National Geographic : 2013 Jun
98 national geographic • June 2013 the death two months earlier of Wyoming climb- er John “Jake” Breitenbach in an accident in the Khumbu Icefall, the 1963 American expedition became a tale of heroic success, the moon shot of mountaineering. Our team was on Everest to mark the anni- versary of that expedition. Yet as we witnessed, the mountain has become an icon for every- thing that is wrong with climbing. Unlike in 1963, when only six people reached the top, in the spring of 2012 more than 500 mobbed the summit. When I arrived at the apex on May 25, it was so crowded I couldn’t find a place to stand. Meanwhile, down below at the Hillary Step the lines were so long that some people going up waited more than two hours, shivering, grow- ing weak—this even though the weather was excellent. If these throngs of climbers had been caught in a storm, as others were in 1996, the death toll could have been staggering. Everest has always been a trophy, but now that almost 4,000 people have reached its sum- mit, some more than once, the feat means less than it did a half century ago. Today roughly 90 percent of the climbers on Everest are guided cli- ents, many without basic climbing skills. Having paid $30,000 to $120,000 to be on the mountain, too many callowly expect to reach the summit. A significant number do, but under appalling conditions. The two standard routes, the North- east Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, are not only dangerously crowded but also disgustingly pol- luted, with garbage leaking out of the glaciers and pyramids of human excrement befouling the high camps. And then there are the deaths. Besides the four climbers who perished on the Southeast Ridge, six others lost their lives in 2012, including three Sherpas. Clearly the world’s highest peak is broken. But if you talk to the people who know it best, they’ll tell you it’s not beyond repair. Russell Brice, 60, runs Himalayan Experience, the largest and most sophisticated guiding op- eration on Everest. Himex, as it’s known, has led 17 expeditions to Everest, on both the Nepal side and the China side. Brice, a Kiwi transplanted to Chamonix, France, is famous for running a tight ship. Every climber and Sherpa on a Himex team is issued a radio and is required to check in every day. Each is also required to wear an avalanche transceiver, a helmet, a harness, and crampons and to attach themselves to safety lines. (During the spring 2012 season a Sherpa from another team failed to clip the safety lines and fell to his death in a crevasse.) To avoid getting into trouble, clients must keep pace or turn around. Despite the relatively large size of Brice’s teams—as many as 30 clients matched with 30 Sherpas—they leave a small footprint on the mountain, removing all of their excrement and rubbish, a practice not followed by most teams. Cleanup efforts by the Sagarmatha Pol- lution Control Committee, a sort of Everest city council, have improved conditions at Base Camp (human waste goes into barrels that are later removed), but they haven’t had much im- pact higher on the mountain. Camp II, at 21,240 There will always be people who want to climb the world’s tallest peak, because there’s more to being on Everest than getting hemmed in by crowds or confronted by heaps of trash. n The 2012 Everest expedition was funded in part by your national geographic society membership. view the team’s blog, video, and instagram photos at ngm.nationalgeographic.com/everest.