Leave Everest alone

High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, Michael Kodas.

Kodas is a journalist with a long career at the Hartford Courant, and I occasionally sensed his journalistic need to hold back, to be even-handed and two-sided about events in which he was personally involved. However, this book’s theme is one of personal angst, a vendetta against people who had wronged him and wronged those with whom he was allied. This theme was woven through an otherwise well researched, hard-hitting look at the catastrophe that is commercial mountain climbing.

Commercial mountain climbing expeditions make the worst of their chosen mountains. There is something beautiful in a mountain existing, reaching for the sky and standing as solid as anything can stand. There is an appeal to those heights, and some are fascinated enough to try to reach them. There is the triumph of a skilled, hard working mountaineer reaching the top of one of the world’s great peaks — this should, considering the number of serious high-altitude climbers in the world, be a rare occurrence. There is also the real risk that a climber that has overestimated himself or his partners or who has failed to recognize the unattainability of the route or the peak will die on its slopes.

There’s no similar beauty or pure triumph for me in the thought of a non-serious climber, even one that has experience on lesser peaks, paying someone to guide them to the top of a great peak that they otherwise have no hope of reaching. There’s no glory in simply taking step after step up and down a mountain on well trodden roads that have been prepared for you as the client; eating food transported and prepared for you; staying in tents that are set up and broken for you; breathing bottled oxygen for as much of the climb as possible to keep your body alive and your mind clear, but still having not to think but simply to follow. To treat base camp as a party, wasting away your time there unconcerned about anything other than staying in one spot because you have no work to do, no thought to put into the climb and when and how it will occur. Climbing the highest mountains in the world is not a vacation, it’s not a party and it should never be simply a matter of paying someone else to fix your ropes, set your ladders in place, handle all the details, then pull you to the top. With so much taken care of, with so great a chance of attaining the summit promised and so little risk of death explained, there can be no respect for the mountain. This attitude cheapens the mountain and makes it into a cruel, unforgiving and unregulated tourist trap.

This is the sum of the book: turn mountaineering into a cash sport, and it will attract scavengers looking to make a dime or fund their own climbing on other people’s money; the scavengers will, depending on their role on the mountain, steal your supplies, sell you unsafe supplies, count on you for assistance when they have trouble or trudge past you as you die.

While Kodas focuses too much on his own experiences on Everest, and considering there is no lack of controversy surrounding the past two decades of commercial climbing expeditions to Everest, he does well to broaden the issue, following it around the Himalaya and other ranges in other continents. He shows the tendency of Everest and its well funded patrons to attract the least principled of the field of climbers around the world.

Kodas also discusses the more respected operators on Everest, primarily Russell Brice. (Brice has, of course, faced his own army of critics during his years on the mountain, especially since the televised 2006 abandonment of David Sharp, who was largely unguided on the mountain, but who was left alone, dying, while climbers from several commercial expeditions nearly stepped over him on their way to the summit. Russell’s crew filmed the dying Sharp with their Discovery Channel cameras, thus drawing much of the blame his way.) Brice takes good care of his clients and staff and has a good safety record. However, commercial, guided climbs are the problem, regardless of their behavior. The mountain and its ascent are not something to be purchased. Brice is part of the problem, whether or not he would admit it.

Everest belongs somewhere, perhaps but not necessarily, even, on a list of significant climbs by a significant climber, not on the resume of high-paying amateur. Everest and other prestigious mountains should be climbed by those respectful of the mountain and, as much as is possible with such a mountain, worthy of it, not by someone who thinks of it as the ultimate challenge to enliven their boring life as a salesman, banker, CEO, teacher or factory worker.

If you don’t believe me — if you are thinking maybe you’d try it someday if you could find the money and get yourself into good enough physical shape to satisfy a guide — read this book and see what the experience does to people who save $30,000 and put it in the hands of a guide they believe will drag them to the top, one way or another. Read about the effect of summit fever on those involved in the 1996 disaster as detailed in Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Know what caliber of person is attracted to the lawless, wealthy expanse of camps on both sides of the mountain. Then, leave Chomolungma alone.