In light of the deaths of six climbers attempting to summit Mount Rainier via the Liberty Ridge Route, many will question the logic of climbing dangerous mountains. "You're an idiot for risking your life for an egotistical pursuit," went one outraged email I received after climbing Everest for the third time.
I have heard many of these criticisms over the years. The British climber George Mallory heard them also. "What is the use of climbing Mount Everest? And my answer must at once be, it is no use," he wrote in 1923. "There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever."
I suspect that some of those who want to see more safety measures introduced into mountaineering might agree with the Chinese climber Wang Jing's decision to use a helicopter to bypass one of most dangerous parts of the route to the top of Mount Everest.
"We have the technology to avoid putting climbers in harm's way, so why not use it?" they might say.
My response—and that of many of my fellow climbers—is that the danger of climbing mountains is part of what makes it a powerful and enriching experience.
That's not to say technology has no place in climbing. The human drive to climb Everest has been an ever evolving journey. The first Everest expedition in 1921 started with a walk from Darjeeling, some 400 miles away.
The 1953 expedition flew into the Kathmandu Valley and began their trek at the valley rim. By 1963 the road had been extended a bit farther, yet the approach still required three weeks of arduous hiking.
Since the mid-1970s, with the opening of the Lukla airport, climbers have started their approach within the Khumbu watershed, the hike to Base Camp limited only by how fast you can acclimatize.
Beyond the bare essentials—bravery, endurance, and teamwork—the recipe for getting to the summit has been tweaked continually with new technological advancements introduced by each new generation of climbers. But what has not changed is the principle that climbing a peak is more than just reaching a summit.
Within the mountaineering community, the method a climber uses to ascend a peak is essential to the endeavor and a key element in measuring an expedition's success. By comparison, a hunter who shoots a penned animal in a controlled environment with a high-powered rifle is engaging in a completely different type of hunt than someone who uses a bow and arrow in a wild setting.
Similarly, the Boston Marathon is an amazing foot race because it is exactly that: No bikes, cars, subways, or horses are allowed. The America's Cup is special because it is solely the wind that powers the boats. And on Everest, the climb begins at Base Camp—if you take a helicopter part of the way up, have you climbed the mountain?
Wang Jing reached the summit of Everest on May 23 with a team of five Sherpas via the South Col route on the Nepal side. The popular route winds through the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, where on April 18 an ice avalanche killed 13 Sherpas and three other Nepali mountain guides.
The mountain has been unofficially closed since the accident. Out of respect for those who died and their communities, the professional guides packed up their operations, and the approximately 300 climbers who paid for permits to attempt Everest this year returned home. The majority of those climbers understood the closure and accepted that mountain climbing is a game of odds, and a mass tragedy is a potential outcome. (Related: "Sherpas: The Invisible Men of Everest.")
But this year's tragedy aside, summiting Everest in this day and age isn't particularly noteworthy. (Related: "Maxed Out on Everest—How to Fix the Mess at the Top of the World.")
Wang's ascent is unique in that she used a helicopter to avoid the icefall, flying over the cascade of jumbled ice in a matter of minutes and starting her climb from Camp 2, which at roughly 19,000 feet (5,900 meters) is almost two-thirds of the way to the summit. Nevertheless, the Nepali authorities are in the process of validating her ascent.
Helicopters aren't new to Everest. They have been used there for rescues, resupply, scenic rides, and scientific study for decades. Notably in 1963, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld were whisked off to Kathmandu after their harrowing ascent and traverse of the mountain's West Ridge.
During peak season on the Nepal side, there are multiple arrivals each morning, with helicopters arriving to replenish supplies, bring climbers to camp, and offer landings for tourists willing to brave a rapid jump in altitude. This past season the medical team at Everest ER noted 28 landings in one day. By contrast, on the other side of Everest in Tibet, the Chinese government forbids the use of helicopters.
And on North America's biggest mountain, Denali—where all climbers are required to begin their expeditions on the South East Fork of the Kahlitna—helicopters are used only for rescue.
Using helicopters to rescue injured or sick climbers is an obvious and justifiable purpose, but I have watched helicopters pick up wealthy clients for a brief interlude in Kathmandu. While a quick trip down to the lowland, thick air might benefit acclimatization, that indulgent use of technology violates the whole reason for climbing Everest in the first place.
By some reports, Wang, who owns a China-based outdoor clothing and gear company, was under pressure to summit Everest as part of her bigger goal of climbing the seven summits in a six-month period—an expensive and uncertain experiment in logistics. If she had not been able to summit Everest this season, not only would her personal efforts be for naught, but also a major marketing opportunity for her company would presumably be missed.
As a climber for The North Face, I understand the desire to succeed on behalf of my sponsor. But regardless of the labels on jackets and tents and glossy marketing campaigns, there are no shortcuts in climbing. We keep authentic adventure alive by meeting nature on its own terms.
The Khumbu Icefall is the most active ice feature that humans climb on a regular basis. As the ice on the Western Cwm spills over a bench and drops 3,000 feet (914 meters) it is stretched into massive shapes, snapped, tossed, and turned by gravity. Adding to this already threatening landscape, hanging glaciers above the climbing route regularly release large quantities of ice, creating massive killer avalanches.
Yet as dangerous as the icefall is, it is an intrinsic part of the Everest experience. You boot up, say your prayers, and hope that the ice is calm. No amount of experience can make up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is very dangerous, but it is also unspeakably beautiful.
During the dozens of trips I have made climbing through the Khumbu Icefall, I always tune into the orchestra of sounds emanating from this ancient glacier. The deep groan of ice compacting near Base Camp, the snap of small towers near the surface, the sudden crack of a serac, the sudden unexpected wind that whips through the formations, and the distant rumble of Nuptse and the other surrounding peaks shedding ice. Each is a constant heart-stopping reminder of how active Mount Everest is.
While part of me dreads climbing through the icefall, it is a component of the Everest experience. Flying to higher camps may reduce the risks, but it isn't climbing.
For those who still don't agree, Mallory, who died in an attempt to summit Everest in 1924, had an answer: "If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life."