Majesty or Travesty

It's climbing season again on Everest. And as hundreds of summit hopefuls converge at Base Camp, the great debate persists: Has the Big E become the Big Easy? Alpinists Greg Child and Dave Hahn take sides.

May 1, 2004
Outside Magazine
mt everest, everest, climbing

   Photo: Corbis

I WAS IN A SEATTLE RESTAURANT a few years back when someone shouted, "Hands up, all who've climbed Everest!" Half the people at my table saluted, as did several patrons, the cook, and a busboy. With 1,922 ascents by the end of 2003, Everest is no longer an exclusive club. For the past six years, there's been an average of 164 ascents per year; last spring, there were a record 264. On a single day last May, a whopping 118 people stood on the summit. Photos show a conga line of Gore-Tex'd, feather-suited Michelin men and women clipped to a rope, plodding in lockstep up the final ridge. That's not climbing; it's an aberration.

Everest climbing as it's done today is so different from the rest of mountaineering that it's become a subsport—call it Everesting. Everesting obviously isn't about the solitude of the high peaks. Nor is it about breaking new ground: No routes have been established since 1996, when a Russian team blazed a trail up the northern side of the Northeast Ridge. The North Ridge and the Southeast Ridge are rope-strung highways, the perilous Khumbu Icefall tamed with ladders and ropes conveniently installed by Sherpas. The summit has become a stage for practically every special-interest group. It's been said, lightheartedly, that the last summit achievement will involve that which is typically confined to the bedroom, between consenting adults.

I wouldn't deny anyone their personal sense of fulfillment on the world's highest point—it's definitely a cool place to be—but I do think we've gone nuts over this peak. Everesting is overrated and overpriced, and it overuses the mountain.

Since I'm fool enough to thumb my nose at the Big E and incur the wrath of its fans, I should come clean on my prior relationship with the place. Herewith, I confess that I climbed Everest's North Ridge, with oxygen, in 1995 to make the 736th ascent, and that I pulled on any old bit of rope or ladder rung to reach the summit. I also confess that I enjoyed the climb, and that I still cherish the sense of cosmic smallness that accompanied the view from the top. I admit that I dumped my oxygen bottle on the mountain and pilfered some tiny rocks near the summit.

But even Everest lovers have to question the media's unrelenting fascination with the mountain, when its newsworthiness is completely played out. Everest isn't the hardest, the most beautiful, or the only mountain, yet it gets all the attention, and the bloviated coverage lavished on it leads to a lopsided view of mountaineering. This creates a strange, unjust state of affairs for those talented black-belt alpinists who spend their lives making visionary ascents in the great ranges, on mountains other than Everest—K2, Lhotse, Annapurna, Gasherbrum IV, the Ogre, or the big walls of the Trango Towers. Those climbers get little recognition, while any Joe Blow who paid his way onto a guided ascent of Everest appears on talk shows, writes books, and becomes a motivational speaker.

EVEREST WASN'T ALWAYS OVERRATED. Not in 1924, when George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were pushing to the bitter end on the North Ridge in tweed jackets and hobnail boots, or in 1952, when the Swiss missed the summit by a maddening 825 feet, or in 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally, as Hillary put it, "knocked the bastard off." Try telling the three Chinese and Tibetan climbers who made the first ascent of the North Ridge, in 1960, that Everest is overrated, and Qu Yinhua will show you his amputated toes and tell you how he whipped off his boots and thick socks, above 28,000 feet, to climb the rocky Second Step.

Everest really meant something back then. In this laboratory for high-altitude alpinism, climbers proved that they could survive an ascent without oxygen (Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, in May 1978, via the Southeast Ridge), and that the peak could be climbed in winter (Poland's Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki, in February 1980, via the same route). But then, by the end of the eighties, Everest was climbed out. By 1992, when the first paying clients arrived and the mountain morphed from climbing challenge to $65,000-a-pop commercial enterprise, its mystique was lost. Examining the tables compiled by Himalayan chroniclers Xavier Eguskitza and Eberhard Jurgalski on the Web site, I calculated that about 1,000 ascents, roughly half of the total, have been made by clients and their guides. I've seen at least one client who'd never worn crampons make it up the North Ridge.

Just because I take the snide side in this argument doesn't mean that I'm losing sleep because the door to a once rarefied adventure has opened to the masses. Nor do I begrudge the jobs that Everesting has created for Sherpas, guides, cooks, porters, and writers like me. What I am suggesting is that Everest could be saved from the insult of this whole debate if climbers would show some imagination and repeat something besides the Southeast and North ridges, the paths of all but a mere 133 Everest ascents. It wouldn't be overrated to test your mettle on the 1979 Yugoslav Route, on the West Ridge, with its technical rock at 27,000 feet; or to try to match Swiss climbers Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan's 43-hour alpine-style speed ascent of the North Face's Japanese Couloir, in 1986; or to make the second ascent of the terrifyingly steep 1982 Russian Route on the Southwest Pillar. Of course, it would mean embracing risk: The four Slovaks who repeated the 1975 British Route on the Southwest Face in 1988 were so exhausted that they couldn't climb down. They're still up there, somewhere.

That sort of brinkmanship isn't for everyone, but the paucity of takers tells us what kind of Everesters we've become. Year in, year out, we retrace paths opened half a century ago, fixing ropes to the same anchors and camping on the same sites as Hillary et al. Long gone are the days when Everest was, well, Everest.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web