Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Primal Wilderness Rambling From Mount Everest

"Ed, my boy, this is Everest. You've got to push it a bit harder."

"It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves." - Sir Edmund Hillary

The top of the world is a dangerous place that draws climbers to its slopes each year. Mount Everest, the highest point on the planet, has always represented a unique challenge and a dream for many climbers, some of whom haven’t earned the right to make a go at scaling its heights.

The mountain was first measured back in the 19th century by British survey teams at a distance. Despite the insistence of George Everest, a retired Surveyor General of India, that mountains retain local names, the peak was dubbed in his honour. Through the years that followed, European climbers schemed of ways to reach the summit before anyone else.

The first serious attempts were made by British expeditions in the 1920s, climbing from the Tibet side. These efforts were marked by the deaths of porters, then by the deaths of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine in the final attempt. They were last spotted on a ridge of the North face, just before disappearing in a snowstorm. Mallory’s body was found in 1999, but the question whether he and Irvine made the summit remains unanswered. Given the circumstances, I doubt they were able to.

In the early fifties, expeditions returned to the mountain, approaching from the Nepalese side. Both the British and Swiss had ambitions to summit first. As fate would have it, the British succeeded in the form of a New Zealander and a Sherpa. Edmund Hillary, a tall lanky beekeeper, and Tenzing Norgay, a short Sherpa who knew the Himalaya well, were in the 1953 expedition. It was this pair, selected by the group leader, who made the summit together. Hillary wrote about it in his book High Adventure with the interesting phrasing of the moment: “a few more whacks of the ice axe, a few very weary steps, and we were on the summit of Everest.”

It didn’t matter to Hillary and Tenzing who had touched the summit first. They did it as a team. It was only years later, under pressure from Indian nationalists, that Tenzing revealed it was Hillary on the summit first. It was an astonishing acheivement. The two men returned to base camp and the world beyond as heroes. They also remained friends ever after. Hillary, who could easily have rested on his laurels for life, instead established the Himalaya Trust to build schools and hospitals in the mountains that meant so much to him.

Many have followed in the path of Hillary and Tenzing, establishing new routes up the mountain. Some have been qualified climbers, who paid their dues on other peaks to gain crucial experience before taking on the Himalaya. Others, particularly in the last twenty-five years, have been unqualified. Commercial expeditions often head up the mountain with climbers who don’t have the skills needed to be there. More disturbingly, they don’t respect the mountain as it deserves. They pay huge sums to group organizers to get them on the summit, which puts pressure on the leaders to do just that. For many, going to the top is just an ego trip and one more thing to brag about.

I tend to think of them as the rich dentist crowd. They’re the kind of people who talk incessantly about the summit and the summit alone. Well, I’m a climber, and though I've never been anywhere near the Himalayas, I can tell you that the sort of person who speaks only of the summit isn’t someone I want to climb with. Mountaineering is about the experience and the journey, not just the destination. If all you’re doing is stroking your ego by tagging the top, you have no respect for the mountain and no business being there.

Everest has claimed many lives over the years, in falls, avalanches, and the health threats that exist above a certain altitude. In the so called Death Zone of the final three thousand feet, life can’t sustain itself for long. The body starts to waste away, thinking becomes next to impossible, and putting one step ahead of the next is a tough task. Here commercial expeditions bring climbers who haven’t built up the experience they need. Here bottlenecks occur during the brief climbing season each year. Too many climbers on the highest part of the mountain is a recipe for disaster. More so, when they lack the experience, instinct, and survival skills needed if the slightest thing goes wrong.

Every once in awhile, things go seriously, seriously wrong. Mistakes are made then climbers die. In 1996, a storm moved in and took eight lives. It’s a pattern that repeats itself, and last year was no different with more deaths on the mountain, including some who had no business being there.

It’s a curious thing. The experience of climbing in such a place brings out the worst and best in people. There are instances in which climbers bypass others dying on the path, as if the sight means nothing. By contrast, some climbers let go of the summit to help another in distress. I know I’d rather trek with the latter sort. Going to the roof of the world is still an idea in my head, but only after I've earned the right. I need to gather much more experience before being ready for it, unlike the spoiled dentist who arrives at base camp with no idea how to secure a crampon and utterly dependant on the people around him to reach the top. Such self-absorption is inappropriate for this deadly earnest team sport.

Tenzing Norgay said a climber must always treat the mountain with respect and use caution in the face of danger. This applies to Everest and any peak. It’s the mountain that decides if you can ascend or not and it will kick your ass, if you’re not careful. A responsible mountaineer keeps in mind that you can probably come back, if you have to descend now. Too many scale Everest these days with no respect for the mountain let alone the journey. For them, the peak is an item on their bucket list. So, if they find themselves in trouble, they expect someone else to save their neck. Such a person does not belong on any mountain.

William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.


  1. Thanks for hosting me today, Lyn! It was a pleasure to write this one.

  2. And he does have one grand love affair going on with mountains!

  3. William try
    Whitney and McKinley first, before heading over to the Himalayas. I've hiked as far up as 12k but years ago. Beautiful piece and I agree that climbing Everest should entail backpacks full of caution.

  4. Great post, William! I especially like your comments about those who focus on the summit, rather than the journey. Unfortunately, as you point out, Everest has become a plaything for the rich and many don't realize how deadly it can be. It seems odd that people think they can beat it without much preparation in spite of the fact experienced climbers die every year attempting to climb it.
    I personally would much rather not make it to the top, knowing that I had prepared myself properly and given it my all, rather than dying trying to be a hero.
    Thanks for the post!

    Barry Finlay, award winning author of Kilimanjaro and Beyond

  5. As a teenager and young adult, I used to love backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas every summer. I have always been grateful to the woman who first taught me how: how to pack light, how to not defile water sources, etc. She had a healthy respect for nature in the spirit of John Muir, and I adopted her practices.

    As much as I love summer backpacking, I am wimp in the face of those who camp in the winter, those who use ropes to climb rocks, those who walk up ice. You have my respect!

  6. Thanks for the great article, William. Though it didn't prepare me to climb Everest, you blazed a perfect trail for me to come along behind and plug my upcoming book Fresh Wind & Strange Fire: Spiritual Adventures In Primal Mexico. Here's a bit from the chapter on my ascent of Mexico's Pico de Orizaba.

    "The maker of the mountain never told me to conquer it or summit in record time. Only those tiny ants who keep coming out of the base hut below to pee away a few more of their dying cells say stuff like that. Some may brag they ascended much faster. I think this is like boasting one conquered a woman by charging down into her valley, taking no notice of the incredible heart, mind, soul, eyes, neck and torso along the way. A fool’s errand no doubt.

    Like a mountain goat, I plod contentedly, stopping often to smell the flowers, scan the changes, or thank the artist. If you’re gonna mount a mountain, don’t rush to the climax, make love to her as if you have nowhere else to hurry off to when you’re finished, because we never actually tread the same path again."

    William, thanks for letting me piggy-back on your expedition without booking ahead. It seems oxygen-deprived minds think alike. I hope this book, like your columns, will be an inspiration to our readers on their little journeys and the big one.