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Photo of Conrad Anker climbing on Everest.

Conrad Anker climbs through a crevasse between Camp 1 and Camp 2 at the base of Mount Everest.

Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic Creative

Conrad Anker

for National Geographic

Published June 4, 2014

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."

Conrad Anker is a professional mountain climber sponsored by The North Face. He was part of National Geographic's 2012 expedition to Everest. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

29 comments
Charles Perry
Charles Perry

I agree totally with this article. When I see pictures of lines of people jumaring to the top of Everest have to shake my head. Always wondered how many of these people ever lead grade 4 ice or lead 5.10 and above on a wall or varaglas ice with big runouts. Wonder how many in that line have ever been alone with a partner and your thoughts on a small ledge freezing to death, waiting for the sunlight to push upward.  Just glad there are climbers like you and Jimmy plus a host from Alex and Becky on up that know the game, play the game for all the right reasons. And the reason is not so you can stand on the top of a peak and say "I climbed that". 

Jeff Mitchum
Jeff Mitchum

Back in the late 90's I was offered an opportunity to climb Everest. Why? Because of my celebrated status as a landscape photographer and high level of fitness (Ironman etc) this group loved the idea of what I might create. My climbing ability's sucked. But I can scramble and route find with the best of them ha ha. 


So, this is what I concluded. Out of respect not only to Everest amazing beauty and history, but to the climbing community who lives a life I am familiar with but not a part of (Socially yes) a respectful "NO" to these sincere people. Keep in mind they promised 6 months of intensive trainning etc.... Now, my thought process....


I have listened and read all the forums "Why".... "Who"... etc.... The more research I have done my discoverables have shown me far too many incapable and un-skilled individuals are on this mountain. We don't graduate kids from kindergarten to a doctoral program. However, it is apparent we are seeing a greater twist of individual's grades to qualify them for one of the greatest dances on earth. 


Further on my thought process. I have such a tremendous respect for climbers who are living life full of life. The thought of me posing on one of the icons of the mountain world was repulsive. Like owning a trophy kill of an animal because he had such large horns. Possessing a snapshot of my ice pick in hand on top of this majestic wonder certainly would of poured accolades upon me in my galleries "Ohhhh, Ahhhhhh", but a poser I would be. 


We recently lost my friend and one of Yosemites greats Richie Copeland to a fall. I asked him if he desired to move into some of the 8000 meter plus dudes. He laughed and laughed and laughed. The more he laughed the deeper understanding I got why true climbers do what they do. It's in your hearts. You love life. You don't need trophys, but you do need to explore and let your lives be living letters of life's explorations. It is a soul thing. Richie was the emboidement of what men seek and he was faithful to who he was.


I was thrilled to walk away from that invite. Treking to the top of Kilimanjaro or to Everest basecamp is within my skill levels. That is where the difference lies, skills. Climbers bring a full quiver of life experiences and accomplishments we need to live through. But, no posing with a surfboard on the beach after having paddled out and declaring "I surf pipeline". 





Jonas Poadiatre
Jonas Poadiatre

 Sorry, you mean on North America's biggest mountain, "Mt. McKinley", not "Denali". Unless you call Everest "Sagarmatha", it's Mt. McKinley, not the old local name.

Daniel Welch
Daniel Welch

"Back in my day we had to walk 10 miles through the snow on our knees to get to school.  That's the way it was and we liked it!  We loved it."

Dipanjan Mitra
Dipanjan Mitra

"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." Also the fact that such places and many others are not for novices and inexperienced who do not have the skills to climb the Everest or other peaks. Very few actually desire to climb the highest peak for joy or salvation. Most try to summit for some recognitions which is actually harming the mountains and the Himalayas all over. 

As Mr. Anker has aptly mentioned "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."

