The wars of mountaineers are fought on three fronts: against the mountain, against the elements and against themselves. In the rarified air, thousands of metres above sea level, they come to test their skills as climbers and the limits of their endurance as human beings. Armed with crampons, pitons, ropes and picks, they come, to paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary, to ‘knock the bastards off’. As the highest point on Earth, to conquer Everest is, in the western imagination, to overcome the ultimate natural obstacle to man’s supremacy. No longer inconsequential, on Everest’s summit men and women are literally on top of the world, looking down on creation. Like God. Or Karen Carpenter.
Somewhere over 7,000m you get closer to both. This is the ‘death zone’, the altitude above which the amount of oxygen in the air cannot sustain life. Mental and physical functions are impaired. Vital systems start to shut down. Human beings begin to die. It’s hard to imagine that a mountain can too, but from our lowly positions, dwarfed by its 8,848m bulk, and through a collective effort in the true spirit of mountaineering – the climbers at the rock face, the support team in our cars, homes, factories and power stations – we are bringing Everest to its knees.
A thaw point
In May 2008, China closed access to Everest through Tibet in order to clear a way for its climbers to trek Beijing’s Olympic torch to the summit. Nepal was pressured to deploy army and police to ensure nobody was above 6,500m for the 10 days the Chinese were on the mountain. Four climbers with pro-Tibet flags were deported from base camp. Images were relayed live from the top of Everest of jubilant climbers shouting ‘long live China’ and ‘long live Tibet’. PR ambition doesn’t get much higher. The Free Tibet campaign decried it as a stunt to underscore China’s ‘baseless claims to sovereignty over Tibet’.
To facilitate the venture, a month earlier China had completed a 150 million yuan ($21.5 million) project to widen and tarmac the 67-mile road to base camp. Despite assurances the proper environmental surveys had been carried out, there was concern that the permafrost had been damaged in the ecologically sensitive area, already markedly affected by global warming.
The Himalayas are one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world and still growing by 5mm every year. What tectonics giveth, however, climate change taketh away. On Everest’s northern slopes, the vast valley of seracs – huge pinnacles of ice – that once covered Rongbuk glacier is receding. Pictures released by Greenpeace in 2007 show to what extent: a 1968 photograph of the ice valley has, after 40 years, become a desert of rocks. Like glaciers the world over, Rongbuk itself is faring no better: in 2002, a UN Environment Programme-backed team found it had retreated 5km up the mountain since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first summit. Speaking out on climate change in 2007, Peter Hillary said the base camp his father had used in 1953 had sunk 40m, from 5,320m to 5,280m, as a result of the great melt.
Glacier retreat threatens lives and livelihoods: a quarter of the world’s population relies for water on the Ganges, Indus, Yangtze and Yellow, rivers whose sources are found among the shrinking glaciers of the Himalayas. The Tibetan plateau is called ‘the third pole’ and ‘the water tower of Asia’, but for how much longer? The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a stark warning in 2007: ‘Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world. The likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.’
A more pressing danger is flooding. A 2007 UN-supported study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) presents evidence of significant glacial retreat in China, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Tibet. Receding glaciers leave behind glacial lakes, which fill so suddenly they overflow the moraine (debris carried and deposited by glaciers) that contains them, leading to glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Nepal has suffered 15, the worst of which was triggered by an avalanche at the foot of Everest in 1985, releasing 350 million cubic feet of glacial water from Dig Tsho lake. A 50ft wave travelled down-valley for 50 miles, wiping out a $1.5 million hydropower plant and 14 bridges, inundating cultivated land and costing many lives. As many as 200 of the 9,000 Himalayan glacial lakes are GLOF risks, according to the report. As many as 40,000 Sherpas live at the base of Everest.
Blasphemy and binbags
Mountaineering is a peculiarly western phenomenon. As travel writer Robert Macfarlane points out in his book Mountains of the Mind, the pantheistic Sherpas of the Khumbu region of Nepal, for whom gods dwell in natural features, ‘do not have a word in their language for the “top” of the mountain’. Before the first assault on Everest, in 1922, ‘the notion of climbing the summit of a high snow mountain existed somewhere between downright lunacy and outright blasphemy’.
