A mountain of greed

October 22, 2015

Everest I am an unlikely mountaineering fan. I could never make it up a mountain and would never try. Altitude affects me, for one and for two, I’m too lazy to train that hard and just not that interested in actually doing it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the commitment and the accomplishment.

Mount Everest has always fascinated me. Massive, cold, foreboding: Everest is an adversary few have conquered. Me? I conquer it from my armchair.

Over the years I’ve seen every movie and read just about every book written about summiting Everest. But as the years passed, I began to notice–and read articles about–the change in mountaineering, at least as far as Everest goes. The mountain had become a mountain of greed.

Climbing Everest has become big business. Everyone wants to do it and the mountaineering companies that do business there get upwards of $50K per climber. Since the expeditions rely on Sherpas, who are fairly cheap labor, there’s likely a lot of profit in that business.

Now, you’d think that professional mountaineering businesses would be selective about the qualifications of those they let on their expeditions. After all, it’s a risky business. And they are: if you’ve got the money and are fit, you’re in. But fit doesn’t mean you can climb safely.

Here are a few examples of those who have signed on: People who hadn’t climbed for a decade and wanted to try the big hill. An athlete who had a complete and rare knee transplant that affected his mobility significantly. Another whose legs barely worked after an accident.  All were accepted and most made it to the top.  When dysentery ran through an expedition, several made it to the top despite severe incontinence on the way up. Some got deathly ill on the climb but staggered up successfully.

That’s the dirty little secret: they made it to the top with a whole boatload of help. Supplemental oxygen. Steroid supplements. Base camp medical care. Sherpas did all the heavy lifting and carrying and in some cases, they actually have pulled climbers to the top. Or carried them down.  You might say they made it to the top, but with training wheels.

When Edmund Hillary and  Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first recorded summit, they did it without all that. They did it purely.  But today, there are people on that mountain who don’t belong there.

In fact, there are too many people on Everest. It’s become a mountain of greed and one day that will pose a safety issue.

Observers with any common sense at all recognize that long delays caused by the line-up of climbers attempting to summit during the short climbing season is a big problem. Staying warm that high up requires constant movement. Standing still for long periods of time at super-low temperatures can cause frostbite and worse. On top of that, frustrated climbers sometimes unhook from their safety lines to pass other climbers, sometimes on frighteningly narrow passages with sheer drop-offs. And should any single climber lose their balance and pull others sharing the rope with them, it’s conceivable that the total weight on a safety line could bring it down–and all the climbers and Sherpas with it.

As it turns out, the biggest challenge to those trying to get to the summit of Everest isn’t Everest, it’s the people around them. And their greed.

The government of Nepal makes a whole lot of money on these expeditions. They issue too many permits.

Expedition companies also rake in big bucks and allow marginally experienced climbers  into their groups.

Rich men are greedy for their next challenge. First a startup, then Everest. It’s just another notch in their belt. Forget that their own backpacks contained only water, lunch and an extra jacket. Forget that the Sherpas had everything else including extra oxygen. Forget that some of them pooped their pants from dysentery on the way up. What counts is that they got there.

Greed has permeated our world culture in so many ways. The commercialization of Mount Everest is just another. But for some reason, it bothers me more, maybe because these greedy amateurs put serious climbers at risk, as well as rescuers.

Although the most dramatic deaths are from avalanches on the mountain, it’s not uncommon for unprepared climbers–usually those climbing independently– to die from hypothermia.  And to be fair, the big expedition companies do their best to help prepare clients and keep them safe. Still, they take too many marginal climbers on, in my opinion, and that puts everyone on the mountain at risk.

The big 1996 tragedy was a combination of bad decisions and bad weather. Both played roles in that terrible scenario.

I fear that it’s only a matter of time before something on that scale or worse happens again.


27 comments on “A mountain of greed
  1. ryder Ziebarth says:

    There are a lot of these stories lately, aren’t there? But it is not as new as you think. Sadly, they may be true. But there are an equal amount to give hope. My parents were lifelong walkers and trekked and camped through the foothills of many large and small mountains throughout the world, including and up to as high as Everest’s first base camp ( in their late 50’s!) Tenzing Norgay’s son was their guide. Mrs. Norgay, his Mother, opened her home to my parents for tea several times, each trip they made back to the area, and they wrote and visited each other (she and her son to the states as well, ) for many years. We had a leeter from one of Dad’s sherpa’s when Dad died last year. There are bigger conquests in this world, Everest being only one. For every horror story, there is another like this. The media loves this kind of story, Carol. You know that.

    • What an experience your parents had–rare and special. Still, my point is not the horror story it had to do with the fact that greed has taken over what was once an amazing adventure. It’s still an amazing adventure, but too many unprepared climbers are involved, leading to these tragedies, which is unrelated to the media scenario, a different point entirely.

  2. Jack says:

    Good points. It is now about $75,000 at least. Have you seen “Everest”? Beck Weathers, who practices at a hospital in Dallas, and lost both hands & his nose in the 1996 mess, said the film was as close to reality as he could imagine. I have followed Everest for some decades & was at Sears HQ in Chicago when Edmund Hillary visited there about 15 years ago.

