Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Everest's Shame

This is the time of year that the escalator running up the summit of Everest is boarded by 21st century “adventurers” in search of who knows what glory. That’s fine. Everybody gets to choose their trophy. But in recent years, the reports from the Everest parade have become increasingly unsavory. Finally, 2006 has topped them all with the reported death of 36 year old British mountaineer David Sharp. The fact that someone died on Everest this year is not surprising as much as are the circumstances surrounding his death.

It was reported that over 40 climbers passed David, obviously dying, on their way to the summit. There were a few people who paused to help, but even they kept on going to reach their goal. The fact is, on Everest, one gets only a single chance at glory on each annual expedition, which typically costs more then $100,000 per individual To stop and help an injured or dying explorer would certainly cost the prize. No one, it appears, was willing to give up their prize for the life of David Sharp.

The whole image of endless lines of dare devil, well-to-do armchair adventurers climbing the world’s highest peak just for personal glory is nauseating enough. But given the whole damn bunch of them would be willing to let a fellow explorer die so that they could each prove their grit actually proves beyond all shadow of a doubt one thing: there were no true explorers climbing Everest on that sad day.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who was on the team that first summited Everest in 1953, called it “horrifying” that climbers would leave a dying man. MSNBC called it as clearly as any other, stating, “The tale was shocking, an apparent display of preening callousness…”

But in the most eloquent statement yet, experienced mountaineer Juan ‘Juanito’ Oiarzabal said this in “That mountain turned into a circus years ago, and it's getting worse – I don’t have the slightest interest in going back there, ever. Moreover, I actually try to avoid reading on what’s going on there – I simply don’t care anymore.” But in fact, he has heard of David Sharp, left unattended by dozens of climbers when he lay agonizing above 8000m. “It’s a classic - someone is in trouble, and people pass by, not even taking a quick look at him,” Juan told They are not climbers.

“In my opinion, solidarity doesn’t exist on Everest. And the reason is, that most of the climbers attempting that mountain are not experienced Himalaya mountaineers," he said. "I wouldn’t even consider many of them climbers.”

“Too often people go to Everest without knowing what it is like above 8000m. They pay huge amounts of money – and they don’t pay for a climb, but for a summit. Thus, reaching the summit becomes their first and only priority. In order to get the summit, they will use all the resources they can afford: Sherpas, bottled O2, camps and ropes previously fixed, etc… Up there, everybody focus on their own progress only, selfishly pursuing their goal. They don’t care for the rest.”

As an explorer, I agree wholeheartedly with Oiarzabal. Personally, I cannot even express the true depth of my outrage and disgust that some areas of 21st century exploration have become arenas of personal aggrandizement to the point that even human life has taken second place to the prize.

Fortunately, the gavel of world opinion has come down solidly in the favor of what we all innately understand as true human achievement. And that achievement is all about the ultimate reason for exploration – human advancement, not personal glory. Humanity advances when one individual takes one step backward and gives of himself to save another. Such tales of heroism are rare, because such explorers have apparently become uncommon.

But in the end the true justice has already been meted out, even before most of the so called “adventurers” arrive back home. Mounting the prized photograph of anyone standing on the summit of Everest on 2006 will eternally have an unwritten line on its bottom: “I passed up a dying man so that I could hang this photograph of me, because, in the end, it was all about me.”

For the 2006 Everest teams, the summit game was all about shame.