Photograph by Grant Dixon/ Hedgehog House
Published May 17, 2013
Editor's Note: This piece is adapted from the last chapter of the new National Geographic book The Call of Everest, available wherever books are sold.
Last spring I spent a month at Mount Everest Base Camp for a photographic project. I arrived in early April, just as the expeditions were establishing the camps for the climbers, clients, and guides who would soon follow. I wandered slowly up the rock-strewn glacier ice, pausing frequently to stare at the hundreds of brightly colored tents clustered tightly along the meandering trail.
Most were small personal tents, but many were large dining, cooking, and communication tents. Generators purred in the distance, yak bells tinkled from the transport caravans, and a multitude of languages buzzed from the expeditions camps. (Read "Maxed Out on Everest: How to fix the mess at the top of the world" in National Geographic magazine.)
Thousands of prayers flags fluttered in the breeze. National flags from myriad nations rippled in the wind, too. It was an international village at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall, and it bore no resemblance to the one I visited 29 years earlier in the spring of 1983.
That year we were a small American team with a small encampment nestled up under the icefall. We had no contact with the outside world other than the sporadic delivery of mail by runner from Lukla, 40 miles down the trail. We were the only team on the Nepalese side of the peak. The mountain was ours and it was wonderful. We shared its slopes with only our teammates. The mountain and its challenges felt intimate and authentic, and at the same time so immense and grand. (Related: Mount Everest Fight Raises Questions About Sherpas.)
I had been assigned to our team by the ABC TV series American Sportsman, which sent me to the mountain to transmit the first ever live images from Earth's highest point. We set out from our high camp in the dawn's early hours and encountered thigh-deep snow. There were no fixed ropes above the South Col—only 30 feet of wind-battered rope hanging down the Hillary Step.
My teammates—Ang Rita Sherpa, Peter Jamieson, and Gerry Roach—and I traded the exhausting duty of plowing a trail up through the soft, deep snow. Yet we all managed to remain close together and gained firmer snow at the South Summit at 3:30 p.m. on May 7—30 years ago last week—where we readied for the final push. Larry Nielson had chosen to climb without bottled oxygen and was lagging behind.
I well remember my last few steps. The peak was pristine. It appeared that no one had come before us. The wind was light, but an occasional gust reminded us of its potential power. We shared the piercing spectacle of Everest's harsh, implacable grandeur and a great solitude. The five of us were but tiny dark dots barely visible from afar against the shimmering white peak.
Standing there, I knew my life had changed. I had attained a childhood aspiration. A long journey had ended. The world was at my feet. I was filled with a quiet awe and wonder, and a deep satisfaction, too.
I lay awake in my sleeping bag that night, recalling images of tired faces, exultant grins, and glinting peaks. Only hours earlier, I had become the 136th person to reach the top of Mount Everest in the 30 years since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first recorded summit in 1953. I was proud to belong to that select club, but I thought it was already 100 members too big.
Last spring, I talked with many climbers awaiting their own first try for the summit.
I met a single mother of three who explained that dreaming of the Everest adventure had got her through her toughest moments. Her children were grown and she was at Base Camp, trembling with excitement and full of apprehension. I met a businessman who admitted matter-of-factly that he disliked everything about climbing, but was determined to get his made-it-to-the-top bragging rights.
In the end, every climber, whether heavily supported or independent, must face the same cold and wind and make the same treacherous trips up and down the mountain.
Everest is never an easy or comfortable experience. It requires fortitude to complete a difficult and, to many, unfamiliar challenge with all the inherent risks: thousands of feet of exposure, rockfall, ice collapse, avalanches, and fast-moving storms.
Every year people die on the mountain. Between 1975 and 2012, more than 6,000 people reached the summit, while 197 died trying.
From afar we judge and blame the victims for bad decisions and unpreparedness, but nobody goes there to die. Climbers get swept up in an all-consuming desire to reach the summit, willfully ignoring signals that say it's time to turn around. It's hard to make disciplined decisions in a hypoxic, sleep-deprived, and dehydrated state.
Someone can certainly cast a negative image on the mountain based on today's concerns: overcrowding, less practiced climbers, weather that means less snow on the slopes. But I will never see it like that. Perhaps the mountain will be overrun and overused. Or perhaps it will fall out of vogue, no longer a prize, eclipsed by other more prestigious and less common adventure challenges.
In the end, I don't think it matters. Mount Everest isn't ours to control. The narrative of our experiences there is tightly woven into the fabric of our collective imagination.
The monolithic ice-draped rock we call Everest is a towering screen onto which we project our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. But behind the screen is a cold, remote, disinterested peak that doesn't care if we scale it or not. It won't bend or break because of our presence or willfulness.
When I recall my first ascent in the fading afternoon light in 1983, the experience seems so innocent and private. Yet I can understand, and even anticipate, the deep satisfaction of the 10,000th person who reaches the summit, no matter what motivation takes him or her there. We human beings will forever yearn for transcendent experiences that fleetingly set us free from the complexity and confusion of everyday life.
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