  3. I haven’t read everything, but I am a fan of all things Everest from an armchair point of view. Years ago in San Antonio we saw the IMAX documentary Everest. I too was and am alarmed at the number of unprepared people who attempt this adventure. Last year my husband and I and some friends scaled the Wayna Picchu trail. We prepared ourselves as much what with the altitude and the climb. Even though they limited the number of hikers, there were quite a few people, including myself, who were struggling. Not nearly as dangerous, but you can see where it could be such a problem. I will say at least they limited the tickets every day and you had to sign in and out with ID. But greed is nasty thing often leading to unintended consequences. Great post, Carol.

  4. So surprising (or is it?) that people go unprepared. Just amazing. Thanks for your perspective on this grand trek.

  5. Paola says:

    Totally agree with you! I for instance don’t want to go, exactly for the reason you stated.

  6. doris smith says:

    I didn’t see the movie, doubt I will. But i did read “Into Thin Air” and let the author (Krakauer) know how unfairly i thought he portrayed Scott Fischer. My husband and I were close friends of Scott’s parents, and we agonized with them as Scott’s fervor for climbing got stronger and stronger from his teenage on. I don’t know all the details of that final climb but i do know that Scott’s primary reason for climbing, at least as we watched him grow up, was not greed. He had a passion and a love for the challenge that moved him; not money. Obviously big money is part of it all now but in fairness, i don’t think you can paint such a broad, condemning picture.

    • It’s been a long time since Scott ran a climb. He’s been gone a while. I’m talking about what has developed in recent years, not him former business specifically. And of course, my opinion is shared by many people more experienced than I in this world. But you know, in the recent film, Jake G portrayed Scott in such an odd way I wondered what he was reallly like.

  7. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    I read the book about the 1996 disaster — now I can’t remember the name. Shocking horrifying story. It has stayed with me all these years.

  8. The world is studded with wonders that the faint of heart can never experience and that is okay with me. I am whole in spirit so need not make up a deficiency by killing a lion or spending enough money to feed and educate a village to stand on a mountaintop. I have to wonder what lack such people need to fill with these acts.

  9. Carol says:

    I certainly share some of your concerns about Everest and appreciated reading your perspective. Not too long ago, I heard Beck Weathers speak about his experiences. It was a very moving experience. Seemed like he was still suffering greatly from the trauma.

  10. I’ve never paid much attention to Everest or the stories of the climbers because as you explain here it is so fake. There is nothing good about this or those safari (hunter) guides and the companies that take you swimming with and or hunting sharks or whales. You are so right, fake trophies for fake thrill seekers. Great post, Carol.

  11. Once people actually watch “Everest,” I think they’ll realize how dangerous it is. The greed that permeates every single industry (and things that shouldn’t be an industry) is appalling and very very sad.

  12. Clare Speer says:

    Wow thanks for this story… I, like you, would never try to climb a mountain! I sure wish I was this adventurous – and scared of heights too!

  13. I haven’t read a lot about Everest climbs, but I do admire those who give it a shot (unless they have all kinds of the help you suggest many do) and I am looking forward to the upcoming movie about the Everest tragedy.

    BUT… the one thing that always just kills me when viewing footage of the majestic mountain is the TRASH!! Everywhere! Those people should have more regard for the place and not leave their freakin’ garbage there. That saddens me and makes me lose any admiration for the litter bugs that rejoice in reaching the summit yet have no qualms about ruining it. Grrr….

  14. Estelle says:

    I am happy to read about Everest-but have no interest in climbing it myself. The stories around it are fascinating, though.

  15. I love seeing photos from these climbs but I would never be able to do it myself. I’m amazed that it’s become such a popular thing that the mountain is over crowded. And I agree with you – if you receive that much help, you are going up with training wheels. And any kid learning how to ride his bike will tell you that it just doesn’t count.

  16. Susan Adcox says:

    I’m an armchair climber, too, and I agree with much of what you are saying, but I am still inspired by the exploits of those who are true climbers. Have you seen North Face and Touching the Void? Two completely different climbing movies, both great in their own ways. Haven’t seen Everest yet, but have read the different accounts of the tragedy. There’s much we will never know.

  17. Lakisha says:

    I always wanted go Mountain climbing but after a trip rock climbing I realized it wasn’t for me (scared of heights) but greed seems to be taking over everything. I admire that you have an genuine interest in this task.

  18. Carolann says:

    Very interesting indeed. It figures they would turn it into an amusement park of sorts. You are right, it’s all about greed. Thanks for enlightening me on this topic.

  19. Becki S says:

    Wow, I never realized all the dangers that were happening up on the mountain. Thanks for the educational piece.

  20. katie says:

    You’re a great writer, Carol! I think you have a good point, and because you told it in a story, I was even more hooked.

    ​​xx katie // A Touch of Teal

  21. doris says:

    fair and honest response, Carol. I agree there are far too many unscrupulous people far too eager to cash in on any good idea and then ruin it.
    Scott was a typical teenager except that he was manic about climbing. Neither of his parents, as i recall, shared his enthusiasm but they supported him,—and worried about him, as I’m sure all parents would.
    His death and the subsequent book hit them very hard.

  22. Everest looks like the ultimate challenge, but one that I really would not like to try at all. Reading this post, I could not agree more; it is all about greed for the big bucks, and man’s self-deception that this is just another milestone in life.

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