Because it's there
AUSTRALIAN mountaineer Roddy Mackenzie will never forget September 10, 1984. For several weeks he and his climbing team - Australians Jon Muir, Craig Nottle and Fred From and New Zealanders Kim Logan and Peter Hillary - had been plotting their way up Mount Everest's dangerous West Ridge. Mackenzie was brewing tea in his tent on a metre-wide ledge at 7800 metres when Nottle and From lost their footing and disappeared down the Hornbein Couloir into Tibet. Both died. The team immediately abandoned the climb and returned home, shattered.
It says a lot about the lure of Everest that Mackenzie, Muir and Hillary all returned in subsequent years and finished the climb. Mackenzie reached the 8850- metre summit via the South-East Ridge route on May 24, 1989, becoming the sixth Australian to reach the highest place on earth.
"Certainly my memories of 1984 made me more concerned about going back, but I still wanted to," he recalls. "I remember that two people had died high on the mountain the day before I reached the summit and I passed five dead people on the way up. Quite frankly, Mount Everest is a charnel-house. Although it's breathtaking and amazing, when you are on the top you feel nothing but great trepidation."
Since Mount Everest was first climbed in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay more than 2250 people - including 26 Australians - have reached the top. Most are searching for fame, adventure and spiritual enlightenment. Many get none of the above.
This week Sir Edmund spoke out angrily over the fate of a British climber who died on the side of the mountain last week while 40 other climbers walked past, intent on reaching their goal. "I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying," Sir Edmund was reported as saying. "The people just want to get to the top. They don't give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress."
Responding to the criticism, disabled New Zealand mountaineer Mark Inglis told Television New Zealand that his party stopped and found David Sharp close to death. A member of his party tried to give the man oxygen, and sent a radio distress call before continuing to the summit.
Inglis, who returned to New Zealand yesterday, said Sharp was in Everest's "death zone", more than 8000 metres above sea level, and there was virtually no hope that he could be carried to safety from that altitude."
I walked past David but only because there were far more experienced and effective people than myself to help him," he said.
"It was a phenomenally extreme environment. It was an incredibly cold day. When we stood on the top at 7am it was minus 38 (degrees)."
Sharp, 34, died in a snow cave 300 metres from the mountain's peak, apparently from oxygen deprivation suffered during his solo descent from the summit.
The circumstances of Sharp's death prompted the rebukes from Sir Edmund Hillary, who said he would have abandoned his own pioneering climb in 1953 to save another life.
"It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say `Good morning' and pass on by," Sir Hillary said. "Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain."
More than 185 people have died on Everest since 1922. These days, on average, about 150 people reach the summit each year, and five die. Eight have died so far this year. Apart from Nottle and From, two other Australians have died on Everest - Tony Tighe in 1972 and Michael Reinberger in 1994, during his eighth attempt on the mountain.
Traffic has increased exponentially. During the 1950s, '60s and '70s fewer than 100 people reached the top. During the 1980s another 180 had joined the list. In the past 16 years, close to 2000 have summitted. History says that 80 per cent of people who try to climb Everest are unsuccessful.
But it is not just the high attrition rate - which includes frostbitten and amputated fingers, toes and noses - that has some questioning the preoccupation that climbers, especially amateur ones, have developed with Everest.
Mackenzie and Muir both have jaundiced views of what Everest has become, describing it as "degraded and overrated". Muir, who reached the summit in 1988, describes the preoccupation with Everest as the "biggest joke in world adventure".
As for a religious experience, forget it, says Mackenzie. "If you are looking for spiritual enlightenment by being in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere, stick your head in a plastic bag," he says.
Mackenzie, who now spends a lot of his time in India, says: "Many people on the subcontinent believe that an ascent of Everest conveys to the climber some manner of greater wisdom in manifold subjects. This is something I do not agree with, but never dispute."
Fuelling Everest-mania are adventure companies willing to charge amateur climbers up to $70,000 to join a team. The website of one such company, New Zealand-based Adventure Consultants, describes Everest as the "ultimate mountaineering adventure". The company boasts a "world record tally" of 73 ascents in 16 years, with climbers of 12 nationalities. It is upfront about the 1996 disaster in which four Adventure Consultants climbers died on Everest, including company owner Rob Hall."
