Majesty or Travesty (cont.)

May 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT, in 1923, George Mallory was asked one too many times why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, and that his famous reply—"Because it is there"—was snapped back in irritation. So now, 81 years later, what part of "Because it is there" is so hard to understand?

I like Mount Everest. I like climbing it (I've tried to get up the thing eight times now and have succeeded four), and I like helping other people climb it. I like to talk about climbing Everest, I like to write about it. Catch my modest slide show and you, too, can relive every glorious moment of my expeditions there.

What bothers me is the tendency among climbers who get their own sorry asses up Mount Everest only to spend the rest of their days preaching why you shouldn't. "It was harder back then," they say (most things were); "Our motives were purer" (and for the proper fee I can expound on just how pure); and "I was curious about my own limits" (and you should not be).

Admittedly, a day on Everest now can be easier than in days of yore. But on the easiest possible day—clad in space-age fabrics, sucking more oxygen than Jacques Cousteau, with a fixed rope in place—Everest is still hard enough for me. It is no simple thing to climb to 29,035 feet, and it never will be. Even so, mere mortals do make it to the top on occasion, which has fueled a strange debate. Some of the loudest critics are those climbers who believe that only first ascents and extreme difficulty are worth chasing after. But I believe there are other legitimate reasons to step into crampons. For one, I enjoy legendary, old ascents, and I get immense satisfaction tackling the same obstacles my heroes faced.

Yes, there are crowds on Everest most years now, and no doubt there will be again in May. Would I like to be the only person on the sacred Everest playing field? Yes. Is that going to happen? No. You might be surprised to learn that many of the people in the crowds are darn good folks. We've heard about the idiots on Everest so many times that it can appear as if unpleasantness is somehow a requirement for getting a permit. But great acts of bravery, kindness, and strength still occur on the mountain. If you can no longer sift through the media production to appreciate that a blind man climbed 29,035 feet above sea level, that's your loss. If you missed the significance of the first ascent this past spring by an African black man, then maybe your view of climbing has too much to do with rocks and too little to do with humanity.

Many climbers argue that there's no challenge or mystery left on Everest. But I'd take my hat off to anybody who managed an alpine-style retracing of Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld's 1963 West Ridge–to–Southeast Ridge traverse. Hell, I'd buy your book, watch your movie, and even purchase merchandise that you'd endorsed. If you then managed to climb a line directly up the North Face without relying on either of the prominent couloirs, I'd nominate you for a Nobel Prize. Put another line up the brutal Southwest Face and nobody will ever kick sand in your face again.

When potential Everest clients come my way, I don't look down my nose at them. Climbing, to me, has always been about making good personal decisions. Choosing to be guided on Everest is not a violation of any sound climbing principle that I can think of. Even so, there's widespread concern that people can now "buy their way" to the top. Yes, it takes a lot of money to make the climb, but that's not new. Besides, in the old days, the money came from taxpayers and charity drives, while it now comes from the participants. Isn't that an improvement?

I wouldn't think of convincing you that climbers don't have some negative impact on Everest's fragile environment, but it's important to keep things in perspective. All of us have a negative impact on fragile environments when we choose to visit them. In my experience, the commercial ventures have become caretakers of the mountain, watching out for Sherpas' rights and hauling trash down. Continued interest in Everest has fueled a viable economy in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Certainly, the climbing Sherpas earn their living in a dangerous and difficult environment, but their compensation has been at the upper limits of what their countrymen could hope to receive.

Some spectators have the bizarre notion that Everest should be some sort of money-free zone, that a board made up of monks, old climbers, and historians should interview potential mountaineers to make sure they're pure of heart. Although many wealthy people have come to Everest, it might be argued that those patrons who buy their way up may prove to be more effective advocates for preservation than climbers alone ever could. Ultimately, I wonder if the climbing world fully realizes that Everest is not our mountain. It belongs to the people of Nepal and Tibet, after all.

MY FIRST TIME ON EVEREST'S SUMMIT, in May 1994, didn't feel either crowded or easy. I was alone in a snowstorm, destined to run out of oxygen and daylight before I could make progress downward. My next time up there, in 1999, wasn't crowded, easy, or even pleasant, come to think of it. I was badly anemic and not enjoying having run out of oxygen. By the spring of 2000, I was back on top, alone in a snowstorm again.

In May 2003, my commercial team sat in tents at 26,000 feet on the 50th anniversary of Hillary and Norgay's summit day. After two months of trying, we acknowledged that continued high winds would prevent a summit attempt. But late that evening, the winds stopped, and we began to climb. A spectacular sunrise gave a hint of warmth and a calm summit. By 7:45 a.m., my "crowd" of eight—four Sherpas, two guides, and two guided climbers—began gathering on top. I took great pride in showing my team this special place. Through tears of joy, we gazed out on a thousand beautiful peaks. Had Mallory seen such a view, "Because it is there" would surely have been modified to include profanity. When all is said and done, you can't beat the view from the top of the world.

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