The woman who would become Queen Elizabeth II was on the verge of becoming head of the commonwealth and supreme governor of the Church of England. But if someone got to the top of Mount Everest, she wanted to know.
“News of the successful assault was given to the Queen at Buckingham Palace last night,” the Guardian reported on June 2, 1953, after Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay ascended the peak. “… It had previously been arranged that the British Embassy in Katmandu, Nepal, should inform the Queen directly if the expedition succeeded — if possible by the day of her Coronation.”
Knighting Hillary was one of Elizabeth’s first acts. But decades after his triumph, the mountaineer, who died in 2008, wondered if Everest needed a break.
“I have suggested to the Nepal government that they should stop giving permission and give the mountain a rest for a few years,” Hillary said in 2003 on the 50th anniversary of his accomplishment.
Now that Mount Everest has been swept by a fatal avalanche following Nepal’s disastrous earthquake, the arguments of those who wonder how the mountain can handle hundreds of ascents per year are thrown into the spotlight. The mountain is crowded, dirty, tense and, in the past two years, has killed more people than ever before.
“The death of 12 people on Mount Everest by avalanche is a reminder that, at 8,848 metres, the mountain should represent the ultimate challenge for climbers and adventurers,” the Telegraph wrote after another devastating avalanche — last year. “But in recent years, mountaineers have complained about the over-commercialisation of the Everest ascent, likening the climbing path to a ‘traffic jam.’ ”
So: What are the problems with the world’s highest peak?
1. It’s the “McDonald’s” of mountain climbing.
People first at a party often complain about those that come later. But those new to Everest aren’t just uncool latecomers like those who, say, didn’t like Nirvana until the band was on MTV. They’re often less experienced — and less able to handle themselves in dangerous situations.
“It isn’t a wilderness experience — it’s a McDonald’s experience,” Graham Hoyland, the author of “The Last Hours on Everest,” about the doomed 1924 ascent by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, told the BBC in 2013.
“Many recent deaths on Everest have been attributed to a dangerous lack of experience” Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic in 2013. “Without enough training at high altitude, some climbers are unable to judge their own stamina and don’t know when to turn around and call it quits.”
“Only half the people here have the experience to climb this mountain,” one Sherpa told Jenkins. “The half without experience are the most likely to die.”
The mountain’s first master offered perhaps the most damning observation: “There’s even a booze tent at base camp,” Hillary said.
2. It’s filthy. Like, really filthy.
The environmental disaster at Everest was summed up in a Washington Post story with a memorable headline: “Decades of human waste have made Mount Everest a ‘fecal time bomb.’ ” And the more people climb the mountain and feel the call of nature, the worse the fecal time bomb gets.
“Along the way, people have left oxygen canisters, broken climbing equipment, trash, human waste and even dead bodies in their wake, transforming the once pristine peak into a literal pile of … well, you get the idea,” Peter Holley wrote.
3. The racial politics are appalling.
Many people summit Everest — many rich people, given that the price of summiting is tens of thousands of dollars. But they’re helped every step of the way by Sherpas, members of a Nepalese ethnic group that does a lot of the hard work, but isn’t necessarily rewarded for it. This became apparent after 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche last year.
“The mountains are a death trap,” Norbu Tshering, a 50-year-old Sherpa and mountain guide told the Associated Press at the time. “But we have no other work, and most of our people take up this profession, which has now become a tradition for all of us.”
The tradition doesn’t bring equal rewards — or acclaim. After all, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who summited with Hillary, wasn’t knighted for his effort.
“I think my grandfather should have been knighted. He was a member of the expedition, not just a Sherpa,” Norgay’s grandson said in 2013. “They just gave him a bloody medal.”
4. Avalanches are a leading cause of death on Everest — and climate change may be making them worse.
After last year’s avalanche, the Atlantic published a breakdown of deaths on the mountain, finding that avalanches are the leading cause of death among Sherpas and the second-leading cause of death among “members” — those who pay Sherpas. Its thesis: Global warming may be making avalanches worse.
“You could say [that] climate change closed Mount Everest this year,” John All, a climber, scientist and professor of geography at Western Kentucky University told the magazine.
As temperatures around the world heat up, even the highest place on Earth is not immune.
“If it wasn’t the tallest mountain in the world, you would never put yourself on a glacier this active,” guide Adrian Ballinger told the Associated Press.
Of course, despite these worthy arguments against Everest, the mountain isn’t going anywhere.
“There will always be people who want to climb the world’s tallest peak, because there’s more to being on Everest than getting hemmed in by crowds or confronted by heaps of trash,” Jenkins wrote in National Geographic. “The mountain is so high and so indifferent it calls upon every climber, at one time or another, to rise to his or her better self.”