Harry Callahan
Harry Callahan

I have zero mountaineering experience, so I may be off base, but ... why exactly is it acceptable to helicopter into base camp but not Camp II? I'm sure that very very few (if any) Everest ascents entail a single person hiking from sea level to the top in one unbroken climb without any vehicular assistance. (Even Goran Kropp used a bike, something that you specifically called out.) It just seems to me that the designation of base camp as the official starting point is completely arbitrary. Similarly, the use of clothing, even ultra-modern synthetics like Gore-Tex, is completely accepted by climbers, even though one could quite reasonably argue that there is nothing "authentic" about "meeting nature" using high technology.

Again, I have no experience in this matter. On the other hand, if you're trying to convince the general public, there's a lot of non-climbers among us.

Francine Brewin
Francine Brewin

they do it 'because it's there". What a feat to be able to accomplish this when most people are content to sit on the couch.  In my younger years, my husband and two kids in tow would go crosscountry skiing, camping, birdwatching, canoeing, looking for butterflies. These activities are very inexpensive and makes you appreciate nature. Bravo to those who dare doing the impossible,

Roswitha Bernhardt
Roswitha Bernhardt

Base Camp on the Nepal side is at an altitude of 5,364 metres .  So taking a helicopter ride to the 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.    This is an incorrect statement if the ride started at base camp.  I don't know from where she got into the helicopter.   Anyway since it really wasn't a possibility to climb to the summit any other way this season I can accept that the climb that she did should be credited as a summit.   Also I think that in future all the heavy lifting may have to be done that way .  Mallory thought that the Icefall would make it to dangerous to climb the mountain from that side.  He put it off as an impossibility.  I think he would have accepted that a climb on that side could be the real deal from above the Icefall.  It's better than no access or ascent on the Nepal side at all.

Ann Bauer
Ann Bauer

Conrad, I respect you very much as a climber and writer, and have for many years. This piece is lovely as a reflection of your personal feelings, and those of your fellow career climbers. I have long cherished that Mallory quote as an antidote to the "because it's there" that so many people love to parrot. No, he had an answer, and so do you. 

However, I cannot help but wish you had included a recognition that the 16 men who died in the Icefall were not, perhaps, doing it "for the joy" and love of climbing. They were, per what I have read, climbing that day because they have no other viable means of making a living. This is a more difficult problem, without an easy answer. And I know that you have discussed this in other forums and made many contributions to the lives of those in the Himalaya. But I would have liked to see an acknowledgement in this piece of what lessening the risks and dangers would mean to those men. 

Also, his name is spelled Willi Unsoeld. Please correct this. (A remembrance: Unsoeld also died on Rainier. And based on quotes from him, even after losing his daughter to the mountains, he would absolutely agree with your thesis here.)

Aditya Shinde
Aditya Shinde

Conrad this couldn't have been better put together. Thanks.


AJ you're really missing the point here.

Gary Lehman
Gary Lehman

AJ cut anker some slack. you are off base. he has done a ton of great work for the local families in the Khumbu Climb Center he founded, and the local families lives are tied in with the ecotourism and adventure tourism of their homeland.  anker and others have opened eyes minds and hearts, and world of young people to the majesty of the mountains and the fulfilment of their personal best in the outdoors and throughout their lives. he knows more than most the danger of the mountains from his own personal and devastating experience. we should only have more like him. ask the sherpa= they will tell you the facts on the ground. strap on some crampons some time, dig the mountain, feel the burn some time, and see it for yourself before you spray your self righteous unfounded uninformed grand standing outrage.

tao observer
tao observer

An initial thought is that maybe it is actually too easy to get to base camp.  If one had to hike to base camp (like in the "good old days"), this would lessen traffic and filter out the less dedicated/experienced climbers, who may be trying to climb Everest for what could be considered the wrong reasons.  Fewer less-experienced climbers would then lead to fewer fatalities and help mitigate environmental impacts.

A J
A J

What this piece completely misses is that when you take these climbs you aren't just putting your own life at risk, you are putting the lives of your guides at risk. You are putting the lives of your potential rescuers at risk. You are putting the lives of the people who will try to recover your body, to give your family piece of mind, at risk.


