Giving up the dream of conquering Mount Everest

Along with all the others, I once dreamt of climbing the world’s highest mountain. I grew up in the 1980s when conquering Everest was an unattainable goal as perfect and unspoiled as the gleaming white snow at its summit. But that idealism has been tainted by displeasing realities which highlight the commerciality and environmental carelessness of pursuing an imperialist ideology that is badly out of date.

If it wasn’t enough to receive news reports of a horror season this year for climbers, leaving eleven dead in little more than a two-week period, then surely the video clip showing climbers backed up in a line, queuing for their turn to reach the summit – as if they’re waiting to board the Monorail at Disneyland – illustrates that climbing Everest has become an arbitrary and pointless endeavour. If Everest’s appeal has ever reached a low point, this is it. The once revered quest has been reduced to a conveyor-belt aesthetic, which begs the question of why climbing Everest still holds such an inexplicable allure. Does reaching the summit still encapsulate all the romance and spirit of adventure it once did? Surely not. Doug Scott, the first Briton to climb the 8848-metre south-west face of Mount Everest, in 1975, recently commented:

Serious mountaineers no longer have Everest on their radar. Hauling yourself up a fixed rope to the summit is not adventurous climbing. Why go up the same route as everyone else when there are others less climbed?

Let’s debunk the myth that climbing Everest is an idealistic and intrepid endeavour. Aside from the corpses that resurface every season when the mountain’s glaciers melt due to global warming, there’s the consideration of the deterioration to the ecological environment. To date, approximately 5200 men and women have climbed Everest, leaving behind a landscape littered with tons of plastic bottles, food tins, excrement and left-over mountaineering equipment, including ropes and tents.

The Washington Post refers to the human waste on Mount Everest as a ‘fecal time bomb’. An article entitled ‘Vanity, Pollution and Death on Mount Everest’ published by the United Nations University details the deleterious effect to both the two standard routes, the Northeast Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, as human waste leaks out of glaciers. The author explains:

Given the lack of an efficient solid waste management system, for decades expedition members emptied their bowels wherever they could when they had the urge. As a result, human feces have accumulated in the snow, and streams of excrement are periodically regurgitated by the glaciers up in the mountain.

Mounting deaths are unsurprising, as inexperienced climbers attempt to subjugate the ferocity of Mount Everest. Unpredictable conditions close to the summit – including blizzards, avalanches and earthquakes –further exacerbate the danger of the quest. Altitude sickness can strike indiscriminately, and climbing Everest still poses one of the most gruelling physical and mental challenges in the world. Hence, it should be an experience limited to professionals rather than unqualified amateurs, thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies. Scott advocates towards exercising personal responsibility and recommends that there should be a prerequisite requirement, including mountaineering credentials of having ‘climbed one if not two 7000m peaks elsewhere in Nepal.

The sport of mountaineering originated around the mid-1800s, when climbing was incorporated within scientific pursuits. Romanticism in art and literature – which peaked in the first half of the nineteenth century – set the stage for the Golden Age of Alpinism. Romanticists portrayed nature as sublime and glorified mountain climbing for the spiritual exaltation attained by immersion in such unrestrained landscapes. Caspar David Friedrich’s painting ‘Wander above the Sea of Fog’ positions a contemplative figure, seen from behind, overlooking a rocky precipice with fog stretch ahead, indefinitely. The painting creates a contradictory impression, ‘suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it’. Such was the ambiguous allure and mystification of nature – this strangeness in the ordinary evoked feelings of the uncanny, or what Freud would later refer to as the unheimlich. The old Romanticist ideology, combined with advances in technology, science, and engineering – in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth – forged an imperialistic desire and ambition to conquer and tame nature.

The taint of imperialism applies to Mount Everest beginning with its very name. Nestled in the Himalayan mountain range, between China and Tibet to the north and India to the south, the mountain was named by the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1865 after British surveyor and geographer George Everest, who served as Surveyor General of India during colonial rule. But of course it already had other names. The Tibetans call it Qomolangma, or ‘Holy Mother’, a name that personifies the mountain as a creative and controlling life force. Similarly, the Chinese call the mountain ‘Holy Mother Peak’, which references the spiritual sanctity of the mountain due to its perceived proximity to heaven.