Seven Sherpas were killed by an avalanche during that unsuccessful bid to climb Chomolungma, ‘Mother Goddess of the World’, the first reported deaths on the mountain.
Sherpas shy away from littering, burning rubbish, cooking meat and immoral behaviour on the mountain, but western climbers are not bound by the same religious propriety. Indeed, from the western perspective, the Mother Goddess has become merely a prize to be paid for, conquered, won. Everest, like nature itself, as cultural historian Richard Tarnas observes in The Passion of the Western Mind, is merely ‘a mindless, passive feminine object, to be penetrated, controlled,
dominated, and exploited’.
Nepal first introduced climbing fees to restrict numbers and protect safety and the environment, writes mountaineer John Krakauer in his book Into Thin Air, an account of the disastrous day in May 1996 when eight people died on Everest, but also to increase ‘the flow of hard currency into impoverished national coffers’. The cost of a permit rose from $2,300 in 1991 to $10,000 in 1992 and, with numbers of climbers still growing, to $50,000 for a team of five in 1993, with a four-team
limit per season. He writes, however, that: ‘China charged only $15,000 to allow a team of any size to climb the mountain from Tibet and placed no limit on the number of expeditions each season’. With hundreds of its Sherpas out of work, Nepal cancelled the four-team limit in 1996, but upped the cost of a seven-climber permit to $70,000. In May 2008, it slashed permits by 75 per cent for summer and winter seasons, and by 50 per cent for autumn. The popular pre-monsoon spring season was frozen at $70,000, though the climb limit was increased to 15 teams a season.
Visitor numbers may have dipped this year – arrival figures into Kathmandu airport in January were down 15.8 per cent on 2008 – yet the climbers still come despite the financial cost, and Nepal’s government still encourages them, despite the environmental cost. Between 1953 and the start of 2008, there had been 3,679 successful ascents by 2,436 individuals, with 264 summits in 2003, 330 in 2004, 460 in 2006 and almost 600 in 2007. Most of the 210 people that have died making the attempt remain on the mountain, monuments to their own achievement. As Bhumi Lal Lama, general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told the Guardian in 2003: ‘We are not in a position to give Everest a rest. We will be missing out on royalties. We can’t afford that’.
With such a volume of traffic, keeping Everest clean was always going to be a mammoth task. The 400-strong Hunt expedition of 1953, of which Edmund Hillary was a part, included 20 Sherpa guides and 362 porters carrying 4,500kg of baggage. Since then, as much as 50 tonnes of rubbish has been left behind on the slopes: paper, plastic, cans, glass, clothes, tents, countless oxygen bottles and approximately 180 bodies. Attempts are being made to clean up ‘the world’s highest rubbish tip’, however. China has installed rubbish bins and employed litter-pickers at base camp. Nepal charges all teams $4,000, refunded if all rubbish is removed and monitored by the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee. Japanese mountaineer-cum-refuse-collector Ken Noguchi claims to have picked up more than nine tonnes of rubbish over five expeditions.
Everest has become a victim of its own success: when the world comes to the mountain, its ills come too. In his book High Crimes, journalist and climber Michael Kodas observes more pernicious concerns than rubbish: pimps and prostitutes at base camp; extortion by guides; climbers ostracised and beaten for standing up to members of their own team; robberies and theft – ‘oxygen tanks, stove fuel, and food vanish every year… much of it appropriated by Western mountaineers who have shown up at the mountain with few of those resources’. The Chinese climbers were taking no chances in 2007 on a dry run for their Olympic summit: they brought armed guards to protect their equipment.
Fatal summit fever
Hillary and Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Everest, in 1953, but the mountain is a theatre that has hosted countless premieres: 1965, the first person to summit twice; 1975, the first woman to summit; 1990, the first married couple to summit together; 2001, the first blind person to summit; 2003, the youngest (15); 2008, the oldest (77). In 2006, Mark Inglis became the first double-amputee to summit, but sparked controversy when he and his party were among 40 climbers to pass underprepared and ailing English climber David Sharp on both their ascent and descent. Sharp died of extreme cold.
