Friday, May 26, 2006

Sacrificing to reach the top

I'm not the biggest fan of heights. It's not a phobia, per se. If I have to deal, then I will. And airplanes don't bother me whatsoever. But I don't actively go seeking high spaces for a thrill. I leave that to other, much more silly people.

So the odds of me ever going and trying to climb Mount Everest are somewhere in the slim to non-existent range. Yet, in recent years I normally paid attention to what was happening on the mountain about now. Because of all kinds of factors, there is about a six week window to climb the mountain, starting in mid-April. The rest of the year it is simply too dangerous.

I think my interest began when I read Jon Krakauer astonishing Into Thin Air (I also recommend his Under The Banner of Heaven, which is about crazy Mormon sects). It's been a few years since I've read it, but I recall being floored by just how hard it is to climb Everest, yet the number of people wanting to do this increases every year. A lot of people died the year Krakauer climbed Everest, but you got the feeling reading the book that worse years were to come.

Apparently, this is going to be one of those years.

I had actually forgotten that this was Everest season until my friend Corey sent me this story about one of the sherpas who stripped naked for three minutes on top of the mountain. Now, I always had the feeling that sherpas were crazy anyway. Some of these guys have climbed the mountain dozens of times. Some do it without bottled oxygen. There's been competitions to set the speed climbing record. So somebody exposing what I imagine would be his very, very small and shriveled willie to the elements is not all the surprising, really. I'm surprised some fool hasn't done it before.

But it seems that it has upset people. Everest is considered the Mother Goddess to the Nepali and being naked on top of her, well, that's pretty disrespectful. There's talk of banning him from climbing the mountain again.

You see, I would have thought the tons of garbage on the mountain might be more disrespectful. People take an awful lot of crap with them up that mountain. They rarely bother to take it all back down with them. Especially the oxygen bottles, which are all over the mountain.

However, I also thought all the dead bodies might be a tad disrespectful. This has been a particularly costly year with 11 people confirmed dead, and another three unaccounted for that might bump up the final count.

Also controversial was one of the climbers, who was in clear distress, was bypassed by other hikers on their way to summit (edit I forgot to mention he eventually died). There are all kinds of defences as to why they did that. Some say he was already too far gone to help. Others that they weren't qualified to help. And least we forget, they're about 29,000 feet above sea level. Their brains aren't working all that well at that point. It's little more than primal instinct driving them to the top.

Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first (I still think some non-Westerner probably climbed it ahead of Hillary) to climb Everest, blasted those who walked past the dying man. And for all their excuses, it is a pretty callous thing to do...to walk past a dying man just so you can get to the top of a mountain.

It's estimated that 300 people will reach the summit this year. Ten years ago that number was 98. As many Everest experts will tell you, it's getting seriously crazy and very dangerous at the top of the world. As if it wasn't dangerous enough as it is.

The reason I mention all of this is that I do have mountain climbing friends. They've climbed Kilimanjaro. They have plans for a mountain in Russia this summer. They have plotted to climb another mountain in South America at some point in the next year or so. And while they've always denied any interest in trying to climb Everest, I often wonder. It's a very big, shiny lure if you have the mountain climbing bug. And, well, these are guys easily distracted by bright, shiny objects.

I said earlier that the people of Nepal view Everest as a goddess. Her name, by the way, is Sagarmatha. And while I thought the garbage was more disrespectful than stripping naked, it occurred to me that all the corpses (and there are a lot. Bodies don't always make it back down the mountain) might also offend the goddess.

Then it occurred to me...it's a goddess. And it's rare to find a god or goddess that doesn't enjoy the occasional sacrifice. If that's the case Sagarmatha must be quite happy this year.

1 comment:

Clare said...

I have to admit I had harboured a secret desire to climb Everest, and then I read Into Thin Air and another book of short essays on high altitude climbs and I thought.. "My gawd that is a terrible way to die." and stroked that off my things to do before I die list. You might be interested in this story on BBC about a climber who was left behind to die but is still alive.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/5019288.stm