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Everest: Then and Now

Posted on: May 1st, 2013 by The AAC

By Phil Powers, AAC Executive Director

Fifty years ago today Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu stood atop Mount Everest. Jim was the first American to go there. He went in close partnership with his Sherpa friend and employee.

Today we see lines of people staked up like ants, tent cities at base camp—and this week we hear reports of fights between independent climbers and Sherpa workers on the mountain.

What’s gone wrong? Maybe nothing. Tom Horbein makes it clear in the video above that he is not sad about it.

When the AAC last hosted Reinhold Messner he divided climbing of today by using terms from the European ski world. “On piste” climbers follow a known track, often with guides. Sometimes the track is even prepared, like Everest’s Southeast Ridge, with a fixed icefall, fixed lines on the route, and preset camps with food and oxygen.

“Off piste” climbers go everywhere else. And sometimes we all end up near each other. There is room for both as long as we have a little respect.

Both sorts climb on Mount Everest. This week, the most cutting edge of off-piste climbers bumped up against one of the most entrenched traditions of the on-piste climbing world: the fixing of the lines for Everest’s pre-monsoon season.

People are different. They have different circumstances. Climbing is dangerous and how one approaches the heights is a very personal decision. Those style choices are freedoms we all enjoy until they affect others or hurt the mountain. Yes, the domination of the guided routes on Everest affects others. But that is a concession I think we can make given the near limitless opportunities in the off-piste world.

Climbing evolves. Our crampons now have front points, we use ice tools to climb rock and multiple big walls are now free-soloed in a day. Everest has two heavily guided routes on it. Denali and Cho Oyu have one heavily guided route, the Grand Teton has a few, and Rainier has several. Choosing to climb one of those routes, with a guide or without, is a personal choice. The climber with the guide expects to see others and receive help from his or her guides. And if there are other guided parties around, one can reasonably expect that those guides will work together to keep the mountain clean and safe. The climber without a guide knows that choosing an on-piste route brings the hazards (and joys?) of other people.

It also means that those who are expanding the envelope of human potential in their off-piste pursuits must play by the rules of the route. Generally this has been dictated by the mountain, but when numbers are added to the environment, the environment itself changes and so must one’s approach to it.

Every spring on Everest, the climbing teams get together and make some rules: when the icefall will be fixed, who will do it, what the budget will be, and how other climbers will operate while it’s going on. Disregarding these facts of the mountain is like disregarding the avalanche conditions or weather. It puts one on a path with real hazard and inflicts a real or perceived hazard on others.

Judged from the eye of a dedicated off-piste climber, the Southeast Ridge can look pretty unattractive. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. To someone whose passion is the Seven Summits, a Grand Slam, or the magic of standing at the world’s highest point, the Southeast Ridge is a shining objective.

Jim Whittaker reminds us that just a few hundred yards to the side of either the Southeast or Northeast Ridges, Everest is the big, wild, and foreboding mountain it has always been. People have changed two of its ridges, and climbers cannot ignore that fact. On Denali one is wise to take direction from the guides when negotiating the fixed lines above 14,200; on the Grand you might as well organize with the guides at the rappel; and if on Everest the Southeast Ridge has a protocol. Indeed, if anything, more protocol is needed. The Sherpa and guides are the people who profit from Everest, who return every year, and who offer it to the world. They—who profit from those routes—must lead. And whatever evolving structure that leadership takes, the Sherpa must be in it.

Some of the wisest actions on Everest this week came from guides like Melissa Arnot who calmed the aggressions at 22,000 feet and later wrote:

I cannot recount the events of this past week on Everest, nor do I want to. I understand that people want to hear the story and know the details, but, honestly, the details are sad and they are in the past. They cannot be changed. Everyone will have their version of what happened and why it happened. I, too, have my own version. I came here to climb Mt. Everest. I came here for the challenge, adventure and type of friendship that has become a mark of this place for me. On this expedition, I have had some of the best times of my life, laughing into the late hours with friends who were supporting each other’s goals. I have had some of the worst times—standing in front of those same friends to protect them from unexplainable violence and anger. Something shifted the balance for a moment. My only hope is that it shifts back quickly, and everyone can resume their jobs, their passion and their goal of climbing. I am resting now, both my body and my mind, in hopes that I can resume the reason I came here. I am thankful for the good moments that have occurred this year. I am sad for the events of the last week. I am hopeful that the adventure ahead will be one of collaboration, support and rebuilding the relationship of trust between everyone who has chosen to be here.

In his video interview, Dave Morton notes that there is no stigma against choosing to climb with a guide on Rainier. I would argue the same is true about other ambitious objectives from the Matterhorn to Denali. Perhaps our scrutiny of Everest is heightened by its anniversaries this year: the 60th of its first ascent and the 50th for Americans.

Climbers need only remember to follow the lead of the mountain. Our climbing decisions follow the terrain, the conditions, and the weather. On routes like Everest’s Southeast Ridge, we must consider other people as well.


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