When I was 11 years old, my mother took me to see “Everest”, the extravagant IMAX film which followed a group of climbers as they scaled the peak in the face of overwhelming tragedy. As I walked out of that theater, with images of triumph and conquest in my head, I knew I wanted to climb. Growing up in Florida, it would take over a decade and a trip to Nepal before I could make it happen, but in that time I diligently followed the expeditions and I knew the names of climbers the same way that people know their favorite athletes. For me Everest has always represented an ultimate endeavor, a test of physical and mental strength, and the chance to stand on top of the world.
In recent years, the romance of the mountain has been devastated. Sensationalized by Into Thin Air, the account of the 1996 tragedy, Everest has been turned into a circus, where triumph and achievement has been overcome by stories of death, chaos, and in recent weeks, a fist fight between climbers and Sherpas. With the peak now becoming a footnote and a joke in the eyes of other climbers, I want to share why it still means so much to me.
2013 was supposed to be a special year. With the 50th anniversary of the first American expedition, there were eyes on some exciting ascents on Everest. One of the most anticipated was when two of the world’s greatest alpinists, Ueli Steck of Switzerland and Simone Moro of Italy were planning a trip shrouded in secrecy but revealing only that they were planning to climb in a unique style and without the use of supplemental oxygen. These are two climbers who i’ve always and continue to respect and admire. For non-climbers, having these two together is the equivalent of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird playing for the same team. Just a year before, Ueli Steck had climbed the three highest peaks in the Swiss Alps in a single day, getting to the summit and then launching himself in a paraglider to reach the base of the next and repeating the ascent. It was a novel and monumental achievement. Simone Moro is a four time Everest summitter and holds the first winter ascents of Makalu, Shisha Pangma, and Gasherbrum II.
As the climbing community anticipated a major success, reports broke out of a bizarre fight between the Sherpas and the climbers which resulted in abandoning the expedition and leaving Ueli Steck so shaken that he refuses to return to the Himalayas. The worldwide media quickly picked up on the story and the already shaken reputation of the mountain was turned into a joke.
As I read one report after another I was deeply disappointed by what’s become of the peak in recent years. With very little regulation, the peak has turned into a Disneyland of sorts. Inclusion of 3G towers which allows cell service at the summit, untrained clients who will shell out thousands of dollars to local companies to have a Sherpa drag them up the peak, and climbers who are increasingly trying to become the youngest and oldest to summit. With every passing year, worldwide news waits anxiously to latch onto every tragedy and emphasizes the fact that those involved were poorly trained with some having summited the peak with no experience whatsoever. There is so much negative publicity that when experienced and recognized alpinists manage to do something exceptional it goes rarely reported outside of the climbing community.
So what does this mean to me? In 2010 I had the opportunity to trek to base camp. Although it’s a tour undertaken by thousands every year, it was a personal and spiritual journey through the heart of the Himalayas that opened my eyes to the mountains and especially to climbing. At the end of the trek I had the opportunity to speak to a group of Australians, all who had just summitted, and the way that they spoke so lovingly of their trip and their experiences solidified my decision of what I wanted my life to be. In that talk I saw them pushing their mental and physical limits, emphasizing camaraderie within their own group and reaching the top as a team and not for individual glory or achievement. What I saw in their group is what i’ve felt my entire time as a climber: a group of people pushing each other towards a common goal, whether they’ve been partners for years or only just met. This for me is why the romance is still on the mountain. There are still tried and true climbers who see it as an achievement. Maybe not the ultimate one, but it is still a noble goal to pursue.
There is virtually no way to regulate who can climb the mountain. There have been calls to close the peak for several seasons so that regulations can be developed and enforced, but with the money from wealthy climbers supporting a cash strapped country, it is extremely difficult to do so. So at this point, it leaves me to my own question. Would I consider one day making my own try? I refuse to answer. For me it represents a culmination of experience and fitness. I have other places that interest me but I see it as an achievement when the time comes to do so. If I never get the opportunity than I can only say that for me it is the place where my ambitions first took flight. My wish is that the achievements would be as celebrated as much as it has become mocked. For me, every successful story fuels my own passions and is a place that still deserves the utmost respect as well as the people who have it as a culmination of their life’s work.