Everest has had an eventful, chequered, history and its share of notoriety due to the human nature stories of mountaineers attempting the climb. One of the stories I find most compelling is that of British climber, George Mallory, who attempted to summit Everest on three separate occasions. When he was asked to explain his desire to climb the mountain, Mallory replied: ‘Because it’s there’. The line became famous and helped perpetuate the enigma of the Everest’s perilous reputation and the elusiveness of the endeavour. Mallory’s third and last expedition would prove to be a difficult one, with unfavourable weather conditions resulting in high wind and deep snow. On 8 June 1924, Mallory and his climbing companion, Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine, started out from their last camp at 8170 metres. Neither were seen again until Mallory’s body was found, in 1999. Rumour has it that he had intended to leave a photograph of his wife on the summit, and the fact that the photograph was not in his pocket was taken by some as proof that he achieved his goal and died on the way back down the mountain.

The summit was officially reached on 29 May 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay from the south side in Nepal. Although recognition is given to Hillary for being the first man in the Western world to make a successful ascent of Everest, Norgay’s efforts are all but forgotten. Although the Sherpas are prolific climbers – known for their ancestral connection to the regions of Nepal and the Himalayas – their achievements have been traditionally relegated to the rank of ‘guide’ rather than equal. Climbing Everest, and mountaineering, is a collaborative effort reliant on teamwork. It is a peer endeavour rather than an individual pursuit. Recognising this comradery and, perhaps, as a sign of reverence, Hillary refused to have his photo on the summit of Everest, but instead took a photo of Norgay with his ice-axe. This seemed only fitting as in the early stages of the climb, Hillary fell while scaling a wall and it was the quick-wittedness of Norgay – who secured Hillary’s rope with that very same ice-axe – which saved Hillary’s life.

It is the Sherpas who have the dangerous chore of retrieving dead bodies from the death zone, which involves locating the body and placing it on a sled with rigging and tie ropes, and then manoeuvring it down the mountain. Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, spoke to the BBC of the dangers involved. As he put it, ‘even picking up a candy wrapper high up on the mountain is a lot of effort, because it’s totally frozen and you have to dig around it.’ Picture retrieving a body that might weigh up to eighty kilograms, and the perilous nature of the mission becomes clear.

It is estimated that there are currently more than two hundred bodies on Mount Everest, most of which have remained in limbo for decades. In 2016, the Government of West Bengal paid US$90000 to recover the bodies of two Bengali climbers. Today, the cost of final repatriation is estimated to be US$70000 per body. The Conversation gruesomely reports that ‘climbers and Sherpas lie tucked into crevasses, buried under avalanche snow and exposed on catchment basin slopes – their limbs sun-bleached and distorted.’ The most well-known remains are those of Tsewang Paljor, a young Indian climber who lost his life in the infamous blizzard of 1996. Paljor, who was known as ‘Green Boots’, has become a macabre landmark in death as climbers have had to step over his legs protruding out of the snow during seasons of light cover.

Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, relies on the climbing industry to bring in US$300 million (AU$433 million) each year. Sherpas risk their lives to earn a living for their families, earning a paltry US$5000. In stark contrast to the cashed-up, thrill-seeking tourists who risk not just their own lives but also those of others, pay between US$60000 and US$130000 per person for the opportunity to pursue a self-interested goal.

Some might compare the experience of standing on the highest peak of Everest to that of being in space. The verisimilitude is said to occur as a result of the remoteness and isolation felt by being in a barren, inhospitable climate that is devoid of all life forms, as nothing grows or inhabits Everest at that altitude. Perhaps this was true once, but I don’t believe it anymore. My mind now perceives Everest as despoiled and injured. It would be inspiring to think that Everest might occupy this visionary space in my mind again one day. But this could only occur at a time when controls are put in place to limit the adventure-seekers who feel the need to vanquish and tame what is fierce and wild and beautiful. Perhaps in the future we could enjoy the simple pleasure of admiring Everest, instead of having to conquer it.


Image: Everest mount from Ngozumpa tse, Wikimedia Commons

Suzi Swann

Suzi Swann is a Melbourne-based fiction and nonfiction writer.

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