“Human life is far more important than getting on top of a mountain“
– Sir Edmund Hillary
Everest at night, as seen from the Nepalese town of Namche Bazaar from which every assault on the south side begins (Photo source: Wikimedia)
When I was little, my eldest bro once went along with our father, to a little village in Nepal called Pokhara in the foothills of the Himalayas. From there, as the crow flies, the 26,550 foot Annapurna-I is at a distance of 20 kms.
One morning they went up on the roof of their hotel just before sunrise and sat staring north. It was going to be a brilliantly clear day but at that moment the mountains, from their foothills upwards, were shrouded by thick mist and it seemed as if the Himalayas did not even exist.
The hotel manager had said to hang on and they would be rewarded with the sight of their lives. And they were. As they waited, the mist at the foothills began to rise. And rise and rise, until my brother was looking directly up into the heavens and the mist had still not cleared the peak. The white of the peak glowed bright orange and glinted in the early morning sun while the top one fifth of the Annapurna remained shrouded. The sheer magnificence of the sight was something that has remained with him.
The Annapurna-I is one of the ‘14 Sisters’, the world’s tallest 14 peaks located in the Karakorram and Tibetan Himalayas, that are the only peaks higher than 8000 meters, an altitude above which lies the “death zone”, where the air contains just 15% of the oxygen it has at sea level and chances of survival even in full gear, beyond 18-24 hours, are nearly zero.
Annapurna-I (centre-right), as seen from the south. Of the 167 successful summit attempts, she has held back permanently in her folds, 63 unfortunates (Photo source: Wikimedia)
The Himalayas, and particularly the Everest, have held our fascination for centuries. Formed when the Indian plate collided against the Asian plate 50 million years ago, the greatest mountain range in the world has been growing ever so gradually taller and inching laterally toward the north-east as new crust emerges and the two plates continue to grind against each other. Since the 1850s when the first attempts at scaling the ‘14 sisters’ began, the Himalayas are believed to have grown taller by about 37 inches.
As the sisters have aged, they have demanded more and more respect from us. Of the 14, the Annapurna’s demands have been the most strident. Believed to be the most hazardous climb, she has claimed as her own, 63 climbers, drawing them into her deep crevasses and shrouding them in her ice. Taken against the 167 who summitted and made it back alive, this is a death-to-summit ratio of 38%. Two of the other sisters, the Kanchenjunga(28500ft) and the K2(28700ft), both similarly extremely hazardous climbs, have been nearly as vengeful as Anna has been toward us.
300 kms east of Anna, striding Nepal’s border with Chinese-occupied Tibet, is Anna’s big sis, Chomolungma (‘Mother Goddess’ in Tibetan), the tallest mountain in the world. In the English speaking world, she is known as ‘the Everest’, but let’s call her ‘Chomo’.
Compared to Anna, Chomo is almost warm and cuddly. Only 250 have succumbed so far, against 5600 successful summit attempts, a death to summit ratio of just over 4%. Of the duo who summited Chomo first, the white guy, Edmund Hillary, became Sir Edmund Hillary even before he had made it back to base camp.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, May 1953 (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
The other guy, (without whom Sir Hillary would probably have ended up as a permanent part of the scenery), happened to be a brown guy, unworthy of knighthood. He was a brave sherpa, named Tenzing Norgay. He got some crummy medal called the George Medal from the UK, the explanation given – ‘because he was Indian’. I hold nothing against Hillary himself though, as he has, in his personal capacity, done an immense amount of charity and social work for the ordinary Nepalese over the years.
After the Tenzing-Hillary summit, the Everest remained the exclusive domain of the elite among expert alpinists for three decades until an American rancher and businessman named Dick Bass became the first non-alpinist to summit it, in 1985, with the help of an alpinist named David Breashears and army of guides and sherpas.
Suddenly it began to seem like the Everest summit was within the reach of the average person and all he or she needed was a lot of cash($100000 per head plus that a summit package operator will charge). Simultaneously, the Nepalese Government began to see the huge amounts of money it could make from the permit fees it could charge every climber and the spin-offs from the surge in tourism.
Bass began the ‘post-modern’ era of Everest summits where folks from all walks of life – school teachers, dentists, firemen, cops, nurses – they all began climbing, aided by tour companies that mushroomed to carve out the niche in a growing new tourism business.
Many never made it back alive, of course. Over the past century, the slopes of the 14 sisters have been dotted with the corpses of climbers who did not make it, strewn along the routes that climbers usually take. If you are scaling the Everest, you will come across these grim reminders as you climb higher and higher, their bodies perfectly preserved, frozen in time, their faces blackened by the sun’s unrelenting ultra-violet radiation. Of course, at that height you’re yourself struggling to survive, so you’ll just step over them and move on.
