Wednesday, May 29, 2013

This Shortcut Not Recommended

It's been 60 years now since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to summit Mount Everest. The climb is still challenging, and as we've noted previously, the mountain still can easily assert its authority as strongly as ever, but so many people flock to it these days, and mountaineering has advanced so far since the days of Hillary and Norgay, that Deseret News has called it "the world's largest traffic jam". 52% of the attempts on Everest made in 2012 were successful, compared with a mere 18% of successful attempts in 1990. A study reports that at least part of this is driven by a desire by each climber to get to the summit no matter what, even if another member of the party has died. In non-commercial expeditions, after a party member dies, about 37.8% of attempts are successful, but in commercial expeditions, 80.6% are. The explanation is that if there's some sort of glory on the line, climbers will just leave their partymates to rot, while non-commercial parties will turn back and at least try to mourn the fallen climber's death. NBC News tells the story of David Sharp, a solo climber who collapsed and died 300 meters from the summit in 2006, and who was passed without assistance by 40 other climbers who ignored his plight because, hey, the summit was only 300 meters away.

I didn't know the 52% stat last year, but it's certainly instructive now that I have it. It's just not a very impressive feat to summit Everest anymore. Be rich enough and not completely out of shape and you'll probably get up there now. It's at the point where it's news when an 81-year-old man decides to turn back. On one single day in 2012, about 230 people got to the peak. In one day. The biggest hazard is no longer making it up. The biggest hazard is waiting your turn in line in the death zone while the hundreds of people ahead of you take their turn at the summit. The second biggest hazard is all the garbage the climbers leave up there, including oxygen tanks, tents, the bodies of those that died on the way, and the- and I'm not making this phrase up- "pyramids of human excrement", which causes even more Everest expeditions that have the sole aim of cleaning up after everyone else.

If you want your Everest summit to gain any real attention these days, it has to stand out from the others somehow. It's not enough to simply summit. You have to be the oldest to summit- the 81-year-old man, Min Badahur Surchan, was attempting to reclaim the title of oldest summiter from 80-year-old Yuichiro Mura, who had made it up the previous week. (Reclaim. As in, Surchan had previously made it up at age 78 and was trying to do it again.) Or the youngest to summit. Or climb it while missing a limb, or climb it carrying a particular heavy thing.

Or you could make a world-record BASE jump off the damn thing, as Russian Valery Rozov recently did. That ought to get some airplay. (And to answer your question: yes, of course he was sponsored by Red Bull. As he was when he did the same thing off of Shivling, another Himalayan peak.)

If one wishes to make a truly impressive climb, there are other mountains far more challenging and far more deadly. The second-highest peak, K2, has killed 19.7% of climbers from 1990 to May 1012, when Mental Floss prepared a list of five mountains deadlier than Everest. (Everest's rate is about 5%.) And it's a lot less crowded- as of then, 230 people had summited K2, compared with the 3,500-and-climbing that have scrambled up Everest. The third-highest, Kangchenjunga, has killed 22% of climbers since the 1990's and permitted only 187 summits. Annapurna, tenth-highest, had been peaked by only 130 people, with a death rate similar to K2's (though people seem to prefer quoting Annapurna's all-time death rate instead, which gets up towards the 40% mark). The people climbing these peaks are not your adventure tourists with more money than sense. The people attempting K2 and Annapurna are the people who know exactly what they're doing and get clobbered by the mountain anyway.

I doubt there's a line for that. That's really for the best.

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