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ONLINE DOCUMENT: EVEREST: MOUNTAIN MADNESS

Flip past the Galapagos Islands cruises and the Botswana camping safaris in the latest catalog from Mountain Travel/Sobek, and you come to this eye-catching headline:

"Everest Expedition.""Are you ready to tackle the summit of the world's highest mountain?" asks the text. "At 29,028 feet, Everest is the ultimate climb of all." The price: "From $65,000."

Once off-limits to all but the world's most accomplished climbers, Mount Everest is increasingly marketed as the ultimate trophy for upwardly mobile amateurs.

For the price of a Mercedes S320, adventurers with high aspirations and deep pockets can buy a chance to join one of the world's most exclusive clubs - the 683 who've left their footprints on the summit of the mountain Sherpas call Chomolungma - "goddess mother of the earth."

But now, as survivors straggle off Everest in the wake of a blizzard that killed eight people last week - five of them members of such commercially guided expeditions - questions are being raised about whether high-paying novices belong on the world's highest mountain.

The disaster has touched off a debate in the booming adventure travel industry, with some arguing that their customers deserve a shot at the top - as long as they have the required skills and understand the extraordinary risks.

To be sure, many clients on such expeditions are experienced, competent high-altitude climbers. And the companies that guide the trips say they screen clients carefully. But reports from the mountain suggest that some recent Everest aspirants were little more than enthusiastic beginners.

"It's really appalling," said Jon Krakauer, a writer and expert climber sent by Outside Magazine to report on the scene. His comments were posted on the magazine's World Wide Web site.

"There's a lot of inexperienced people here ... and that's sort of scary," Krakauer said from base camp before the tragedy. "There's a lot of people here who shouldn't be here."

Climbing the world's highest mountains is almost certainly the world's deadliest sport. Years ago, a British insurance firm calculated that the chance of being killed on such an expedition was roughly 1 in 10. The odds probably have become kinder since then, due to improvements in equipment, clothing and communications. But the fact remains that for every five people who have reached the summit of Everest, one has died.

In the recent storm, the death toll included two of the most respected guides on Everest, Scott Fischer of Seattle and Rob Hall of New Zealand. Also killed were Hall's assistant, Andrew Harris, and clients Douglas Hansen of Renton, Wash., and Yasuko Nanba of Japan. Another client, Dallas pathologist Seaborn "Beck" Weathers, was able to stagger down the mountain and get plucked off by a helicopter at 20,000 feet.

Details are still sketchy, so it's hard to know whether the experience level of the clients played a role. Reports suggest that Hall remained near the summit as the storm was gathering to help client Hansen, who was having trouble descending a 40-foot cliff known as the Hillary Step. And Fischer's company said he was caught out in the blizzard because he had climbed back up after escorting down a client with altitude sickness.

Everest's grim aura was enough to keep most novices away until the mid-1980s, when two high-powered businessmen - Frank Wells, president of Warner Bros. Inc. and later the Walt Disney Co., and Dick Bass, a Dallas oil man and developer of the Snowbird ski resort in Utah - set out to become the first to conquer the "Seven Summits," the highest peaks on each of the world's seven continents.

Both were climbing novices. But they hired some of the world's best mountaineers as guides, and in 1985 the 55-year-old Bass conquered the last of the seven, Everest. (Wells failed to reach the summit of Everest. He was killed in 1994 while heli-skiing in Nevada.)

In recent years the impoverished Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, which derives most of its income from tourism, has altered the Everest permit system so it now favors high-paying commercial expeditions. Nepal charges $10,000 a head to set foot on the peak.

"The permit is so expensive that the only ones who can afford it are the investment bankers who can pay $65,000 to be on commercial expeditions," said Al Read, president of Exum Mountain Guides in Wyoming's Grand Tetons and vice chairman of Geographic Expeditions, a San Francisco adventure travel company. "Private groups of competent mountaineers cannot afford to go."

No matter how thoroughly guides screen clients, Read said, the hefty amounts involved are likely to color the decision.

"If you need one more person to fill out the trip and there's someone standing in front of you holding $65,000, well, you don't want to be irresponsible - but even if he's not quite the person you'd hoped for, you might end up taking him along anyway."

When the storm hit last week there were 25 expeditions on the mountain, including a British TV crew filming actor Brian Blessed's push for the top, an American group attempting to film an IMAX movie on the summit and a 16-year-old from Rhode Island, Mark Pfezer, hoping to become the youngest ever to conquer Everest.

Lawrence Huntington, New York-based chairman of Fiduciary Trust International, a global investment management firm, said climbing the world's highest peak had been a "lifetime dream."

He joined hybrid Everest expeditions - partly commercial, partly sponsored - in 1991 and 1994, and turned back short of the top both times.

"It's one of the most extraordinary challenges on Earth," said Huntington (whose son, Stewart, works as an editor at The Examiner).

Lawrence Huntington, an experienced alpinist who had climbed Mount McKinley, Aconcagua in Argentina and other big mountains, said many climbers he encountered on Everest "simply shouldn't have been there."

"They had never been in the Himalayas before, they were under-equipped, they didn't know the basic techniques, they didn't know how to acclimatize properly and they kept getting lost," he said. "I'd say a lot of the people getting permits were not qualified."

Not all of the neophytes were on commercial expeditions, he added.

Since the late 1970s, according to Read, many non-commercial expeditions made up of allegedly competent climbers have in essence been guided up the mountain by experienced Sherpas.

What's new is that Everest is now being marketed to people outside the community of experienced high-altitude mountaineers. In recent years, ads for commercial expeditions have appeared regularly in such magazines as Outside and Climbing, and in adventure travel company catalogs.

The trip advertised in the current catalog of Mountain Travel/Sobek, an El Cerrito adventure travel company, was for the ill-fated expedition, led by Fischer, on the mountain last week when the storm hit.

Doug Parker, vice president of Mountain Travel/Sobek, said his firm wasn't operating the Everest climb; it merely listed the trip in the catalog and forwarded inquiries to Fischer's company, Mountain Madness. "We had it in there to round things out for clients who wanted to climb the Seven Summits," he said.

Parker said he had some concerns about such an expedition, particularly about the process of screening unqualified aspirants.

"Still, it's easy right now to take potshots at these commercial expeditions," Parker said. "It isn't safe, and it's never going to be safe (to climb Everest). But that doesn't make it illegitimate to try."

At Mountain Madness, the Seattle company Fischer worked for, a spokesman said the screening of potential clients is extensive. Everest candidates are required to submit a climbing resume detailing their experience. The guide then interviews the candidate at length.

But experienced mountaineers say the multitude of dangers encountered on the upper reaches of Everest are vastly greater than those faced on even the riskiest adventure travel trip at lower elevations.

In the "Death Zone," the region above 24,000 feet where the oxygen-poor air makes survival difficult and clear thinking next to impossible, the line between success and death is often razor-thin.

Robert Holmes, a San Francisco-area photographer and veteran of five Himalayan climbs, including Everest, said the money involved in commercial expeditions can distort decision-making.

"Up there even experienced climbers sometimes use bad judgment and do things they shouldn't do," he said. "If you've paid $65,000 for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get to the top of the world's highest peak, you're going to push very hard - and that can't help but put pressure on the leaders."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)