Queueing on the Lhotse face. Image: Ralf Dujmovits via theonlinephotographer.
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?
The logical, scientific answer to the age old question is that something has to give, right? Nowhere is this truth more starkly and painfully played out than in the Himalayas, where the irresistible force is money and the immovable object is Mount Everest.
Six people died during this season’s summit weather window. According to reports, approximately 500 people achieved the impossible dream and climbed to the top of the world’s highest mountain. For those of us who like to watch other people do exciting things from the safety of our own couches, this seems like a reasonable ratio, but those who know what the hell they’re talking about claim it’s not.
No one can climb Mount Everest without a permit. However, professional mountaineers have been grumbling for a number of years about overcrowding, particularly in the ‘death zone’, where oxygen is scant and hanging about waiting for inexperienced climbers to figure out the Hillary Step is not conducive to human survival.
The trouble is, Nepal, who issues a substantial proportion of Everest permits, is one of the world’s poorest nations. It’s economy relies heavily on the tens of thousands of pounds they receive from expedition parties and for this reason alone, they’re unlikely to implement limits on the number of climbers allowed in any one season.
In Western culture, summiting Mount Everest has become less of a vocation and more of a check mark on the bucket lists of the affluent. Technological advancements have eliminated the necessity for would-be mountaineers to carry their gear from Kathmandu to Base Camp and this has been capitalised on by trekking companies, who, for a generous fee will do all the grunt work for you. You just have to climb. You can take your bike, if you want.
This de-facto hazing ritual obviously sustained potential participants understanding of the risk factor inherent in climbing a 29,029ft peak. That has diminished to the point where seasoned climbers are going public with their anger at the inexperience shown by fellow climbers. Grant Rawlinson, who summited Everest during this year’s weather window, said in a recent blog post, “the spectacle I was seeing repulsed me. People turning up with no respect for the mountain. The desire for instant gratification without the discipline to do the hard yards, the research, the training and the preparation.”
So what then? For as long as the Nepalese continue to issue permits, the product will be available to anyone who can afford it? Yep. The irresistable force is the market force. Which is unlikely to give any time soon. If there’s any chance of stopping people from taking up the ultimate climbing challenge in ever increasing numbers, it’ll have to be the immovable object that gives.
Hmm. That thing isn’t going to give. It’s huge.
But maybe therein lies the lesson. Sadly, for as long as these two forces rub up against each other, people will die. But perhaps this is needed. A sense of risk carries with it a sense of fear. The more dangerous Mount Everest is perceived to be in the wider world, the more fear will be felt and people might apply a little more realism when considering their own capabilities.
Let’s hope so. It would be devastating if all those deaths had to be in vain.