THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MIRROR

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to media reports, as of May 28, eleven people had died in the 2019 climbing season on Everest. It is time to rethink Everest in the head. For one’s own head – that’s where it all begins.

Long before the ultra-fast fuel refills of today, gas stations were a much slower affair.

Where digits flash by at present, technology then was a lazy roll of printed numbers on the counter. Every liter which typically took several seconds to be reached was marked by the sound of a metallic chime. The chime wasn’t the only sound characterizing gas station. The pump was sometimes noisy; it’s whirring sound harking of cogs and wheels within. A few chimes later, you knew the quantity of fuel you had sought for daily commute was close to being met. If it was full tank you sought, the concert lasted longer. Everest in May 2019 reminded of that old fuel dispenser. As several hundred people converged to climb the peak amid inconsistent weather conditions, every other day a chime sounded marking somebody’s demise.

The deaths were mainly on the Nepal side, along the normal climbing route on Everest. Photos from the mountain showed a long queue of climbers waiting at high altitude to access the summit and get back. The situation has been compared to a traffic jam. On May 28, it was reported that officialdom saw the traffic jam as a product of other factors. To be blamed, according to them, was adverse weather, insufficient oxygen supplies and equipment. The number of climbing permits issued, they said, was only slightly more than in the previous years. The photos made an impression stronger than the officials. They aren’t the first such pictures. There have been similar ones before. You know something is deeply wrong in those images.

Left to market forces and state revenue from permits doled out, I doubt if anything will change. They may choose to refine the scenario by hiking permit fee to limit traffic or for the heck of seeming just, along with hiked fee include a portion decided by lottery. Either way, unless an element of common sense (essentially questions like: what are you on Everest’s slopes for; is the summit worth dying for, that too, death for all the wrong reasons?) and plain and simple aesthetics (questions like: what is an enjoyable climb?) prevail, meaningful correction is unlikely. What is happening on Everest has nothing to do with mountaineering. It has everything to do with the industry mountaineering spawned and is therefore, a mirror to what became of our lives.

Among discerning mountaineers, Everest by normal route is no longer a prized ascent. If you climb it by other routes, the fraternity takes note. It would therefore appear, an ascent of Everest by normal route is not meant for accolades from this fraternity. For the trained and untrained, Everest by normal route is to either satisfy one’s personal urge or harvest applause from the larger, less discerning arena. One of the causes highlighted for the deaths of 2019, was that of inexperienced climbers attempting Everest. There are those who say only trained mountaineers must be on such peaks. It has also been reported that Nepal, which has so far not sought proof of climbing experience from those arriving to attempt Everest, may now alter the rules. The emphasis on training is partly correct as required approach but it is not entirely convincing as panacea for Everest’s problems.

As is evident from the published news reports of May 2019, there are trained people too in the Everest queue, both as clients and guides. One thing I keep asking myself all the time is – which trained mountaineer in the best sense of the term would support, leave alone endure a mile long queue in the Death Zone to reach a summit? Everything about that predicament points to delay and extended stay in environment hostile to human physiology. Not to mention, even at low altitude, such spectacle filled with people challenges the very aesthetic behind courting wilderness. The saddest part of above said queue and its consequences at elevation like exhaustion, frostbite and high altitude illness is that you endanger yourself and others. Inefficient progress by one person has cascading impact down the order. It is difficult to imagine that these dangers escape the attention of the trained lot, who too are there on the peak. Why then, does the traffic jam repeat? Where is the voice of the trained lot in this regard? The media reports of May 28 said that authorities have presented double rope in the area below the summit for improved management of the flow of climbers, as solution. Like many contemporary solutions, it is a specific, technical quick-fix that spares the market larger questions.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Hence the submission, Everest is a mirror to what became of us. It reflects a host of human compulsions – from the pure mountain lover wishing to be on the world’s highest peak, to the naturally curious, to the deliberately ambitious, to those that availed loans to fund climbs and can’t turn back for fear of losing face, to those racing against their biological clock for a piece of immortality to remember life by, to those ticking off goals from a bucket list, to those seeking glory by all 8000m peaks climbed, to those chasing Seven Summits, to those seeking multiple Everest ascents, to those seeking promotion in employment through Everest summit gained, to those fearing disappearance if their CV in life does not have Everest stamped on it, to those whose livelihoods are dependent on everyone seeking Everest turning up on the mountain, to an entire industry surviving on Everest’s magnetic attraction; the list of compulsions converging on the peak every climbing season, is long.

In times by money, media and marketing each of these urges attracts exploitation. Catalyzing the process is the pressure population exerts on human activity. For sure the number of people on Everest can be capped. That is doable. What can’t be capped is the number of people dreaming Everest, which on planet hosting exploded human numbers and rat race alongside, is high. If it wasn’t for this rat race and pursuit of distinction by any means, would climbing Everest as client via normal route, be construed as extraordinary? Distinction has become highly prized and standing on a high point is among the oldest distinctions in humanity’s guide book for life.

Perhaps, journeys must become more important than goals. If you did a life time of climbing at lower altitude does that make you less than a couple of million rupees spent and foot placed on Everest’s head? The repeated tragedies on Everest are reminders in that direction. It is built into the paradigm that the quest to access a tiny piece of inhospitable real estate at 29,029 feet should reveal what is wrong with us. Wrong in this case of crowding, has come with a price: several dead.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)