic of those who perished on Everest that day was that they insisted on pursuing the summit into the late afternoon. Those who stuck to a pre-determined time, usually the early afternoon, at which they would turn around tended to survive.

This weekend, however, the mass of 150 climbers seeking to pass through a very narrow bottleneck, the Hillary Step created delays. The delays, combined with the refusal to turn back, depleted the oxygen tanks of people like Shah-Klorfine and led to death from the cold and the lack of oxygen as a windstorm swept in at dusk. Again, it's likely that turning back earlier in the day, when the weather was good and oxygen plentiful, would have saved the lives of the four climbers who died this weekend.

Sadly, when someone says that their goal is to make it to the top at any cost, they probably don't mean it literally. Shriya Shah-Klorfine did make it to the top, but at a cost that was simply too great in time, weather and oxygen. Those who blame her sherpas and the tour organizer for allowing her to continue in the face of imminent danger probably should have said something long ago, when Shah-Klorfine first got serious about her goal of climbing Everest. It's not that she had no business being there, but that she pushed on when it was safer to turn around.

What's truly sad about this is that climbing Mount Everest is probably not a very pleasant experience. Between the cost, the equipment, the weather and the physical toll of the altitude, it's simply numbing. It's true that there are some sights which are exhilarating, such as the view of the Tibetan Plateau, or the lower peaks of the Himalaya, or simply the knowledge that you're on the world's highest point.

However, considering that for a fraction of the time, money and effort you can spend weeks if not months trekking in the Himalaya disconnected from society and surrounded by mountains, I don't know why novice climbers would subject themselves to the risks of Everest: with 210 deaths against 3684 summits, you have a 1-in-20 chance of dying during the climb.

For those who want to make a statement, consider climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Fiji, completing the three-week trek around the 55-kilometre long Annapurna massif of 8,000-metre peaks or if you insist on climbing one of the world's 14 8,000-metre mountains, try Cho Oyu, by far the easiest of the bunch.


Nerdypanda said...

Yup, I totally agree with what you said. My uncle climbed Mt. Everest in early 1990s for India. This was the era when each and every country was trying to break records. My uncle was on the team with India's youngest women to take the trekk. They made that record. My uncle is a professional seasoned climber. Last year, when he came to North America, he did guest lectures at an organization in USA. He always emphasized how hard and dangerous a climb to Mt. Everest is. The Sherpas basically saved people's butts. The commercalization of Mt. Everest grosses me out. If people really want thrills, should climb K2 or other mountains in Himalayan range. Not busy and just as dangerous if not more.

Adeel said...

The commercialization isn't great, of course, but what bothers me is the irresponsibility of both climbers and their guides. I understand that it can be very hard to make decisions at altitudes, but much of what people do is a death wish. At 8,000 metres, how can people really think that they're so invincible, especially when they're relying on oxygen tanks just to breathe?

Shira said...

I think a lot of these climbers let their accomplishments in their professional lives guide their decisions in their leisure time. There was a (relative) spate of deaths due to nitrogen narcosis right around the time of the Everest disasters of the mid-90s, as investment bankers, etc., went crazy trying to dive as deep as possible. You must respect your leisure time activities and their capacity to kill or maim you. The mountain, ocean, and race do not care about the letters behind your name, or the plaques on your wall. Also, when you care about the cocktail party audience you can command, well, you're not going to have enough imagination to go after one of the lesser known peaks.

Adeel said...

I guess the people whose professional success motivates them to go up Everest are probably the less thoughtful (and more ambitious?) cousins of all the office jockeys who double as serious triathletes.

Are the qualifications you'd have to utter after telling people you climbed Cho Oyu really that onerous? I guess it's not as famous as Everest, but wouldn't "it's 26,000 feet tall) or "it's the fourteenth-tallest mountain in the world" mean something at cocktail parties?

Anonymous said...

The benefits for the country probably outweigh the ridiculousness of it all.