‘Everest is Easy!’

From a recent Skype conversation with a long-time friend:

 – Mila! Omg! I saw the photos from the summit of Everest! SO Awesome!

 – Yes, it was amazing up there. I’m really tired, though: they say you need several months to recover after an expedition to an 8000-meter peak, and at this point I think this sounds about right.

 – Really? I actually read or heard somewhere that Everest was easy to climb these days: you know, with all the porters, and the guides, and the oxygen…And there are all those really young people doing it, and older people, too… So many people up there!

 – They’re not just random ‘younger people’ and ‘older people’ – those of them who succeed train very hard before they come to Everest. And I doubt it that any of them would refer to the climb as ‘easy’.

 – But it must have been easy for you! You’re so sporty – you’re doing something crazy all the time!

 – Not at all. Climbing Everest was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I believe, many Everest climbers have similar conversations with friends when they come back home from Nepal: ‘I read/heard/saw on TV that there were steps carved into the face of the mountain, and that they were building an elevator to the summit…’ Mainstream media portrays Everest as both deadly and easy, drawing the ‘wrong’ demographic to the foot of the mountain. Unfortunately, faced with the harsh reality of Everest, those people can’t help but demonstrate their lack of climbing- and mental preparation for an ‘adventure’, which was supposed to be easy. In this post I would like to say a few words about the media reporting on Everest news. I will also try and explain that Everest is nothing if not hard, and draw future climbers’ attention to the fact that mountaineering experience is required to climb it safely.

I brought enough good books with me to our base camp in Tibet that I had little interest in world and Everest news. Many of my team mates, however, did keep track of current affairs via their iPhones, Blackberrys and Kindles, and 3G at base camp. Alan Arnette’s blog at www.alanarnette.com was our team’s go-to site for Everest news and analysis thereof. The reason is that, in addition to other mountains, Alan has been to Everest 4 times, reaching the summit in 2011. As an experienced climber, he knows exactly what he’s talking about, unlike, unfortunately, most journalists who report on Everest in the mainstream media. When the team came down to base camp after summiting and looked at some of the many media articles about overcrowding on the South Side and of the 10 deaths linked to Everest, the sentiment we shared was disappointment. Chomolungma, the Holy Mother, the stunning mountain which is a dream to climb on for so many, is only in the news when another picture of, perhaps, a hundred climbers following fixed lines emerges, or when a fatality occurs; the deaths on the mountain are usually – incorrectly – blamed largely on overcrowding (I won’t go into this in this blog but here’s a great article to look at if you’d like to know more: http://www.alanarnette.com/blog/2012/05/30/everest-2012-season-recap-a-study-in-risk-management/ ). The same journalists, who write in dramatic language about the dangers of Everest then come to the most unusual conclusion – that Everest is easy to climb. Imagine: you see a photo of tens of people moving obviously slowly and painfully towards the highest point on Earth; they are dressed almost like astronauts and are breathing supplemental oxygen; you probably know that people have died on the mountain before; so then, naturally, you think: ‘this is a piece of cake’… How?

It is true that nowadays almost anyone can attempt to climb Everest thanks to the presence on the mountain of many commercial expedition operators with varying ethical standards. But would it be easy for ‘almost anyone’ to actually climb it? A climb on the normal route with a well-supported commercial expedition could, perhaps, be relatively easy for Reinhold Messner who made the first solo ascent of the mountain with no oxygen in 1980, in addition to being the first to summit all the 14 8000ers. However, an average Everest climber with her/his average skill, strength and stamina is very different from someone like Messner – so different, in fact, that calling them different species would not be too much of an exaggeration.

For me, an average climber, Everest was very hard indeed. I could never have reached the summit and come back down without Altitude Junkies’ support: logistics, Sherpas, oxygen… Still, even with all this support available, all the climbers on our team had to bring something to the table before we could join the expedition – something which the ‘Everest is Easy’ articles make ‘climbers’ believe is not required – experience in mountaineering. Experience won’t make climbing Everest easy but it will make it safer for you and those around you. It will also give you a better chance to reach the summit, or turn back if your body tells you it’s time. Experience is understanding – of mountains and of oneself in the mountains, and this understanding is survival, with a bonus of 10 fingers and 10 toes.

I believe that the media with its ‘Everest is Easy’ stance is at least in part to blame for the abundance of inexperienced climbers on the mountain. A relatively wealthy person could sign up for an Everest expedition out of sheer curiosity or boredom, inspired by the media’s imaginative accounts of Sherpas carrying climbers to the summit and back down. Thus, one often sees ‘climbers’ looking at crampons with childlike wonderment, unsure as to their application – at the foot of the world’s highest mountain. When such long-time climbers as my team mate Grant Rawlinson from New Zealand bring this lack of experience to attention, and in their personal blogs give their personal opinions in their personal style, the media jumps on and criticizes them for their ‘insensitivity’. One of the most emotional pieces from Grant’s post (http://climbforhope.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/may-24-climb-to-the-roof-of-the-world/ ) was picked up by the media in his home country, taken out of context of the mountain and the person, and offered to the general audience for ‘judgement’. And the audience readily judged. In spite of all the controversy, which Grant’s blog post generated, I would like to say that I second the sentiment he expressed. Knowing Grant and having climbed on the mountain, I can say that it is out of compassion for them that he criticizes some mountaineers for their lack of preparation. How is wanting to ‘stick a burning teddy-bear up someone’s behind’ an expression of compassion? It is, if the alternative is to watch people injure themselves and endanger their peers’ health and even lives. In my opinion, telling the truth about how risky and difficult something is, and writing about the possible consequences (for oneself and others) of pursuing potentially dangerous goals without adequate preparation, understanding and respect, is an act of compassion.

To finish this rant, I mean, post, I’d like to suggest that those of you reading it, who are contemplating a climb on Everest take your time to gain some real mountaineering experience – which your adventure company may call ‘recommended’, but which is absolutey ‘required’ – before you pay your bills and pack your duffel bags. Not that you won’t stand a chance to succeed if you don’t – you may well be lucky… However, you will doubtless enjoy your expedition more if you know what you’re doing on the mountain; you will also be able to appreciate where you are – on the slopes of Goddess-Mother of the World – if you climb on several other mountains first; if you summit, you will feel like you actually earned – as opposed to just paid for – your place on top of Everest.