Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Everest Show and the Post-Mountaineering Era

Anyone following the climbing scene (which is just about everyone these days including NPR and the New York Times) has been following the disastrous inauguration of the 2014 Everest season with the tragic deaths of 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu icefall. This catastrophe, which is one of the single highest death tolls ever in modern mountaineering history, finally has exposed the contradictions inherent in the Everest system in a way that nobody can now ignore. There are conflicting reports that the mountain is "closed" though the financial implications of that for the country as a whole, as well as the Sherpa community are significant. And there are the grieving families of the victims, for whom one's heart goes out to.

But it was all coming to this point, inevitably. The photos last year of the hundreds of climbers on the Western Cwm, the traffic jams on the Hillary Step, the incessant coverage of Everest the annual event and of course the occasional casualty, no more to be noted than a freeway car accident. In my view, there is no question that Everest is a spectacle now, feeding on its own image, becoming a bigger version of itself, if that is even possible. It is not just the tallest mountain on earth, it's the biggest show on earth, a Barnum and Bailey three-ring circus with ringmasters, roustabouts and tents galore.

Adventure as far as the eye can see. Photo from the Times of London

Isn't there some way to kill off the Everest mystique once and for all? The environmental degradation, the commercialized media events (the first wingsuit flight was to be televised this year), the frozen corpses, and of course the ceaseless tide of updates on weather, conditions, and ascents and behind it all money, money, money. At this point, I can think of no reason why anyone would want to climb Everest under the present set of conditions. It is devoid of all significance, the process being so methodical and choreographed that it resembles more closely the flotillas of gondolas one sees in that classic ersatz sea-level tourism locale, Venice.

It has been fascinating to see the debate about whether it's right to go on climbing this season, that somehow the deaths of sixteen young men crushed by falling ice has this time truly gone too far. But Everest has long been going too far, pushing it in exactly this fashion while watching the trash and bodies pile up. And for what exactly? Because it's there? The Sherpa deaths are forcing us to look harder and closer at that question. If we are climbing for money, why are we climbing at all? If people are dying en masse so that we can claim we climbed something, why even bother?

The question is pressing harder and harder in the world of climbing overall. What is the merit in climbing anything when the drift is constantly toward commercialization and professionalization? When the media clich├ęs fall thicker and faster, it becomes clear that what is happening now is empty ritual, and more than ever, the closer the camera is, the farther away the truth becomes. The reality show of modern climbing has run into real reality and we are alarmed that this could ever have happened. The blogs, the news reports, the press conferences, the articles; all of them try to sidestep the question, "Why are we doing this?"

Sir Edmund Hillary, upon returning to Base Camp, uttered the classic quote, "Well George, we knocked the bastard off." His later line, "It's all bullshit on Everest these days" seems to close perfectly the arc of modern mountaineering from the nineteenth century to the present. All we are doing is shoveling it into ever more ornate piles. Let's stop.

(for an amusing and naive view from 2003, read "The message is this – stop calling Everest a circus, and stop calling it bullshit.")

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