Mount Everest: Money Talks, Everyone & Their Uncle Abner Can Walk

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.

2 thoughts on “Mount Everest: Money Talks, Everyone & Their Uncle Abner Can Walk

  1. Interesting post and you raise some valid points. I would like to add some thoughts if you don’t mind.

    Firstly it should be noted that Everest has two main climbing routes. One from Nepal which is getting grossly overcrowded. And one from Tibet. I was climbing from the Tibet side this year which has much less traffic than the Nepal side. There was just over 200 climbers in total from Tibet in 2012 and this size route can handle this many climbers without many issues. The Nepal side had around 800 climbers in total when you add up those going for Everest and Lhotse as both mountains share the majority of the same route. (see my post for a survey of the number of climbers in 2012 in Tibet

    Mountaineering will never be 100% ‘safe’ and as long as any human being travels to places like Everest and other mountains there will be a certain proportion of deaths, no matter how experienced or inexperienced they are. As the author of one of the post’s you refer to above, I have received a number of emails from people telling me my attitude towards inexperienced climbers is arrogant, chauvinistic, pathetic, elitist and more.

    Maybe my post was not written very eloquently however the point I was trying to make is that there are climbers who go to Everest who are very inexperienced. And they do put others into danger, their guides and sherpa’s and members of other expeditions because of this. I have been asked many times what is the answer to this, and there is two different questions here.

    The only answer I can think of re: the overcrowding issue is that the government of Nepal more strictly control the number of permits they allocate every year. But as you point out permits are a major source of revenue for Nepal. Maybe they could increase the permit cost and reduce the number of permits? This way they would receive the same revenue with less crowding.

    The second issue regarding experience or lack of experience, I really have no idea how to solve. Because some of the commercial operators who run the expeditions will literally take anyone that that can front up with a cheque.

    The outdoors are not the domain of the elite, and everyone should be free to enjoy them. However the more remote and extreme places should be treated with the respect they deserve and people should prepare themselves adequately before venturing there.

    Finally a point about the deaths. Contrary to what is currently common pubic perception, out of the ten deaths on Everest this year, hardly any that I can see can be directly contributed to ‘overcrowding’. Four deaths happened lower on the mountain close to basecamp early in the expedition. The other happened on the day I reached the summit and were predominantly altitude related, or people not turning back when they should have and running out of oxygen and getting exhausted on the descent.

    Your link to the article about the Korean chap who blames ‘overcrowding’ for deaths’ is also interesting. He makes a very interesting remark: “We had to wait 200 metres from the summit and we became snow blind……..We started to come down, slowly, slowly, with the help of our Sherpas. It was hard because we couldn’t see anything. It took too long and after that we became crazy,”

    Waiting ‘200 metres below the summit’ does not make you snow blind. Taking off your goggles or glasses and getting your eyes damaged by the intense UV rays makes your snow blind. A costly mistake that points to error’s of judgement and decision making maybe??

    Whatever way you look at it, deaths are very sad. However to blame the 10 deaths in total, or even the 6 deaths on the 19th May on overcrowding is inaccurate.

    Thank you for your post once again. You raised interesting discussion points.

    1. Grant, thanks for the additional points you raise, particularly the necessity for separating the ‘overcrowding’ issue from the ‘inexperience’ issue. It occurs to me that the accusations made towards you for your post stem from people attempting to apply normal ethical standards to situations that are far from normal – namely the ability to offer assistance/care/sympathy to others when you’re fighting for your own survival. The furore surrounding Mark Inglis’ in 2006 springs to mind.

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