The dead have grown so recognizable that they have even been given nicknames. ‘Green Boots’ lies on his side in a small open-mouthed cave-like overhang at 27800ft on the North face. He had been an Indian, a member of the crack Indian Special Forces Commandos, the ITBP. He was a part of a 6-man Indian team attempting to summit from the Tibetan side on a stormy afternoon in May, 1996.
Separated from his group, Green Boots had sought refuge from the elements in that overhang. As he sat there shivering in the cold, he slowly froze to death. He was seen by other passing climbers, sitting rigidly upright for a year or two before the wind blew his body over on his side into the position that you see him in, below. Two others from his team also perished, their corpses never found. Green Boots now serves as a wayside marker that climbers use, to gauge how near they are to the summit.
Green Boots, perished 1996, this photo taken by another climber in 2006 (Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)
The cave where Green Boots lies has since been named the ‘Green Boots Cave’. Nine years after he breathed his last, he finally acquired a cave-mate, another climber, who had stopped by to rest in 2005, a 32 year old Britisher, David Sharp. Sharp is still seen sitting there today, another grotesque marker that climbers are forced to pass by on their way to the summit. Sharp’s body froze in place as he sat down to rest, rendering him unable to move.
David Sharp, perished 2005, photo taken 2011 (Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)
Over 30 climbers passed Sharp by as he sat freezing to death. Some heard faint moans and realized he was still alive. They stopped and spoke with him. He was able to identify himself but was unable to move. Some brave ones among the passersby moved him into the Sun in an attempt to thaw him but eventually realized that he would never be able to move. They were forced to abandon him.
Nine years have gone by since and the two must be friends by now, one sitting up and the other lying on his side, frozen in time, immobile, silent against the howling winds. In time, over a century, I am sure Green Boots Cave shall grow into a fraternity, of deluded thrill and fame seeking souls, of whom Green Boots and David Sharp shall have the honor of being the founding members.
Why do we humans bring this kind of torture upon ourselves? Is it the mesmeric challenge, the irresistible fascination of besting the seemingly insurmountable?
Then why do we cheat? Why the supplemental oxygen? Why the Nepalese Sherpas who prepare the trails in advance, fix all the ropes and set up all the tents prior to the start of the summit season? Why the mules to carry all the load? Doesn’t all that seem like the end justifying the means?
In what way then are performance enhancing drugs criminal? Surely, an oxygen cylinder in Alpine climbing, must be the equivalent of steroids in cycling?
An Everest summit attempt has been reduced to a contrived and sterile pantomime today. Preparations begin way ahead of the start of the climbing season in early May. A group of forty of the best Sherpa guides set about breaking trail and fixing ropes and ladders, right up to the summit, an enterprise so hazardous that one in ten don’t return. Breaking trail is when someone has already waded through waist-high snow ahead of you, making it easier for you to do the trek. It also acts as a real trail, showing you the way. Without this initial work, climber deaths would sky-rocket.
So, where is the sport, the adventure, if your hand is virtually being held all the way? Those 16 sherpas who died, being swept away in a deadly avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall in 2014 were doing exactly that – breaking trail and fixing ropes and ladders over crevasses so that amateur climbers who paid $100000 a pop, could get to the top without incident.
Sherpas do many other auxiliary duties, such as preparing the four base camps on the Everest, installing and clearing toilet tents and transporting garbage down the treacherous slopes. I will not even mention the pittance ($125) that they earn per climb and the peanuts that their families get by way of insurance payouts if they perish. All for the great white adventure tourist. The work that a sherpa does is 15 to 20 times more dangerous than the most hazardous job in North America, which is commercial fishing.
Apa Sherpa(a.k.a. “Super Sherpa”), used to hold the record for reaching the summit of the Everest more times than any other person in history. Apa made his 21st summit in May 2011, but he has since been overtaken by another Sherpa, Kama Rita, who made his 24th summit this May, summitting twice in the same week.
I imagine what must have happened that led to the 2014 Khumbu Icefall disaster. For a week prior, Chomo had been rumbling and sending smaller seracs (boulders of ice) crashing onto the Khumbu Glacier intermittently, between periods of calm, as she waited to see if we would get the message and stay the hell out of her pristine slopes.
We didn’t and 06:30am on 18th Aril, 2014 she finally spoke. An already well-known supermarket-sized serac that had been hanging for quite a while off the Everest’s west shoulder broke loose and crashed downward on to the Khumbu Glacier just as droves of Sherpas were carrying supplies into the base camp, obliterating 16 of them instantly.
