Monday, May 12, 2008

Dying to Climb Mount Everest

Everest is a rugged, cold, oxygen-deprived, inhospitable mountain that isn't suitable for human life. A few nearly super human souls like Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, who climbed the mountain solo and without oxygen in 1978, defy the odds and stretch the limits of human endurance. Many more people, like the dozens of amateur climbers who ascend the peak every year with the help of fixed rope lines, oxygen canisters, and teams of sherpas, conquer the mountain's 29,029 feet with all the resources that modern life can bear.

But modern conveniences and large tours only mask the true danger of the mountain. In 2006, eleven people died trying to reach the summit of Everest. Unlike 1996, the focus of John Krakauer's thrilling account Into Thin Air which documented a brutal storm that lead Everest's deadliest year, there was no swift-moving storm in 2006. In fact, there was a great deal of controversy about how and why so many people died in relatively calm weather. Nick Heil's new book Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season delves into the personalities and the histories of both the climbers who died and those that survived as well as the checkered past of Everest, in an attempt to untangle the mysteries of 2006.

Two men at the center of the controversy -- David Sharp, a British climber who lay dying as scores of climbers passed him in their attempt to summit and Russell Brice, the preeminent tour operator on the north side of the mountain -- get a lot of attention in Heil's account. Sharp's fate made headlines around the world when it became known that he perished on the mountain despite being seen by so many climbers. Brice, because he runs the most lavish and well-outfitted tours, was subject to a great deal of outrage in the climbing community. Why didn't Brice's people do more to save Sharp, even though he wasn't on Brice's tour?

"Brice, arguably more than any other individual, has been responsible for developing commercial climbing on Everest's north side, and where his responsibility and accountability ends when it comes to the welfare and activity of other teams and climbers on the mountain has become a subject of spirited debate," Heil wrote in an email interview. "Brice has been criticized for developing a heavily supported system that pampers clientele and removes most of the challenges (finding and putting in the route, dealing with weather, managing gear and food, etc) from high-altitude mountaineering, and thus enabling amateurs to make it up a peak they otherwise might not."

Sharp wasn't one of those amateurs. In 2002 he climbed Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world and less than 2,200 feet shorter than Everest. The next year Sharp attempted to climb Everest and fell just hours short of the summit because he was struggling with his oxygen system. In 2004, Sharp attempted a solo climb of the mountain and was turned back just a mile from the summit (about six hours) when he began to suffer frostbite. When he returned in 2006, he was a determined man. Once again he was climbing without a sherpa or a support team.

Sharp's forays were in direct contrast to the type of trips Brice ran. He was also a much different climber than the ones that Brice brought to the mountain. Among Brice's 2006 clients were several people overcoming physical difficulties. Mark Inglis, who lost his legs in a 1982 climbing incident on New Zealand's Mount Cook was attempting to become the first person to climb Everest on twin prosthetics. Gerard Bourrat, a 62-year old man who was barely recovered from kidney surgery, had the doctor cut into his abdomen rather than his back so he could carry a backpack without irratating the wound. Perhaps strangest of all, Tim Medvetz, a motorcycle crash survivor who was 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, had signed onto the trip at the last possible moment in questionable shape. Brice seemed to be running a wayward camp for guys trying to prove that they were physically up to snuff.

"I'm sure most able-bodied mountaineers who have climbed big peaks can appreciate what Mark Inglis, the double-amputee, accomplished by climbing to 29,000 feet," Heil wrote in his email. "That said, mountaineering does seem to attract a percentage of people seeking to reaffirm their own self-worth or bolster their self-esteem, and there may be no better case study than Everest--largely because it continues to carry such cache, no matter how cynical you might be about commercial climbing."

The tension between the amateurs and the accomplished climbers, between the well prepared mountaineers and people who might not even be in peak shape animates much of Heil's book. In one particularly memorable scene, Medvetz -- a rank amateur by most people's reckoning -- gets stuck behind 16 people waiting to climb the rock ledges at the bottom of the second step. "C'mon, let's go! It's fucking freezing down here," he screamed. "I'm going to die of frostbite! It's not funny."

Heil describes the climbers, a group of Turkish women, flopping around as the sherpas try to yank them up by their backpacks. It almost reads like a slapstick comedy, if the effects of standing around at 27,000 feet weren't so perilous. Once Medvetz scrambles up the ledge he gets stuck behind the women again, except now there is no reason to scream. The sherpas are performing CPR on one of the climbers that has collapsed and is blocking Medvetz's path. All he can do is wonder if he's going to watch someone die.

If there are any true heroes in Heil's tale it is the sherpas. They are the ones that fix the ropes at the beginning of the season, they are the ones that share their oxygen when western climbers collapse and they are even the ones that drag the dead bodies off the mountain. In the end, the only person who really tried to save David Sharp was Brice's lead sherpa Phurba Tashi, who spent hours trying to revive the Brit.

