31 March 2008

But wait! There's more mountaineering!

If I were a youngster with a yen for climbing Mt. Everest, I would be crushed by the news in High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, a new nonfiction book by photojournalist Michael Kodas. The poor author went with his wife to Everest on the 2004 Connecticut Expedition, but not only did they not summit but he also discovered a lethal minefield of treachery, theft, and disdain for human life. It's enough to seriously shake anyone's faith in humans, especially the ones lurking around Everest's Base Camp, the ones standing between the aspiring and sometimes naive climbers and the summit. Guides, sherpas, climbers -- no one seems to be immune to the attractions of lots of cash, the money raised for expedition costs, for tips, for gear, even the money that is given for spent oxygen bottles brought down from the mountain. This is a horrifying trek that amplifies some of the issues brought to light in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and had me reading until 3 a.m. with its tales of guides leaving their dying clients on the mountain, guides stealing the photos of others who reached the summit so they could claim they had climbed to the top, and those returning to camp after climbs to find their tent, gear, and provisions gone. Perhaps the saddest thing is the parade of people who pass various climbers and sherpas in need of rescue without stopping to help. And there are other disturbing things, like the fact that anyone at Everest can call themselves a guide -- and many do without any credentials or without the ones they say they have -- and the fact that a lot more than the weather can turn people or teams back during any given summit bid (people stealing critical ropes and equipment, the "8,000 meter toll road" trick in which bandits demand more cash from surprised mountaineers for the use of higher ropes or to pass them on the path). I'd better not spoil it any more, but it's an irresistible tale and I hope it results in changes in how traffic on Mt. Everest is managed.

That distressing parade of people past the dead and dying also raises some of the same haunting questions posed by author and filmmaker Joe Simpson in The Beckoning Silence, which I recently wrote about here, and by Mark Obenhaus' recent film Steep: is it worth all the deaths? Climbing and skiing big mountains just has never compelled me enough to risk my life (and when I went up Long's Peak when I was 14, not only was that peak only 14,000 feet tall, but I also too young to comprehend the possibility that climbing that high could be that risky). Nor do I believe I could walk past another person who was clearly freezing to death, but clearly the lack of oxygen has more profound effects than can be anticipated from lower altitudes. These films and stories make me nervous enough about getting frostbite on my bike or on a ski lift; I'm not about to go so far. But some people will stop at nothing.

1 comment:

vanillagrrl said...

There was a great letter to the New York Times responding to a review of a PBS Frontline show about Everest that aired in May of this year. The writer put it so well: "Nowadays, almost anyone who doesn't have health and fitness as top priorities in eating is said to have an 'eating disorder.' Climbing Mt. Everest is at least as dangerous as bulemia [sic], but no one says such climbers have a mountaineering disorder."