Chomo sent another stop-fucking-with-me message this May. This time it is the overcrowding and the hours-long waiting in queue at the Death Zone and the subsequent delay in getting back down before sunset.
No, this is not a line outside a rock concert. This year’s climbing season will be defined by this photo, taken 23rd May by a Nepalese military vet, Nirmal Pujra at the Death Zone where the oxygen level is just 15% of that at sea level. This is where you have to stop and take 5-6 breaths for every step that you take. It is also where most deaths occur on the Everest.
The pic shows a line of around a hundred climbers, balancing themselves precariously on a knife-edge ridge just a short distance from the summit. They are tethered to one of only two safety ropes that had been attached to the rock face with pitons, before season began. Just imagine the strain on those pitons…..
The toll so far is 11 and expected to rise into the 20s by the time season is over(Photo source:Wikimedia)
I think that extreme sports or adventure tourism are just delusional arrogance, though there are some who will ask us to see in it the ‘glory of human endeavor’. Remember that Swiss female adventure tourist who was gang-raped in 2013 while trying to cycle through one of the world’s deadliest places, the dreaded Chambal valley in Madhya Pradesh, central India? Later on she said to NDTV that she “had wanted to see if she could make it”.
She is no different from those dead climbers. She and them, they were all asking for it and got what was coming to them. The grieving families back home wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about the glory of human endeavor, let me tell you that.
I have a colleague named Sylvain who is one of those macho types who go on marathons and cross-country swim-a-thons every summer. He loves coming to work in a 2 km/litre Ford truck in winter and a 1900cc Harley in summer.
Sylvain obviously thought that a trek to the Everest Base Camp couldn’t possibly be any worse than the 123km TriMemphre that he regularly ran/swam, so he signed up for a $35000 package that would take him to the Base Camp and back.
The Everest Base Camp is situated at a height of 19500 ft, at the foot of the Khumbu Glacier, a river of ice that creeps down the valley between the Lhotse and the Everest. The Base Camp is where climbers and their back-up crew gather and while the back-up crew settle down, the climbers begin the month-long process of acclimatization before launching their final summit attempts.
On his second day at the base camp, Sylvain developed HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) an affliction where fluid rapidly starts filling up inside the lungs till the victim literally dies of drowning, in his own fluids. HAPE can happen at altitudes usually higher than 8000 ft and is fatal if not treated immediately.
Sylvain was transported down in a chopper, barely alive and later recovered in a Kathmandu Hospital sufficiently enough to fly back home. The entire experience cost him an extra $75000. He thought that the Everest base camp would be a cinch. He is lucky to be alive.
Climbing Everest is a 7-week effort that includes a series of acclimatization rotations. Over a 4-week period climbers climb higher and higher and come back down each time to rest, gradually acclimatizing the body to the lack of oxygen. These rotations take them up as high as Camp-3 at 24,500 ft and then down again, until the time arrives for the actual summit attempt. Beyond Camp-3 is the Death Zone where acclimatization no longer works.
So, lets say you have completed your acclimatization rotations and you’re back at Base Camp gearing up for the final summit push. You cannot wait too long because your body will lose it’s acclimatization and you’ll have to acclimatize all over again. You try to think positive and wait. You wait for a narrow window of calm weather, that appears at a specific time in June every year and remains in place for just 5-12 days, when the jet streams are diverted by seasonal storms on the Bay of Bengal, opening up that tiny weather window.
That’s when you, along with hordes of other climbers, rush upward to the summit. That’s why the overcrowding and the massive line-ups. And the deaths. And the barbarism of stepping over bodies, your oxygen-starved mind unable to even feel sorry for the guy, trying to concentrate on just trudging ahead.
But then I pause and hear the words of T.S Eliot – “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”
Eliot failed to add that those who take that risk foolishly, shall instead find themselves shattered and broken, buried in snow at the bottom of a crevasse.
Recommended for further reading – the ill-fated 1996 Everest disaster, when Murphy’s Law was once again conclusively proven……
Gary Robinson said:
Achyut. I thank God I have always been afraid of heights. The fact that those people are still up on that mountain is chilling. The photographs of the two dead men, Green Boots and David Sharp, is like something from a horror movie. However, I am going to get a copy of Into Thin Air, the library book store has a copy I’ve seen and it’s all mine for only $2, providing no one else has picked it up. As usual your article is excellent and thought-provoking! 🙂
I am so glad you liked it, Gary! Thank you! Adventure tourism is a major foreign exchange earner for Nepal and that is catering to this mania.