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With space to race

The 50th anniversary of Americans on Everest sheds light on current conditions

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"The mountain hasn't changed and the experience can be very much like it was if you choose to go about it that way. So you can still have that exploratory experience," said George Lowe, of the 1983 Expedition of the Kanshung Face. Many unexplored routes in the Everest region still exist, yet impacts from human traffic on the peak and dangers resulting from relatively inexperienced climbers attempting to summit Everest have changed the atmosphere of Everest's more popular routes and the logistics of climbing the mountain in general.

"Today we see lines of people stacked up like ants, tent cities at base camp — and this week we hear reports of fights between independent climbers and Sherpa workers on Mount Everest," said Phil Powers, Executive Director of The American Alpine Club on May 1, 2013.

Although efforts to clean up Everest's Base Camp have been recently implemented, the amount of litter higher up on the mountain is among the deepest acts of disrespect seen on Everest today. Climbers have recently reported mountains of human waist piled next to abandoned tents and other garbage at the higher camps along Everest's most popular routes. In an act of disrespect for both the mountain and the families of deceased climbers, some 200 bodies have been left on Everest's Southeast Ridge and North Ridge routes.

The current state of Everest climbing is most often attributed to the sheer amount of traffic the peak sees in a given climbing season and the need for stricter regulations for climbers and guide services. It is widely believed that releasing fewer permits and requiring a stronger level of experience for guided climbers would greatly reduce the impacts to 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," said Phil Powers, Executive Director of the American Alpine Club. "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."

The success rate with Everest attempts has increased dramatically since the early 1960s, yet many climbers still fail to reach the summit. Nevertheless, the environmental impacts on the ever-expanding Everest Base Camp increase with each attempt. Some feel the current state of Everest climbing is mostly negative, yet others feel that the most frequently guided routes on Everest — primarily the Southeast Ridge — are only a small part of what the mountain has to offer.

"You can step off that route a quarter of a mile and you'll never see anybody on Everest," said Jim Whittaker, the first American Everest summiteer. "There are places that people don't go (and) there are a lot of routes yet to be done that are difficult."

Since its early ascents in the 1950s and 1960s, the scene on Everest has undergone a dramatic transformation. During the entire 1963 Everest climbing season a total of six climbers reached the summit of Mount Everest. Before 1963 only six people on Earth had climbed to the top of the world. In 2012 alone, more than 500 people reached the summit of Everest with many more retreating from the peak before tagging the true summit.

"I don't feel sad about it. I just feel that times change and the world changes," said Tom Hornbein of the 1963 AMEE Team. "Everest, as a wonderful metaphor in so many other ways, is just a microcosm of our larger existence on this Earth."

Dean Fleming has been climbing in the U.S. for 17 years and currently works as a climbing photojournalist in the small town of Sonora, CA. Dean is also the publisher of the regional climbing magazine California Climber. www.californiaclimbermagazine.com.