Only a real egotist would write an article of this length without a single comment on that fact.


http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-06-22/mount-rainier-ranger-killed-rescue/55755348/1

Hatham Al-Shabibi
Hatham Al-Shabibi

@Jonas Poadiatre I lived in Alaska for three years, and it is widely considered to be "Denali." Locals and climbers don't like the name "McKinley," because the person it's named after had absolutely nothing to do with the mountain. 


It's called Denali National Park for a reason. The name "McKinley" is purely political. 


"There is a dispute over the name of the mountain listed by the United States Board on Geographic Names as "Mount McKinley" and by the Alaska Board of Geographic Names as "Denali", located in Alaska as the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve. Alaska has requested that the mountain be recognized as "Denali," meaning "the great one" in the Athabaskan languages of the Alaska Natives living around the mountain, which is the common name in Alaska. Attempts by Alaska to have Mount McKinley's name changed by the Federal Government have been blocked by members of the congressional delegation from Ohio, the homestate of mountain namesake William McKinley... “We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency." By most accounts, the naming was politically driven; Dickey had met many silver miners who zealously promoted Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan's ideal of a silver standard, inspiring him to retaliate by naming the mountain after a strong proponent of the gold standard."

Jeff Mitchum
Jeff Mitchum

@Daniel Welch


I think walking ten miles in the snow on your knees may be a stretch Daniel. But, if you did and loved it I have found a new best friend! :)

Simon Duffy
Simon Duffy

@Harry Callahan To reach base camp is a trek.... To reach camp ll is a climb. If Lewis Hamilton or Dale Earnhardt Jr were on their way to a motor race circuit i'd doubt the drive to the circuit would be deemed as part of the race. In saying that, if they entered the race with only a third of the laps remaining (fresh car, full fuel & fresh tires) I wouldn't think that would be a fair race?? This lady has done the same thing on Everest by not climbing through the Khumbu Icefall. This is one of the hardest parts of the climb. It was actually the Swiss who first figured out how to get through the fall and only then was the British expedition able to progress and eventually summit Everest. So in my view its not a legitimate climb.

Brad Jackson
Brad Jackson

@Roswitha Bernhardt Yeah that needs to be tidied up. Camp 2 is at 6,400 m, Anker is referring to the height of Camp 1 at 5,900 m. I suspect he meant that flying to Camp 2 is 1/3 of the trip to the summit. 

Conrad Anker
Conrad Anker

@Ann Bauer Thanks for noting the correct spelling of Willi's name. The team at Nat Geo digital has made the correction.


Yes my heart goes out to the 16 Nepali killed in the ice fall this year. On fellow Ankaji Sherpa was a part of our 2012 Everest expedition, being the first person to summit. He was a senior instructor for the Khumbu Climbing Center where he taught many young Nepali men and women the skill and craft of climbing mountains. He was my friend and equal - we had a trip planned to Makalu to go climbing for the fun of it. Ankaji took his training seriously and was on his way to becoming a certified IFMGA guide, the global standard for mountain guides. He loved to climb on his own, having rock climbed in the country that takes climbing pretty seriously. 


In my experience, the Nepali mountain workers that enjoy being in the mountains are the ones that are safer and better prepared for the environment. 


To lessen the risk would be fewer trips up the ice fall. If guided clients had to carry their own supplies like on a Denali expedition, there would be less exposure to objective risk. 

