Mount Everest is a great equaliser. It doesn’t care how deep your pockets are or which country you came from. One usually pays for a mistake with life here, as it happened recently during the “traffic jam’’ at the roof of the world. It was the second such mishap, if it can be called that, in the past seven years but in reality it was triggered by the same old deadly cocktail of unchecked greed, misplaced pride and lack of respect for the world’s highest peak.
Eleven people from India, United States, Nepal and England died during a single fortnight in May 2019. It was obvious neither the commercial mountaineering companies nor the Nepal Government had bothered to learn the lesson from the equally brutal tragedy in the spring of 2012, when 12 people had perished in the same region, on the same route and almost in the same fashion.
What is particularly galling is that neither the people stuck in the `traffic jam’ of 2019 nor the travel companies which brought them here bothered to look back and learn from the incidents of 2012 before arriving in Nepal. In this age of super-quick dissemination of information on digital highways, it turned out to be a deadly lapse. A few clicks of the mouse could have saved some lives.
Few people realise the dangers hiding behind the blinding beauty of the Himalayas’ higher reaches. This is the typical rain shadow area where sudden drop in oxygen can hit your brain quicker than an approaching bullet train. Leading to high altitude sickness, this single factor has been the cause of several deaths in the past 100 years.
Sagarmatha, as the Nepalis call Everest in reverence, is an unforgiving peak. To scale it require top-notch skills coupled with proper training and some climbing experience. Now come to think of it, a large number of Everest seekers for the past few decades have been rank amateurs. Some of them may not have climbed a hill in their life.
Why is the Everest climbing increasingly looking more like an obstacle to overcome or a race to win at any cost, rather than an act of deep passion which requires purity of spirit and real love of the mountains? Perhaps the dominant trend is the sign of the age we live in. Be that as it may, the ground has become sufficiently ripe for milking unsuspecting consumers, and unbeknownst to them silent forces act upon them from different corners. First comes the cash strapped Nepal Government for whom Everest has become an essential source of foreign revenue. Each climber to Everest has to part with 11,000 US dollars even before he or she sets foot on Namche Bazaar, the place from where the journey to the Earth’s third axis starts.
And then, the ubiquitous travel companies offering “complete Everest package” to the potential climbers; no questions asked. A simple medical certificate is all that is required to secure the permit.
That it was lust for dollars which propelled the private companies, often headed by accomplished mountaineers, to corner as many potential customers as possible with little regard for their safety became clear in the 90s itself. A whopping 65,000 US dollars per person was the going rate then. It was Jon Krakauer who blew the lid, through his remarkable book Into Thin Air, off the noxious arrangements between the travel companies and the Everest junkies who were only too willing to be ushered hand-held to the summit of the world’s highest peak. Mind you that was two decades ago, and since then lot of water must have passed under the bridge. Into Thin Air, incidentally, is also Krakauer’s riveting account of the disaster of 1996 when a sudden rogue storm in the lap of Mt. Everest killed five top mountaineers of the day.
It’s not without reason that the stretch between 8,000 and 8,848 meters (the summit of Everest) has acquired the reputation and the name of `death zone’. Ever since the Britisher George Mallory gave the Everest a global identity with his highly publicised but doomed expedition in 1924, `death zone’ has snuffed out more lives than any other place on the route. The situation seems to have worsened of late. In the region where time management comes down to managing minutes and seconds, with oxygen levels depleting at alarming rate and even extra oxygen cylinders carried by guides and sherpas proving woefully insufficient to the climber, who by now is fast losing consciousness, the mix of experienced and inexperienced climbers on the trail turns out to be the last straw.
When the motley crowd finds itself clipped on the same rope, death usually waits in a corner. The entire group is now forced to bring down its pace to the level of the least experienced person. The bigger danger arises when a climber becomes sick or falls down. Any attempt to save the person slows down the rescuers and put their lives in jeopardy. Hence you have the seemingly harrowing accounts of climbers walking over the lifeless bodies. That’s the correct response, in fact. If they don’t, they themselves would be at the risk of joining the dead.
The Everest mishaps of 2019 and 2012 could not have been more similar in nature and magnitude. Appearing almost like mirror images of each other, several common threads bound the two. Going through the published records, photographs and multiple eye-witness accounts of the events which continued for several days, the one thing which stood tall and imposing was the average climber’s stubborn refusal to listen to reason.
In fact, the nearer the mountaineer appeared before the summit, the harder it became for him or her to turn back to safety. Even when the situation demanded so, even when it became clear that the weather window which made the final assault to the summit possible in the first place had vanished for any number of reasons and the best course would be to retrace the steps immediately. No, the lure of the Everest from such a close quarter obliterated all such thoughts. Perhaps it was the burning desire of past several years or decades to conquer the peak which made timely withdrawal impossible. Again and again it happened that the climbers brushed aside their sherpas’ pleadings. They trudged on, only to embrace death.
The trail to Everest is littered with bodies. Some of these have been lying here utouched for decades, and in many cases death was caused by sheer determination to succeed and rank foolishness on the part of the climbers. A well documented case is that of Shriya Shah- Klorfine, a Canadian national of cheerful disposition whose dream it was to “conquer” Everest. The fact that she had no prior experience of moutaineering did little to upset her resolve.
Surprisingly, Shriya fulfilled her dream, but at a great cost. She reached the summit on 19 May 2012, and died while descending to her camp. Subsequent revelations by her guides and friends underscored two factors which led to her death: she was caught in a `traffic jam’ at the death zone, where at least 200 climbers were latching on to a single rope, and the oxygen supply in her last cylinder ran out just when she needed it the most. According to Shriya’s friend Priya Ahuja, the gasping climber mustered the last of her strength to plead with the sherpas, “save me’’. The sherpas succeeded in bring down Shriya by 100 metres, but those remained her last words.
Fast forward to May 2019. A few days before becoming the tenth victim on the Everest, British mountaineer Robin Fisher actually expressed his apprehensions about the over-crowing on the ‘death zone’ and felt it could “prove fatal.’’
Fisher’s Instagram post a few days before his death is, however, flushed with hope – despite acknowledging the danger which lay ahead. “With a single route to the summit,’’ he wrote, “delays caused by overcrowding could prove fatal. I am hopeful my decision to go for the 25th will mean fewer people.’’
On 25 May 2019, which Fisher had calculated to be his lucky day, he collapsed and died in the `death zone’. His companion, Kristyn Carriere, later wrote on Facebook that “scaling Everest was his ultimate challenge’’, and she was heart-broken by the tragedy.
Everest’s magnetic pull will keep on attracting cimbers, for both death and glory. Perhaps it would be wise to listen once again to the words of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to put his feet on the summit of Mount Everest along with the legendary Nepali sherpa Tenzing Norgay. This was in May 1953.
“While on top of Everest,’’ recalled Hillary, “I looked across the valley towards the great peak Makalu and mentally worked out a route about how it could be climbed. It showed me that even though I was standing on top of the world, it wasn’t the end of everything. I was still looking beyond to other interesting challenges.’’
The author is a senior journalist and filmmaker who writes on environment and wildlife.
This article was first published as a blog.