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Because It's Still There

Climbs of Mount Everest have become common, but the mountain retains its allure -- and its danger

By Richard Hoffer

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For a half century trekkers have left their mark on the mountain.  Thomas Easley/AP Photo
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.

Issue date: April 14, 2003

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