C Fairman
C Fairman

@Ann Bauer I have travel to all parts of Nepal many times over the years (during Maoist Revolution, to work, humanitarian efforts, climbing etc) and I have just returned from my aborted expedition to Everest during this tragic season. You might find this interesting, but most of my Sherpa friends will tell you that they enjoy the very lucrative oppurtunity that climbing provides them  (some even enjoy actually climbing) the tourism industry is one of the biggest sources of income in Nepal. Its Supply and Demand... capitalistic opportunities are the same world over. I also have many Nepalese friends who are content to just farm, and would never risk their lives climbing... forgoing the monetary advantages. What you should know about this tragic season is this: All the Sherpas were paid in full for the season, even though only a handful were affected by the tragedy, and many Sherpas never even entered the icefall this season (yes they were paid as well). In fact our team freely released anyone who wanted to leave (again with full pay) we actually were one of the only teams to enter the icefall, and we actually re-set a good portion of the route ourselves (like climbers do). You should also know that the Sherpas who WERE willing to go back in were physically threatened by a handful of instigators. There are several lessons we can take away from this tragic event, not to blame but to improve safety... such as, maybe the route was to far to the left? Easiest route is not always the safest. Situational Awareness: When a ladder collapses, you don't just sit down on your pack under an ice cliff. A plan of action/retreat when things start to go wrong. These are all things we can learn from, and hopefully better train our wonderful Sherpa support to minimize future incidents. Bottom line is we all know the risks, Sherpas included. Yes, they should be well compensated, but No they are not forced.

Daniel Welch
Daniel Welch

@c kaf What are the "right" reasons?  This smacks of arrogance to me.  I may think someone is dumb for trying to climb Everest as an ego trip -- but I also think someone who does it to "prove" something to themselves, or thinking it helps them to commune with nature, is dumb as well.  That's just all my opinion, though.

A G
A G

@c kaf Well, you still have to hike to base camp like in the good old days. Only on the Tibetan (Chinese) side it is possible to use a car. And that has been possible since before 1985.

Conrad Anker
Conrad Anker

@A J Thanks for your comment. I am cognizant of the extended risks associated with climbing. Having worked rescues on Denali and Everest I have experienced the intensity of helping someone in a very inhospitable environment. These are the some of the best moments in my life. My volunteer friends at the Gallatin County Search and Rescue are part of the group for the community and challenge. The majority of field calls involve a mishap in a remote location.  The rescue volunteer train specific technique and accept the underlying risk of injury or death. The have self selected themselves for this work and do so with enthusiasm. 


While this is one example, the sentinent is shared within the community. While the family of My Rainier Ranger Nick Hall is left with the loss of their son, he was working in the mountains and understood the risk of his work. Ranger Margaret Anderson, also of Rainier NP, was fatally shot six months earlier in 2012 at snow tire chain check point. With respect for those that help out.



tao observer
tao observer


@A J No one has to be a climber, a guide, a rescuer, or a body "recoverer" if they don't want to be.  On the other had there is a lot of risk associated with simply driving a car.  People don't choose to walk or bike or take mass transit. Instead they decide to pollute the air, water, and soil; endanger pedestrians and cyclists, and wildlife; and promote paving over the planet thus creating urban heat islands and very unpleasant, dysfunctional cities in general.

Harry Callahan
Harry Callahan

@Simon Duffy Reaching the top of Kilimanjaro is a trek, so does this mean you're totally OK with helicoptering to the top? I understand that the route matters, but I don't understand why there is this binary black and white distinction when all I see is a bunch of gray areas.

Jeff Mitchum
Jeff Mitchum

@Conrad Anker @Ann Bauer


Thanks Conrad, out of curiousity is there a reason clients are not required to train to carry their own supplies through the ice fall? It would seem to me if a client could not meet this requirement then you would have one more filter to say this expedition is not for you. Thoughts? 

Ann Bauer
Ann Bauer

@C Fairman @Ann Bauer I actually did know all of that. I was commenting that it would have been appreciated for Conrad to mention them in this article, as I know he cares deeply for his support teams. 

You need to take into consideration the economic realities before you make easy claims like "no they are not forced." I never said they were "forced".

tao observer
tao observer

@A G


Not like 1963 (or before) per below:


"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."

Conrad Anker
Conrad Anker

@Harry Callahan It is a gray area for sure. And it is recreation, after all, at the end of the day. In sports with timee and spatial constraints we make rules. Climbing a mountain is a bit more free form and it is our own community that decides, with out rules, on what is legitimate. 

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