"Phurba Tashi is really just fantastically strong, and he knows what's happening on the mountain," Heil answered when I asked him about Everest heroes. "He helped turn Tim (Medvetz) and Gerard (Bourrat) around (when it was obvious they couldn't reach the summit), then did more than anyone else to try to help David Sharp, and THEN he carried Mark Inglis halfway down the North Ridge on his back when Inglis could no longer walk. He's an extraordinary individual who gets far less recognition than he deserves."

Dark Summit is a riveting book not just because the human drama that played out on Everest in May of 2006, but because of Heil's fine descriptive writing and keen insights into the motivations of the climbers, the guides and the tour operators. These portraits of the people and the landscape paint a much more complex view of what is happening on Everest then is generally understood. The difference between right and wrong is much easier to judge at sea level than it is at 28,000 feet. Heil shows completely exhausted climbers who aren't making the decision to ignore people in need, but are rather just trying to survive in the deadly climate.

"In fact, when I was on Everest in 07, I was struck not by what a circus it was (and there was some of that) but by the sense that these people did care, by and large, and that they WERE looking out for each other," Heil emailed. "What tends to get reported is all the nasty stuff of course; you never hear about the Sherpa who gave up his oxygen, or the guide who stopped to check on someone along the route, or really all of the small gestures of kindness and thoughtfulness that take place all the time."

Heil also gives a brief overview of Everest history including the exploits of George Mallory, Maurice Wilson (a crazed climber who planned to crash a plane into Everest to begin his ascent) and Edmund Hillary which helps to ground the tales of today's climbs. He also discusses the medical effects of cerebral edema, frostbite and freezing to death which come in handy when the climbers start collapsing all over the mountain.

Heil's book ends on a surprisingly high note with one climber who collapsed and somehow got up again. Lincoln Hall, who has written his own account of his climb Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest, survived even though he was basically left for dead overnight on the mountain. Heil tells the improbable story of his rescue, including tales of desperate sherpas who violently threatened Hall in an effort to get him down the mountain. Of course, the sherpas couldn't possible inflict more violence on a human being then the brutal world of Everest's North ridge.

Nick Heil will be discussing and signing Dark Summit at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 14th at the Boulder Book Store.

Additional Questions for Nick Heil:

Kash's Book Corner: After your extensive research and multiple interviews and your own experience on the mountain, what would you suggest for dealing with the problems of a crowded mountain. Should permits be tighter? Should there be a fitness test? What is even feasible?

Nick Heil: There are some basic steps that could certainly help: for starters, previous 8,000-meter experience on another peak (Cho Oyu or Shish, for example), minimum five years climbing experience, and probably a cap on the total number of climbers. I think the rope-fixing needs to be figured out and managed through a consistent system. And I think some sort of infrastructure that could deal with emergencies, like a rotating team of Sherpas that stays at one of the high camps during the busiest summit days. This all pertains to the commercial outfits of course. Independent and private outfits would need to demonstrate some kind of previous experience and expertise. I think the mountain's guides, outfitters, and permitting agencies could reach a fair consensus on all this. It's going to take Nepal and China to step up and require it, however.

Kash's Book Corner: The Olympic torch going up Everest has been in the news this week. What was the attitude towards last year's practice run? Is this just another step towards turning the mountain into a circus?

Nick Heil: I think the attitude about the torch test run in 07 was mostly mild bemusement. This year, with the mountain closures and general ruckus related to the torch relay and pending Games, it's turned to annoyance, if not genuine anger. The torch fiasco probably points less to the circus like nature of Everest than to the iron fist with which China controls that part of Himalayas. They care far less about the tourism industry (including the Everest climbing community) than they do about creating their own propaganda and news spin. The torch's trip up Everest is obviously of great symbolic importance. But all those who were put out of work this year on the mountain might have a significantly different interpretation of that symbolism than the Chinese.

Kash's Book Corner: If the sherpas can fix the rope lines early in the season, would it be possible for them to store emergency air cannisters and other supplies at key places in the route?

Nick Heil: Yes, they could. Problem is, it's expensive (oxygen canisters run upwards of $400/pc), and it's also quite a project for someone to try to manage independent rescue resources on the mountain. As I mentioned before, there could in theory, even be a small rescue team positioned up high, but again, there's the cost, and such a thing would also seem a bit excessive to mountaineers who pride themselves on the notion of their own self-sufficiency. One of the reason the Brice/Himex model works so well is that Brice has built in failsafes to troubleshoot problems during the climb. I think that's probably the way to go, before trying to establish elaborate rescue systems.


Geeks In Rome said...

I just ordered this book on last week. I had read a shorter account Nick had written for a magazine and it was brilliant. Glad you liked the book, Arsen, so I can't wait to read it, too.
Nice coup in getting Nick out there for a book signing! Hope it went well.

Sven said...

Good Job! :)