Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I Will Never Understand Us

My best friend is waiting to hear if she has breast cancer.

In the last few months, people very dear to me have been forced to stare down their own mortality. Heart attacks. Heart valves. Neonatal units. Rehabilitation centers.

Every six months I have to record magnetic images of my brain to count the holes forming among the lobes. All I can think of as I am slid into the MRI machine is, "This is probably what a coffin feels like." Which is why I will someday be cremated.

Life is scary. And dangerous. And random. And fragile.

So why do we humans insist on doing things that threaten our tenuous grasp on life? I will never understand that.

In 1997, I read Jon Krakauer's book detailing what was--at the time--the most deadly climbing season on the Earth's tallest mountain. At 29,029 feet, the summit of Everest reaches as high into the stratosphere as a commercial airliner. Reading that book was the catalyst to my ongoing Everest fascination. I have memorized posters detailing the routes up the mountain. I have read books, watched documentaries, attended lectures. All because I just want to understand.

I do not possess even the slightest desire to climb Everest, although I would someday like to see it, if only from a distance. The story of Everest is a fascinating one. The history is the stuff of Arthurian legend. But that is not where my fixation is rooted.

I will never understand why someone would risk everything they are, everything they have, everything they hope to be to stand on a 3 foot by 3 foot square piece of rock that cuts into the sky.

I don't get people. I don't get this impulse. But not for lack of trying to understand.

Straddling the border between Tibet and China, Everest is the elder statesman of the Himalayas. And until 1953, that mountain bested every attempt to climb her. Then New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay stepped onto her summit.

That climb I understand. There had been several attempts on Everest before Hillary and Norgay conquered it.

Aside--Neither Hillary or Norgay ever disclosed who actually was the first one of them to step into that last foot of the 29,029 they had taken. They knew that it was only by combining efforts that they could reach such heights. I have to wonder... Would that level of nobility and teamwork have been possible today? Or are we now living in a world where the first to post a photo to Instagram wins?

In 1924, an attempt on the summit was made by British climber George Mallory. Mallory will live forever in our lexicon because of his answer to a reporter's question about why he was going to climb Everest.

In response, he famously quipped, "Because it's there."

Indeed it was. It still is.

Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine were last seen from a Base Camp telescope, about 800 feet from the summit. Mallory's body was discovered on the mountain in 1999.

I think I understand Mallory, Hillary, and Norgay in the same way that I understand Armstrong and Aldrin. We went to the moon because it was there.

But I just can't wrap my admittedly mottled brain around why humans are still climbing Everest today.

These days, for the sum of the average middle class annual income, you can pay to be guided to the summit. You will be shepherded up the southeast ridge, hooking your climbing line into ropes that have been fixed by Sherpas prior to your arrival. You are lead over aluminum ladders pre-placed over great cracks in the icefall. Your Sherpa will haul your tent, your gear, your supplemental oxygen as he climbs by your side up the steep rock faces and through the dangerous, hovering seracs.

These days, you can buy your way to the top. But even though you have parted with $50,000 and have taken two months from your work and your family, you still have no guarantee that you will make it to the top. And even if you do, there is certainly no guarantee that you will get back down. At least not before you sacrifice a couple toes to frostbite.

I know that the adrenalin rush is real. That is why we bungee jump or sky dive, or SCUBA deep into sinkholes. I know that there is no feeling quite like conquering your fears. I know that there is a power in belonging to an elite group of people that share a common experience. I understand that. I get it.

But here is where you lose me. Doesn't the brotherhood of Everest survivors become diluted with the growing foothold of Everest tourism? Has a novice climber, who was pulled up the mountain, truly earned his way into that fraternity?

Everest has been conquered. At this point, the summiting of Everest has become--if not quite routine--within the grasp of a mere mortal, given enough disposable income and free time. Over 3,000 summits have been recorded. And more than 250 deaths. The number of dead Everest climbers is greater than the number of summits of Everest's sister mountain, K2. That peak, reaching 28, 251 feet, has claimed 55 climbers. Are those K2 expeditions not somehow more noble than the guided tours up Everest?

