Everest: Now Just Another Tourist Trap?

Alex Salkever
for National Geographic News
April 8, 2003

This story is the third in a series of articles from National Geographic News to mark the 50-year anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's successful summit attempt of Mount Everest. On Thursday, look for our interview with Conrad Anker, elite climber and color commentator for a new reality television program that aims to send five amateur climbers to the summit of Everest—during a live broadcast.

When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay planted the first flag atop Mount Everest on May 29, 1953, they surveyed an utterly pristine place. Nearly 50 years later, the scene surrounding the world's tallest peak is starkly different: Dozens of teams line up to take their crack at the sacred Nepalese monolith. Scores of guides jockey to get high-paying clients to the top. Trash on the roof of the world has become so bad that climbers mount expeditions specifically to clean up after past expeditions. At Everest Base Camp, a Nepalese entrepreneur is planning to open a cyber café—perhaps the world's highest at an altitude of 17,000 feet (5,180 meters). And this year, not one but two teams of snowboarders plan to ride down Everest from top to bottom to mark Sir Edmund's and Tenzing's accomplishment.

So the question begs: Has Everest become merely another high-altitude, highly dangerous tourist attraction? Or is the mountain still much more than that? The answer, say some in the mountaineering community, is both yes and no.

Oft-conquered Everest holds few mysteries for super-climbers seeking novelty to satisfy their own thirst—and their sponsors insistence on authenticity and core ethos. Some have sought out less-trammeled peaks. But seasoned mountaineers still say the feat of climbing Everest on a serious expedition remains a major accomplishment. Development of Everest Inc. has helped fuel an explosion of interest in the once obscure realm of mountain climbing. It's a tale of two mountains and two worlds.

Changing Face of Everest

When Louis Reichardt attained the summit of Everest in October 1983, he pioneered a route up the East Face of the mountain from the Chinese side, a first ascent that has never been repeated. Reichardt never returned to Everest. But he remains an interested observer in the comings and goings on the peak. Reichardt says he sees two big changes in the past 20 years since his departure. First, the expertise of the Nepalese sherpas has increased enormously. The indigenous climbers who make up the backbone of many expeditions can paper over weaknesses. "They seem to be the hidden and largely unacknowledged support for the guided expeditions and have a wealth of experience from multiple expeditions and often multiple ascents that makes it possible to get the rich, inexperienced, or handicapped far above where they could get on their own effort," said Reichardt.

The second big change he sees is obvious: The sheer number of people on the mountain has altered the dynamics of Everest forever. Many expeditions now climb with far less food and supplies, says Reichardt. They assume that another expedition will feed them or take care of them if things go wrong. "The isolation seems to be gone on the two frequently traveled routes on Everest and also on the Abbruzzi on K2, and with it the reliance on one's own group's resources alone. This apparent security can be quite deceptive," Reichardt said.

Within the core climbing community, the popularity of the peak has moved the focus to other, more technical but lesser known peaks. Take the case of Carlos Buhler, a professional climber who summited with Reichardt in 1983. He has been back to Everest only once (to attempt the North Face, without oxygen, in 1986). Instead, Buhler has bagged a series of novel ascents elsewhere in the Himalayas. He has no grudge against Everest but prefers novelty, new surroundings, and new people. Focusing on Everest, he said, "would be a very bland life. We wouldn't have the enormous satisfaction that comes from meeting people in Norway or meeting people in Kenya. That is how your question has to be framed."

Cashing In

At the same time, Buhler readily concedes that media and public interest in Everest has helped him to make a living as a professional climber. "It's allowed me to work as a speaker. It's opened up all these professions in the outdoor industry," he said. "We are undergoing an enormous shift in the way the public views mountaineering over the last 15 years. All of a sudden mountain climbing has become mainstream. I can actually ask for someone to give me a paycheck. I couldn't do that in 1988. I certainly couldn't do that in 1978."

Today, Buhler commands fees of U.S. $10,000 for speaking engagements and does marketing, photographic, and design work for Marmot, Tecnica, Outdoor Research, and Tubbs Snowshoes.

While few respect the rent-a-expedition trend that has trivialized the Everest ascent to a certain degree, in general the mountaineering community continues to respect anyone who climbs Everest on their own terms carrying their own pack and walking on their own two feet. Jochen Hemmleb, a German mountaineer whose own Mount Everest attempt was unsuccessful, has penned books on the search for the ill-fated Mallory Expedition. "If someone takes Everest as a cheap sensation, a one-hit wonder kind of experience, then they miss out on a great deal," he said. "If, on the other hand, climbing Everest becomes a lifestyle by preparing oneself over a number of years for the challenge, building up skills and confidence, then it becomes part of a larger, more fulfilling scheme. And it is the journey that counts, not the destination of ticking off that peak."

Continued on Next Page >>


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