Tim Macartney-Snape - Everest Still talks to Us

Ten Years On, Everest Still Talks to Us But More Urgently

I was asked to write this article by The Australian newspaper (Australia’s national broadsheet) after the disastrous spring storm on Everest in 1996, the story of which was told in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air” and the Everest Imax film. This is an unabridged version of what was published under the title “Everest, the Agony and the Ecstasy”.

Ten years later the situation on Everest is even worse. The once pristine environment of the mountain has become increasingly lost under the impact of ever greater numbers queuing for a go at the summit. The majority of these people are using commercial operators. With ropes fixed and their loads carried for them, many will not have served a sufficient apprenticeship in mountaineering for them to fully appreciate the traditions and ethics of mountaineering or have the experience to cope when things go awry. Climbing Everest as practiced by the majority now is not mountaineering, it is the antithesis of mountaineering – there seems little fellowship or humility and respect in the face of nature. There is no pioneering and no style, indeed a total poverty of spirit. Commercial imperatives and unveiled selfishness now seem to be the dominant incentives of Everesters. It is a sad time for Everest and we can only hope that people will see the absurdity of the situation and make changes for the better. In reality, as pointed out below, what is happening up there on Everest reflects the time we live in and is another of the countless examples pointing to the urgency to recognize that the problems on earth are symptomatic of an ultimately psychological cause. The good news is we can fix it, but time is running out.



Everest Still talks to Us

     By Tim Macartney-Snape. For The Australian 18 May 1996

     The events on Mount Everest in the past week have brought into focus questions which reach deep into the common stream of human experience.
Everest is more than a mountain. The world’s highest peak is a symbol of human aspirations. Its lofty summit reaching high into rarefied air is a natural steeple, which sits comfortably within the archaic store of symbolic images that are the language of our subconscious. Its name has become synonymous with achievement. Its first ascent, coming as it did on the crest of the post-war wave of renewal, captured the world’s imagination.

      More than forty years on its image has altered inexorably to reflect the time we live in. With so much known about the mountain and so many wanting to climb it, ascents are regular and with the mountain’s popularity have come some of the afflictions of our age. Insensitive and exhausted climbers have left their equipment behind so that the standard camps are now marked by the wind-torn fragments of past heroic struggles. Tattered ropes like cobwebs lace the difficult sections on the two popular routes. During a climbing season camps become international villages of people from around the world with competing aspirations, all singularly obsessed with the summit. From those camps and even from the very summit they speak across the globe with their satellite phones. This all takes place in one of the poorest countries reflecting the growing schism between rich and poor.

      Increasingly your typical climber is not the hardened Himalayan veteran with a wealth of high altitude experience under their harness but a Himalayan novice with little high altitude experience and moderate technical expertise. Their passport to this mountain that was once the arena of the hardiest and most experienced, is a band of guides and high altitude porters who have been paid to take their clients up the mountain.

      I’ve always maintained that you could never have enough experience for climbing safely at extreme altitude. If you need to be guided on a big mountain you, by definition don’t qualify for the level of experience needed. Even in mildly bad conditions on a high mountain it would be very difficult for even the strongest climber to be able to give any help to another climber without seriously endangering their own lives. The tragic events of last weekend reflect that danger. Rob Hall, Andy Harris and Scott Fisher, were all experienced guides who died noble deaths because they stayed behind to shepherd their clients.

      Everest is a fairly typical mountain in physical shape. There are easier angled ridges and steep faces. As it happens there are two relatively straightforward routes which, if you disregard the altitude, would allow a climber of moderate technical ability to reach the summit. The North Col/North Ridge route on the Tibetan side is the more straightforward and safe of the two and was the scene of pre-war British attempts on the mountain. The South Col/South-East Ridge route on the Nepal side is the way it was first climbed but is more complex partly due to the necessity of having to climb through the icefall of the Khumbu glacier low down on the route.

      There are other routes on ridges and faces which require climbing of more advanced technical difficulty and which are threatened by greater objective dangers. Many of these more difficult routes, such as our North Face route that we climbed in 1984, remain unrepeated because typically, the majority of climbers stick to the two easiest routes. Despite the fact that the mountain has been climbed in “better” style without the use of oxygen breathing equipment and without the use of support climbers, most climbers still employ the traditional tactics of deploying a large number of support climbers to get a smaller number of people to the top breathing oxygen from cylinders carried on their back.

      I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the notion of employing the local, mainly Sherpa people as high altitude porters. Though they are well paid by local standards, their wage could in no way justify the risks they’re asked to accept, particularly given that the majority of them have less technical expertise than the least experienced foreign mountaineers. The statistics show that in Nepal, Sherpas have the highest mortality rate in mountaineering of any racial group. They take on these jobs because the money is too tempting and they are seduced by the image of swashbuckling climbers.

      But the vast size and extreme altitude of the mountain will always make it an extremely serious and difficult undertaking and this will tempt most climbers to use the old fashioned techniques and opt for the employing sherpas on the climb.

