Everest a Year Later: Lessons in Futility

Is the past doomed to be repeated?

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It was a startlingly clear day on the North Ridge of Mount Everest in the spring of 1995, just the way every climber sees it in his dreams. I was within sight of the summit, closing in on mountaineering's most popularly celebrated feat. Needless to say, it was a moment I'd been anticipating for a good, long while, yet never did I expect that my summit bid would dissolve into theater of the absurd. Sure, I had seen a lot of recklessness on Everest, but nothing quite this blatant: Just 100 feet from the top, I came upon a guided team that included an American client who, while trudging along beside me, was tripped up by his own feet and started to slide down the cliffs of the 10,000-foot North Face.

I was certain he'd fallen to oblivion, but when I peered down after him, I saw that he was alive, lying on his back on a sloping shelf of rock just a few feet below. A shred of fabric on his windsuit had snagged on a tooth of stone. Still, he was groaning in pain, his oxygen mask had been ripped from his face — and the fabric was beginning to give way. It was a hell of a jam to be in at 29,000 feet; only simple human decency dictated that I become ensnared in his problem.

Thankfully, luck prevailed. I found an old rope nearby, and a Sherpa helped me haul him to safety. Soon thereafter he summited — an event he celebrated, bizarrely, by twirling a lariat he'd carried with him — but he was still disoriented, and getting him down took all day. A Sherpa finally got him moving on his own by shouting, "If you do not keep going, we will all die."

The American had none of the climbing skills, self-awareness, or endurance that should be the minimum requirements for trying an 8,000-meter peak. His footwork was that of a raw novice, and he made no attempt to use his ice ax to arrest his fall — a basic survival tactic. Once he unclipped from the last of the ropes that lined the mountain, he was a time bomb waiting to detonate. And though I eventually grew to like him, I also regarded him as a fool for being where he was.

When I returned to the States after that 1995 trip, I brought a sense of foreboding. What I'd seen — hordes of novices mobbing the mountain and nearly killing themselves — troubled me deeply. Of approximately 180 climbers from 11 expeditions trying the Tibetan side, nearly half were guided clients from commercial expeditions who would have flunked Climbing 101. Most of these folks operated at the threshold of their endurance even at lower altitudes. They stumbled clumsily, with an unforgiving abyss yawning to either side. (One, it was clear, had never worn crampons before.) They had a sheeplike reliance on guides and Sherpas to carry up all provisions and to make all decisions for them. Yet the guides were often just as discombobulated by the altitude — they were, after all, merely human. As for the traditional, noncommercial expeditions, aside from a few experienced hands, most also consisted of Himalayan first-timers. Everest, I learned, had somehow become a classroom for the world's highest introductory course in alpinism.

Then came the events of 1996, and this debacle seems to have become the only thing that titillates the general media about climbing. The now-famous Life cover photo of 22 climbers strung along the South Ridge just before the storm is, I believe, the most disturbing image in climbing history. Yet I fear it has come to be accepted by the general public as the mountaineering norm. In that photo I don't see the glory of summiting Everest; I see a knot of people ready to create a deadly traffic jam should they need to escape a storm.

Sadly, if not yet tragically, the scene on Everest will be much the same when the spring season kicks off this month. Commercial operators report that inquiries about guided Everest ascents have risen by almost 20 percent, entirely due to the crush of publicity, yet most were from the utterly unqualified. "We noticed a definite increase in calls," says Manomi Fernando, program coordinator for Mountain Madness, "but the majority were not legitimate." The latest word from Nepal and Tibet indicates that there will be fewer climbers this spring — 24 teams, down from 30 in 1996 — but the problems of overcrowding will remain: All of the teams in Nepal will be on the same route, the South Col; in Tibet, all but two will climb the North Ridge.

Noncommercial contenders in Nepal will include Japanese, Canadian, Swedish, American, Bolivian, and Malaysian teams, as well as a group from Indonesia guided by Anatoli Boukreev, a survivor of last year's saga. The latter two are large national expeditions, and like the Taiwanese who caused so much trouble on Everest in 1996, those teams are unskilled in high-altitude climbing. The Malaysians, to their credit, did at least train on 23,442-foot Pumori last year, but the Indonesians have not, to anyone's knowledge, undertaken any sort of team trial run.

There will also be five commercial groups on the Nepalese side: three led by British companies, one by New Zealanders, one by an American. The Kiwi attempt, headed by Guy Cotter (now running the late Rob Hall's former company, Adventure Consultants) with help from guide Ed Viesturs, has four clients. The American group, led by Todd Burleson of Washington-based Alpine Ascents International, will have just one, a California businessman in his thirties named Charles Corfield. Operating on Burleson's permit, Eric Simonson will also guide a single client, 68-year-old Leslie Buckland. And like last year, three-time Everest summiter David Breashears will be present, making a documentary about high-altitude physiology in conjunction with Viesturs.

