EVERY year on Mount Everest seems to generate a milestone of one sort or another, however dubious. The 2007 climbing season that just wrapped up saw the first use of a Ping-Pong table at Base Camp and the first summit attempt by a climber with no arms. But even by these standards, the season of 2006 was weirdly memorable for two reasons that, thanks to the ruthless symmetry between triumph and catastrophe in high-altitude mountaineering, neatly canceled each other out. A total of 480 climbers reached the summit of the world's highest peak: a remarkable figure (the largest number to top out in a single season) and one whose symbolic import was surpassed only by the size of the butcher's bill.
By the final week of May 2006, two climbers had plummeted to their deaths, three had succumbed to pulmonary or cerebral edema, another had died of exposure, two had fallen prey to exhaustion, and three had been buried alive by a collapsing serac. Most of those fatalities had taken place inside Tibet on the north side of Everest, a world utterly cut off from the mountain's more familiar south side. But thanks to the Internet, news of these incidents had reached south-side Base Camp in Nepal. There, on the morning of May 24, photographer Peter McBride and I were sitting in our mess tent with Kami Tenzing, a sad-eyed and enormously capable Sherpa in his forties who served as our guide and translator.
As the three of us morbidly pondered the fact that 11 deaths had just made 2006 the second-worst season ever, we were half-listening to chatter filtering down from the summit on Kami's radio congratulatory whoops announcing the final top-outs of the season. Kami had dialed to a channel used by New Zealand based Adventure Consultants, one of the largest commercial expeditions on the south side, when a young climbing Sherpa named Lakpa Tharke broke in to announce that he had an important message for his boss, Ang Tsering, the company's head Sherpa, or sardar. Given the dark juju in the air, we braced for the worst.
"Ang Tsering, sir," crackled a voice coming down from 29,035 feet. "Could you please inform our liaison officer that Lakpa Tharke, 25, from the village of Phortse, has just posed naked on the summit for five minutes?"
"This is a really bad idea," Kami said after translating the remarks into English. From the other side of Base Camp, Ang Tsering keyed his radio and replied, "Five minutes? Naked? Impossible!"
His skepticism was swiftly echoed as Sherpas all over the mountain began transmitting their own opinions.