And then there is Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan. That 24,836 peak has yet to record a successful summit attempt. Isn't that mountain the embodiment of "because it's there"?

I just don't get it.

Aside--I am perfectly aware that there are similar risks in other extreme pursuits. In 2004, technical diver Dave Shaw became one of 11 people to have reached depths of 800 feet using SCUBA gear. In 2005, he died at that depth in Bushman's Hole, South Africa while trying to recover the body of another diver who died trying to reach that depth. But for reasons I haven't quite defined, I don't feel the same puzzlement about these divers. Perhaps only because the deaths from these adventures go relatively unnoticed and therefore not sought after by those seeking no more than bragging rights?

For the last 15-some-odd years, I have been following the annual May pilgrimage up the face of Everest, noting the success-to-death ratio. It isn't morbid curiosity. Or, at least it's not only morbid curiosity. I just keep trying to understand this amazingly human--and oft-amazingly stupid--quest.

There is a line of demarcation marking the breathable (although painfully thin) air below 8,000 feet above sea level and the deathly lack of oxygen beginning at 8,001 feet. They call it the Death Zone. Nothing living exists there. At least not for long. No birds. No insects. Not even vegetation. The longer you are in the Death Zone, the greater your odds of remaining there forever. Because, as it turns out, getting up above 8,000 feet is the easy part. Coming down from that height alive is where most of the danger is found.

And if you do suffocate or freeze or fall into a crevasse at that altitude, your body will lay there for all eternity. The air is too thin to allow a helicopter to maintain flight. No one will risk their own life in the Death Zone to bring down your lifeless body.

I don't understand it. To reach the summit of Everest, you very literally have to step over the bodies of fallen climbers.

Take Green Boots, for example.

Green Boots is a nickname given to the unidentified corpse of a climber that died curled up in a slight alcove that had been eroded into the mountain. Since his discovery in 1996, Green Boots has become not so much as a cautionary tale, but a mere trail marker on the path up Everest. Climbers trudge past his frozen body both on the way up and on the way back down from the summit.

Of the more than 250 Everest casualties, approximately 200 of their bodies are still up on Everest.

I just don't understand it.

Since I first started to learn about how the desires to climb Everest can overpower caring about the dangers involved in that act, I have thought that urge to be not-just-a-little crazy. But since last spring, I have realized that it is also not-just-a little selfish.

2014 was--to that point--the most deadly year in the history of the mountain. In an avalanche, 16 Sherpa guides were killed. Here is why I find that is so troubling. These Sherpas are not men that have giant bonus checks or can take work sabbaticals. These are the workers that are risking their lives to make going up the mountain more attainable for the people actually on sabbatical.

And these Sherpas earn only a tiny percentage of the fee a client pays to be guided up Everest.

But this year's climbing season has already dethroned 2014's Deadliest Year title. The devastating earthquake in Nepal triggered violent avalanches that swept through the camps of the climbers. So far, 18 climbers have been confirmed dead. Between 20 to 30 more are missing. And dozens have been injured.

This is the selfishness I mentioned before. Because, now, these climbers who, very deliberately, put their lives in danger are using valuable time and resources being rescued. While there are still victims buried under a crumbled brick temple or flattened schools and shops. The climbers on Everest are not victims. At least not in the sense of the people of Kathmandu, who are being pulled from
the rubble. The climbers aren't victims, they are volunteers.

I think that part of the social contract that should be agreed to before anyone straps crampons to their hiking boots is that they waive the right to be rescued. Climbers need to agree not endanger another person who risks his own life to extract that climber from a situation that they very purposefully put themselves in.

I just don't understand people.

Isn't life dangerous enough? What are we trying to prove? And to whom are we trying to prove it? Can anyone explain this to me? Please?


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