All told, it can be conservatively estimated that 170 people will be clogging the South Col route.

Needless to say, the Tibetan side, with its cheaper permit rates, will also be busy. Noncommercial teams from Kazakhstan, Japan, Belgium, Pakistan, Slovenia, and Croatia, among others, have been granted permission, as well as a commercial operation led by New Zealander Russell Brice. Climbers on the North Ridge will total about 150.

All the guides leading clients in 1997 speak of having been sobered by last year's tragedy. Some point hopefully to a safety advance that will be in wider use this year: fax phones linked to a highly reliable British forecasting service, which provided Breashears and Viesturs several days' notice of approaching storms on their IMAX filmmaking expedition last year. "It gives pretty darn accurate reports of weather and winds, which is crucial," says Viesturs. Most guides also say that it will be easier to enforce critical turnaround times and to deny clients a summit bid if they falter — they can invoke last year's deaths to make their point.

But for this we have little to go on beyond the guides' word. And though I have no beef with those who pay to be escorted up a mountain, nor any problem with the guides who are paid for this service, I do take issue with the grand illusion, championed by the outfitters and swallowed by so many innocents, that mountains above 8,000 meters can be safely guided. As the old saw goes, you pay your money and you take your chances.

In the wake of last year, many trip leaders are speaking more candidly about the business. Cotter, for one, says that he will "pave the way, not baby-sit" his clients. Viesturs, who has guided three trips up Everest in the past six years, says he thinks the trip leaders "broke the rules" last year, failing to enforce turnaround times because they wanted their clients to have a shot at the summit. He and Cotter, Viesturs explains, "are going to be very strict with our people." On the surface, this no-nonsense approach sounds prudent, but when speaking in private, many guides all too willingly reveal what lies at its roots. I recall a conversation with one longtime Everest guide, who told me of a certain group that planned to hire him. "Do they have any experience?" I asked. "No," he replied, "but that doesn't bother me. If they pay me, I'll take them as far as they can go. This is about business, not climbing." I found this attitude cynical, yet no worse than that of another guide who said, "Whenever I'm on the mountain with these idiots, I regard that they're trying to kill me."

An unsettling sentiment — but also one that's hard to refute. Many of those around me in '95 had seen fit to skip training climbs up lesser Himalayan peaks and had motored right onto the big one. Beyond the incredibly lucky lariat-wielding American, there was his elderly French teammate, who had to be pushed from behind and pulled from above simply to get up the mountain. Yet when a Sherpa tried to overtake him on the home stretch to the summit, the Frenchman sternly stopped his escort with a mittened backhand to the chest — he had paid a boodle of cash for this moment and wanted to get there first. Equally troublesome, to my mind, were the fellows who made the first Turkish and Romanian ascents of Everest — men who ultimately needed to be rescued but who nonetheless returned to considerable fanfare in their home countries. Neither of them thanked me or the others who helped them down and to this day still don't believe they were ever in trouble.

The Turk, Ali Nasuh Mahruki, was accompanied by a very capable Russian guide; the Romanian, Constantin Lacatusu, was from another commercial group. They had moderate climbing experience and had been guided up other mountains, but none like Everest. Both hoped to make oxygenless ascents, yet they carried oxygen anyway. Struggling in the thin air and weighed down by the heavy equipment, they resorted to using it. And though most sensible parties were summiting around 10 a.m., Mahruki reached the top in midafternoon. Lacatusu summited at dusk.

High winds moved in that night. The alarm was sounded when the guide radioed to say that his charges were exhausted and might not make it through the night. In the morning I climbed toward them with two bottles of oxygen. When I reached Lacatusu, he refused it, under the misconception that he'd made an oxygenless ascent and would be spoiling the feat. Soon Mahruki appeared, staggering down an avalanche-prone slope, headed for a cliff. I told him to clip into the ropes, but he refused, muttering something about not needing them.

Since even Himalayan veterans find clear thinking nearly impossible above 8,000 meters, it's understandable, given their desperate states, that these two don't grasp that they nearly died. Indeed, novices on Everest never seem to remember, or at least choose not to admit, the real and humbling circumstances of their ascents. But there was something I saw while rescuing this pair that struck me, in an odd way, as indicative of the problems on Everest — the wanton disregard for preparation, the blatant me-firstism, the utter lack of respect for both the mountain and the sport. On the way down I noticed that the ice ax the Romanian was using was mine. A few days earlier, it had been stolen from outside my tent.

Outside correspondent Greg Child is the author of two books on high-altitude climbing. Neither guiding nor guided, he has made 13 expeditions in the Himalayas, summiting K2, Everest, Gasherbrum IV, and Trango Tower.

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