Mountain Madness

Remember the lessons of Everest 1996? Nobody else seems to. The world's highest peak is more crowded than ever—and ripe for a deadly reckoning.

The long walk: Climbers marching up Everest's south side to Camp IV, May 15, 2002     Photo: Bill Crouse





"PEOPLE STILL THINK CLIMBING the Southeast Ridge of Everest is an adventure," says American climber Pete Athans, 45, leader of the Everest 50th Anniversary Expedition, who summited the mountain for the seventh time this spring. "It's more of an adventure figuring out the New York subway system."
Athans is exaggerating, but he's got a point: Now more than ever, the world's tallest mountain is a high-altitude mosh pit. After the 1996 disaster that claimed the lives of eight clients and guides, it was assumed that the masses might be wary about taking on Everest. But each year hundreds of climbers head for Base Camp, upping the chances for mayhem if, as happened in 1996, the weather turns nasty at the wrong moment. On May 16, a 61-person horde made the summit from the Nepal side, shattering last year's record of 47 ascents in a single day. In all, about 250 climbers and Sherpas took on Everest's Southeast Ridge this year, with 91 topping out.

"This is the world's largest stage," says 47-year-old climbing veteran Eric Simonson, an American who organizes yearly trips to the Big E for International Mountain Guides. "Every year there's a whole new group of actors that show up. Some of them give good performances, and some of them give bad performances."

Among this year's dramatis personae were Sean Swarner, a 27-year-old American who became the first known cancer survivor to summit (and whose previous experience was limited to climbing some of Colorado's fourteeners); Americans Phil and Susan Ershler, 51 and 46, the first married couple to complete the so-called seven summits; Ellen Miller, 43, the first American woman to top out on Everest from both the north and south sides; Tamae Watanabe and Tomiyasu Ishikawa, Japanese climbers who at 63 and 65 became the oldest woman and man to summit; Apa Sherpa, 41, who broke his own record by chalking up his 12th ascent; and Tashi Tenzing, 36, the grandson of Tenzing Norgay, and Peter Hillary, 47, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary—both of whom topped out.

Add unsuccessful climbs by the first American all-women team, a 72-year-old man from Chicago, and several other failed "firsts," and you've got one manic mountain. "It smacks of people trying to be creative," says Athans. "I mean, Peter Hillary is the oldest New Zealander to climb Everest? What kind of record is that?" Midge Cross, a 58-year-old member of the Ford-sponsored 2002 American Women's Team, sees the packaging of Everest attempts becoming even more absurd. "The next thing, someone's going to carry the biggest ball of string to the summit."

Lest we forget, Everest is still very dangerous: Two climbers died on the mountain this year, 26 have died since 1996, and there have been plenty of near misses. "There are a lot of people who climb Everest that barely get down, but you never hear about the close calls," says Ed Viesturs, 43, who has been involved in more than his share of high-altitude rescues. "Everest can turn on you like that," adds Henry Todd, the controversial British outfitter. "It can have a really sharp tail." The Toddfather should know—one of the climbers who died this year was a client of his.

But the show will go on, and Everest 2003—the 50th anniversary of Hillary and Tenzing's first ascent—is shaping up to be the biggest blockbuster of them all. The Nepal Ministry of Tourism has restructured climbing fees, and the golden-jubilee season is sure to be jammed with hopefuls. Elizabeth Hawley, the 78-year-old mountaineering matriarch who has been meticulously recording Himalayan climbs since 1963, puts it simply: "Everest, next year. Do not try to show up. No parking space."

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