      Getting to Base Camp, at 5300 m still more than three and a half vertical kilometres below the summit which soars to 8,874 m, makes even the fittest and motivated person feel it would be nearly impossible to go any higher. For the first few days, before the very mild benefits of acclimatisation start kicking in, your head feels like its developed a chronic hangover, your lungs feel like you’ve just sprinted a kilometre and your body seems to have turned to lead.

      The higher you go the more severe these feelings become. Even if you’re maximally acclimatised, once you climb above 7000 metres, merely surviving becomes desperately hard work, accomplishing normally simple tasks such as putting your boots on is exhausting. To actually climb requires supreme effort, a burst of energetic action of the kind that you could maintain for 30 minutes at sea level can only be sustained for 10 to 20 seconds before you run completely out of breath and are left gasping.

      Above 8000 metres even the strongest climbers begin to feel twinges of losing control. Your pattern of thought becomes more dreamlike, difficult to direct, the brain’s ability to think is slowed and complex thoughts are difficult to grasp. Always the most difficult stage of a big climb is the last leg where you struggle through the darkness and cold before the dawn. It is the bleakest and cruellest stage to overcome because its so easy to give in.

      Relatively calm conditions are mandatory before you would consider going above 7000 metres. The thin oxygen starved air makes the already considerable cold temperature, often down to -40 Celsius, seem far colder. Dehydration is a constant enemy as the low pressure sucks your body of moisture and threatens to thicken your already sluggish blood flow. The freezing of your fingers and toes becomes highly likely. All this combines to make conditions extremely difficult for the climber and even the strongest climbers are reduced to being barely more capable of looking after themselves. But that is in good conditions.

      Bad weather and mountains go hand in glove, the norm on a mountain like Everest is bad weather totally hostile to human life. Stronger than gale-force winds commonly sweep high altitudes and the summit pyramid of Everest is periodically blasted by jet-stream winds that can pluck the climber from its ridges and hurl them into the air. Even if you don’t get blown off the mountain, the accompanying maelstrom of wind-born snow and low temperatures can make safe downward progress impossible. Climbers mostly avoid these situations, because they are so dangerous but occasionally we get caught out by fast changing weather, poor judgment or exhaustion and it is then that your level of experience and stamina is most critically tested. Paradoxically if survived, it’s in bad conditions that you learn most about yourself.

      Given the pain and hardship of high altitude climbing you may be wondering why on earth mountaineers go back again and again. From my own perspective the answer is that ever since I can remember I’ve had an urge to climb, to gaze out at the world from the loftiest perspective around.

      I’ve found the intense satisfaction of climbing to be many faceted. It makes you acutely aware of your surroundings, which of course are natural, and there will always be a great longing in the human heart to be as close to the natural world as we once were. Usually you climb in a small, closely knit group and the bonds, which develop under the physical, and mental stresses of a climb are of a quality that are probably only ever experienced in wartime. There is deep personal satisfaction in overcoming obstacles that once seemed impossible, in progressively pushing beyond your own narrowly set limits to arrive at levels of competence you never dreamed existed in you. There is the perverse joy of using your body to its limit, the alive-ness and unity of mind and body, which comes from hard physical effort. The privation and simplicity of life in the mountains brings a realisation that the most enduring good things in life are simple — shelter, food and friendship and you realise that too often in modern life, these are taken for granted.

      That Himalayan people assign spiritual significance to the mountains that dominate their skyline, says much about the important role that the symbolism of mountains plays in human psychology. At a deeper level mountaineering is essentially an expression of the need to explore, to understand our world and our place in it. I’m sure it derives from the same urge which saw humanity leave its origins in the Rift Valley of Africa to walk to the furthest lands on earth, then to take to the oceans and finally the air and the vastness of space.

      That physical journey is the outward manifestation of a parallel journey of exploration that continues to take place internally as we struggle to come to terms with the difficulties and awesome responsibility of possessing the only fully conscious mind that we know of. The ascent of a mountain is perhaps the purest expression of that uniquely human journey, of the perils and pitfalls of that upward path and the promise of a time when we would find understanding of ourselves and against all odds reach the summit of our ideals, the ideals that all cultures commonly aspire to.

      It’s true that the awesome has been made to appear commonplace by the numerousness of our efforts and it’s true that communication technology has shrunk the world into sameness. Such things have made it hard for people to see the underlying challenge, adventure and excitement of the human journey any more but in truth it is all still there — and more so than ever.

      The metaphor that is Everest still talks to us and reminds us of this, for the deeper reality broke through in what happened there. These deaths belie ordinariness and meaninglessness. The thin air and ferocious, lurking storms at the great altitude where the thresholds of success lie do test our sense of reality and focus but the great battle to reach the summit of our journey is so very real.
These men and women who died up there at the edge of challenge are our inspirational heroes. God bless them.

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