People climb Everest for different reasons," says Adventure Consultants employee Mark Sedon. "It's romanticised by books. For goal-oriented people it's a good target, because it's the highest."
Muir says Everest's reputation as the ultimate in mountaineering is "laughable". "In 1953, the year that Hillary and Tenzing climbed Everest, Austrian climber Hermann Buhl solo-climbed the 8126- metre Nanga Parbat. This was much harder than Everest. I say Everest Shmeverest."
Muir says people are climbing Everest for the wrong reasons, and that the adventure companies must take part of the blame. `Today, sherpas mark the routes, carry the loads and put in the ropes, while 90 per cent of climbers get dragged along in the wake. The people who are prepared to pay $70,000 for this are simply trophy-hunters.
"People get huge sponsorship to do something very ordinary on Everest, but there is no funding for them attempting something truly extraordinary on another mountain. Of course, Everest will always grab headlines because it's the highest."
Sydneysider Sue Fear, who climbed Everest in 2003 via the North Ridge, agrees with Muir that Everest needs a reality check. "When I arrived at the Tibetan Base Camp I had never seen anything like it. Four winners of a TV challenge series were preparing to climb and there were Toyotas and TV cameras everywhere. I remember thinking: `What is this?'" Fear says the issue of sponsorship has caused other problems. "In order to get sponsorship, people have to promote a point of difference, which has become dangerous," she says. "There has been the oldest person, the youngest person, the first person with prosthetic legs, the first diabetic, the first blind person. It's become ridiculous."
Fear says Everest is getting "God-awful crowded", which is a recipe for disaster."
People get this irrational sense of security in numbers. In fact more people can cause bottlenecks and delays. At that altitude, people die. There is no back-up."
For all that, Fear concedes that her life has changed for the better since 2003. She has written a book, received an Order of Australia and joined the Fred Hollows Foundation, which she has been able to promote because of her achievement.
Mackenzie says he got some perspective via a chance meeting with David Schram, Professor of Cosmology at Chicago University, on the path between Everest Base Camp and the Nepalese town of Lukla. "During our discussion he told me that there were 100 million galaxies in the universe and it occurred to me that reaching the top of one mountain on one planet in one galaxy didn't mean much."
Sydney-based Geoff Robb, aged 52, climbed Everest in 1999 as a paying customer and says that if it were not for commercial operators he would not have had the chance. He also says that too many people have an unhealthy "need" to get Everest on their CVs.
Summit day, he says, was the hardest day of his life and he contends that many people don't understand the difficulty, or the risks. "The year I was there three guys spent a couple of hours on the top giving radio interviews, and they all died on the way down."
Robb says being an Everest summiteer has changed his life "marginally" but it has not had a profound effect. "I was fortunate enough to get good weather and I didn't get ill. Luck was on my side. There are significant risks there. If luck is not on your side, then Everest can be a disaster." -- with AP
MOUNT EVEREST FACTS
Age: Everest was formed about 60 million years ago
Elevation: 8850 metres - found to be 1.8 metres higher in 1999
Name in Nepal: Sagarmatha (means goddess of the sky), in Tibet: Chomolungma: (mother goddess of the universe)
Named after: Sir George Everest in 1865, British surveyor-general of India. Once known as Peak 15
Location: Summit ridge separates Nepal and Tibet
First ascent: May 29, 1953, by Sir Edmund Hillary (New Zealand) and Tenzing Norgay (Nepal) via the South Col Route
Fastest ascent (south): Babu Chhiri Sherpa (Nepal), 16 hours and 56 minutes (May 21, 2000)
Fastest ascent (north): Hans Kammerlander (Italy), 16 hours 45 minutes from base camp (May 24, 1996).
Best year on Everest: 1993, 129 reached summit and eight died (ratio of 16:1) Worst: 1996, 98 reached summit, 15 died (a ratio of 6:1)
Highest cause cause of death: Avalanches - about a 2:1 ratio over falls
Corpses remaining on Everest: About 120
Largest team: In 1975, China tackled Everest with a 410-member team
First person to hike from sea level to summit, no oxygen: Tim Macartney-Snape (Australian, May 11, 1990)
Autor: Richard Allen
Further information at: http://www.theage.com.au