Inglis’s is just one of many similar stories of climbers either refusing or being unable to help a struggling fellow climber. In the death zone it’s hard enough to keep yourself alive, let alone anyone else. In the battle to survive at high altitude, the very qualities that make us human are in danger of dying. Aspiring to be something more than human we become instead something less.
Traditionalists argue that the mountain has been sold to those rich enough to afford a golden ticket to the top of the world. Indeed, so expensive and commercial has the Everest experience become that lawsuits have been filed against companies that have failed, for whatever reason, to get clients to the summit.
People are drawn to Everest from all over the world, but its gravitational pull also affects those in its shadow. Tashi Tenzing, grandson of Tenzing Norgay, observed in the New York Times in 2003 that ‘life for Sherpas has become increasingly complicated. Many of our young people are understandably tired of the hardship. The influx of Western tourists to Everest has exposed Sherpas to a new lifestyle, leading many to seek an easier, more cosmopolitan existence in the cities and abroad. Many Sherpa villages are now home only to the frail and elderly.’ The rewards are high for those Sherpas that do climb – a guide can earn as much as $2,000 for a two-month expedition (western guides earn as much as $30,000) – though many die in the process.
Although 13 per cent of Nepal has protected area status, eight of the country’s national parks ‘are suffering from pollution and deforestation… directly related to the impact of tourism’, according to the Royal Geographical Society. Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park, home to endangered species such as the red panda and snow leopard, was created in 1976 as a direct response to the deforestation caused by tourism, and became a Natural World Heritage Site in 1979. Firewood use increased proportionate to the influx of visitors, however, and more timber has been used to build bigger inns and lodges to house them.
The Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP) has been raising awareness about how tourism can exacerbate the effects of climate change, and aims to help minimize the negative effects of tourism. Foreigners are often more aware than locals of the effects on the environment, it says, and strongly advises trekkers, guides and porters against staying in lodges that burn wood for heating or showers.
‘Continuous education on how to minimize impact in the mountains is vital to trekkers and mountaineers, as well as to local guides and porters,’ says KEEP director DB Gurung. ‘Deforestation in the area has slowed over the past 17 years as lodge owners and farmers learn about the benefits of using kerosene and solar power instead of wood. There is still a long way to go but things are improving.’
A mountain to climb
In 1960 Edmund Hillary created the Himalayan Trust, which has provided Sherpas with schools, hospitals, health centres, forest plantations, monastery repairs and improved means of responding to natural disasters. With its ‘self-help’ ethos and reliance on volunteers to keep costs to a minimum, all donations go directly to projects in Nepal.
Although Hillary was a proponent of plans to close the mountain to allow the area to regenerate, Fraser Williams, director of Trekking Encounters, KEEP’s UK representative, is sceptical.
‘There was talk a few years back about closing down the Everest region, but the reality is that this will not happen because of the negative economical impact,’ he says. ‘People are beginning to realise the impact of global warming, however. The first snow fell here in Kathmandu in February, six to eight weeks late, which is very significant for this region, and ice blocks are collapsing in areas and at heights not experienced before. Local people attribute this to global warming. We and other companies now have to start taking these changes very seriously. Bodies such as KEEP and ICIMOD are doing fantastic work on the ground, but what is needed is a specific mountain focus by all parties, including government, trekking companies and environmental agencies.’
For the pioneers of the mountaineering age, global warming was not a known concern; it was inconceivable that mountains, permanent fixtures of the natural world, could be affected by mere human ambition. When asked in 1923 why he was returning to the place he called ‘lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy’, George Leigh Mallory uttered the most famous words in mountaineering history: ‘Because it is there’. A year later it was Mallory who was not – it would be another 75 years before his body was discovered. Now, no longer isolated but constantly challenged and far from supreme, the Everest he knew is receding from us day by day.
Eifion Rees is a freelance journalist