Because It's Still There Climbs of Mount Everest have become common, but the mountain retains its allure--and its danger

April 13, 2003

There is not much mystery to it any longer. Mount Everest,
undefeated for most of its geological life, is these days a
laydown. On a single spring day in 2001, 89 people reached the
peak, jostling together in the thin air at one of adventure's
Blue Light specials. By now, as many as 1,200 have crested this
Himalayan spire, puncturing the jet stream, enabled lately more
by their $65,000 price of admission than any particular daring.
The mountain is so accessible that, on the eve of the 50th
anniversary of the first successful climb, the principal activity
on the mountain is cleanup; about 10 tons of oxygen canisters,
human excrement and just plain litter now trace man's ambition,
seemingly grown paltry in its commonplace.

When British climber George Mallory made the first reconnaissance
of Everest, in 1921, the mountain was immensely more forbidding,
its 29,035 feet of altitude an attractive trophy for gentleman
explorers. It was not simply the highest place on earth, although
that was plenty lure enough in a Heroic Age when adventurers were
pushing at every boundary. It was also the most dangerous place
on earth. While the route up the South Col is not technically
challenging, the combination of thin air and unpredictable
weather is assuredly deadly. For more than 30 years Mount Everest
repulsed all comers, and buried more than a few. Even Mallory,
who memorably explained why one would attempt to climb such a
mountain--"Because it's there," he said on a 1923 lecture
tour--succumbed to Mount Everest's implacable menace. Until his
body was discovered in 1999, 75 years after he disappeared into
the clouds, he was there, too.

There is no greater come-on than disaster; nothing recruits
achievement like failure. Adventurers were perversely cheered by
each bungled attempt, each frozen dilettante who would one day
need to be chipped out of a crevasse for trail beautification
purposes. The path to immortality, for every nimrod who still had
the advantage of being alive, remained clear, and immortality was
appreciating with each well-chronicled calamity.

The longer the peak remained virgin, and the more explorers who
died trying to reach it, the more magical the mountain became.
For eons it had been scenery--treacherous-looking, hardly
climbable. With human accomplishment all the rage (matters of
survival long since satisfied), it became a taunt. Its deadly
height mocked mountaineers who, alone among their gentleman
explorer friends, could not breach their one last boundary. Can
you imagine a feat, first attempted in 1921 and then left undone,
decade after decade? Perhaps it encouraged the glory-thirsty, but
the overall effect (so much time, so much failure) reinforced the
idea that some things, at least this one, are simply unattainable.

The hold that Mount Everest has on us after all these years
derives from that time--which is merely the history of the earth,
minus this past half century--during which the summit remained
unconquerable. Explorers pecked feebly at its icy sheath but, in
the end, failed as a matter of course. Mount Everest winked at
their arrogance, bringing in the big guns (sudden storms--even in
peak climbing season, those laughable few weeks in April and
May--did the trick when oxygen deprivation did not) as an
expedition approached its summit. Elsewhere, technology allowed
man to penetrate barriers, one by one. We could invent television
and shag carpet, reach the poles, fly across oceans. Yet we
couldn't do something as basic as climb a hill, not this baby.
Mount Everest remained pristine in its absolute imperviousness to
human effort.

It's difficult to recapture the hullabaloo that occurred in 1953
when New Zealand's Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay,
carrying bottled oxygen, finally pushed to the peak, topping that
last ridge that is now known (immortally, we presume) as the
Hillary Step. The long narrative of failure, in which explorers
created a highly entertaining genre of geological comeuppance (An
Innocent on Everest was a typical title), was at an end. A more
optimistic library of triumph followed, Hillary's and Norgay's
victory proof that there was something to man's stubborn nature
after all. For years afterward, while the feat still resonated
with heroic overtones, their ascent reassured us that no
obstacle--not even mighty Mount Everest--could forever withstand
our assault. We really could do anything, if we just kept at it.

But with that climb--that era's moonwalk--the last of nature's
earthbound challenges had been met, ticked off on man's to-do
list. And Mount Everest suffered predictably. It didn't loosen
its grip right away; climbers continued to expire at a pretty
good clip. (The casualty rate, even now, stands at one death for
every 8.5 who reach the summit.) Still, it wasn't all that long
before the mountain was shrunken in stature, by equipment,
experience, brought down to earth by familiarity.

In recent years it has become more a center of commerce, a
tourist destination, than the object of any exploration. Among
the climbing cognoscenti, the ascent is too easy these days to
garner any reward greater than a dinner-table anecdote
(presumably at a pretty good dinner, given that $65,000 tab for
the summit). Now the mountain must absorb stunts--beginning with
the first summit without bottled oxygen in 1978, continuing with
Guinness World Records-style climbs such as youngest (16) and
oldest (65) and first sightless (in 2001)--as man throws himself
against the need to make something of himself.

Yet the mountain has not lost every shred of dignity and, once in
a while, does something to remind us that its advantages--which
can be abridged briefly in times of calm with the right guides,
the right gear and the right amount of money--are largely
permanent. In 1996, by which time Mount Everest had been fully
Disneyfied, the mountain famously shut down, claiming eight in a
single storm. Before that season was out, 15 people had died on
the mountain. The horror, which was widespread thanks to a blend
of old-fashioned disaster journalism (Jon Krakauer chronicled the
event in his best-selling Into Thin Air) and new-fangled
technology (guides narrated their doom in real time on satellite
phones), sparked a new fascination with Everest and served as a
grim reminder that not everything is for sale, at least not all
the time.

Human achievement wouldn't mean much if folly and arrogance
weren't punished in equal proportion. So at least Mount Everest,
which is indeed climbable, can still teach us a lesson. After
all, included in the 10 tons of rubbish that must be removed in
its spring cleanup are the remains of 120 climbers, all of whom
thought they knew something Mount Everest didn't. There'll be more.

COLOR PHOTO: ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY FIRST UP Hillary (left), resting during his historic 1953 climb,capped the Heroic Age. COLOR PHOTO: BILL CROUSE GARBAGE TIME For a half century trekkers have left their mark onthe mountain.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)