Updated: The Everest Backlash

8000ers Everest
The view down from Everest's Balcony. Photo: Peak Promotion

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect new information from several sources that Elisabeth Revol used supplementary oxygen on her climbs of both Everest and Lhotse.  Reference to her no-O2 climbs has been cut pending further clarification.

On May 23, Nirmal Purja summited Everest and Lhotse within eight hours. He then flew to Makalu and summited that as well. Back in Base Camp, he posted the feat on social media. But for this ex-Gurka soldier, his triumph was not celebrated as expected.

Nirmal Purja on Everest

Nirmal Purja on Everest.

Some devoted fans did praise Purja, but one of the pictures he shared, in which he didn’t even appear, dwarfed all other aspects of his post. In it, a long line of human figures wrapped in colourful down suits pressed against each other along a sharp ridge toward a summit. The summit of Everest.

The image went viral within minutes. In hours, it had triggered millions of negative comments in hundreds of languages. Later, general media stories analyzed the possible motivations and vanity which led nearly 300 people to endure that dangerous mess in order to set a foot on a piece of rock and ice.

News of deaths in the following hours, and some highly dramatic testimony from those present, added gasoline to the fire. Jagged Globe’s manager David Hamilton, back from his 10th Everest summit, told the BBC that the reality was even worse that the pictures. Filmmaker Elia Saikaly topped for the third time and described an insane scene of “Carnage, chaos… people dying… walking over dead bodies.” Then he added that he had filmed it all and that the images will make “a heck of a ride of a documentary.”

Expert comments gave critics moral support for trashing the “tourists” who crowded a place they shouldn’t have reached, thanks only to money, loads of O2, massive Sherpa support and kilometres of rope. “We should elevate ourselves to the mountain’s difficulties and not downgrade the mountain to our capacities,” endurance athlete Kilian Jornet posted on Twitter.

Fair means seemed to be the key factor separating praise from disdain. It’s style versus trophies, ambition versus purity, money versus experience and skill. All that backlashed on Purja, who inadvertently found himself in the crossfire. Both the general public and some very seasoned climbers disdained Purja’s “whatever it costs” approach: limitless oxygen, fresh Sherpas on each ascent, far-from-green helicopter flights everywhere, runs up mountains with all the infrastructure of camps, ropes, etc. The mountaineering website RussianClimb compared his “Guinness record” claims to setting an “Olympic record using doping.”

Even the charitable aspect of Purja’s challenge, while popular in the UK, was not seen so charitably elsewhere. If someone wants to help children, the argument went, he should donate the huge sum of money that these expeditions cost directly to needy kids.

Nirmal Purja’s infamous and already oft-published May 23 photo.

Meanwhile, Juan Pablo Mohr of Chile successfully summited Everest without oxygen. David Göttler, also climbing sans O2, turned back a mere 200 vertical metres from the summit when he ran into the traffic snarl. He figured that he would be too dependent on how the crowds moved (or didn’t move).

“My decision to leave late and have the warmth of the sun worked really well until just below the South Summit,” he said later. “There, the weather started closing in and I ran into all those people coming down. I made the decision to turn around at 8,650m — waiting and wasting energy is not an option up there without supplemental oxygen.”

He took pains to point out that he wasn’t complaining. “I don’t feel like a victim of the masses here, ” he said. “I knew what to expect. Why do people here get upset? They should have known what they were getting into.”

Göttler concluded that he probably should have set off from Camp 4 earlier. Mohr did just that and managed to summit ahead of the worst crowds.

David Göttler wearing not O2 but a protective mask. Photo: David Göttler

So a handful of “prestigious” no-O2 climbs prove that Everest can be summited that way, against nearly a thousand clients going for it while sipping oxygen. Of these, 850 summited and 10 died. The public verdict is clear: Hail to the no-O2 climbers, a pox on the rest.

Is this totally fair, however? Is it despicable to try to reach the top of the world with all the advantages that money and technology can buy? Can anyone summit Everest if they have enough support? The answer to the two first questions depends on one’s personal view. As for the third, definitely not. Climbing Everest, even with supplementary oxygen, ropes, camps and all the best gear remains a serious  challenge which demands training and exceptional mental strength.

The backlash centres around the motivation behind climbing Everest. All explorers, mountaineers, polar travelers, long-distance hikers have reasons for doing their adventures. Some of these reasons are admirable: curiosity, courage, raising awareness for some virtuous objective, etc. Others are more personal, and sometimes dark. Often, the inner motivation to carry out something remarkable has to do with ego and the need for recognition.

In the adventure domain, nothing represents ego and self-recognition like reaching the highest point on earth. These people literally stand above of all other human beings. No wonder Everest is a magnet to human ambition. No wonder some men and women hope to enlarge their success in business and in life by reaching the real top of the planet. No wonder some of them include the title “Everest summiter” on their business cards for the rest of their lives. And no wonder that there’s a backlash against this.

“And you thought we would be impressed?” One of the countless memes currently on social media. This one, from Spain, depicts Madrid’s subway reaching new heights.

As humans, we’re more than ready to disparage those driven by their own vanity. This year, the backlash has been particularly resounding, thanks in no small part to Purja’s worth-a-thousand-words photo. Those nurturing a triumphant image of themselves, fist in the air, the mountains at their feet, have been criticized and even laughed at as part of the pathetic traffic jam on the Hillary Step.

Saddest of all, some of those who happily shared their selfies on the way to Base Camp, smiling in the sun with a background of mountains, died on some stupid, jammed push to the summit of vain ambitions.

But behind each of those masked figures on the Hillary step is a story. A story of inexperience and recklessness, in some cases; a story of long years of preparation and alpine experience in others; or a story of a simple, honest way to make a living.

The inner motivations which pushed each of those reaching 8,848 metres above sea level compose the inner truth that will either gratify them when they return or echo in their heads on the last moments of their lives.

About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Sport journalist, published author and communication consultant. Feeling back home at ExplorersWeb after five years exploring distant professional ranges.

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22 Comments on "Updated: The Everest Backlash"

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David
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Isn’t it time to sort this overcrowded issue on the mountain out? One day a heap of climbers will get caught out up high with mass casualties resulting.
Then what? bit late then as most readers will appreciate. And I pity the poor Sherpas caught up in the mess trying to assist in such an event.

David.

iain
Guest
That’s exactly what happened in 1996 but I’m afraid greed outstrips common sense so it continues to happen, this year the weather was fine (if cold) but it still happened. I wonder if the company gets to keep the $60 thousand when the climber dies? I have little pity left to be honest, firstly the responsibility lies with the climber to accept the risk realistically (like if you’ve never worn crampons before you shouldn’t even be attempting it) but more so with the company who basically refuse to vet these people. Its a business and that is not the best… Read more »
Anonymous
Guest
My sympathy is with the Sherpas, who are just trying to earn a living and feed themselves and their families. They have to cater to this bunch of adrenaline-addicted egomaniacs who have nothing better to do with their time, money, and efforts than to put themselves and others in danger for bragging rights, “I summitted Everest.” The death of David Sharp (ignored while he was dying by most passersby, who were in the throes of Summit Fever) speaks volumes about the kind of people doing this climb. Many of them have spouses and young children and pregnant wives. Didn’t one… Read more »
Damien
Guest

I am one of the adrenaline-egamaniacs who summited on 23rd May. It appears to me that you have absolutely no idea of what it means to climb Everest – or anything higher than your sorry armchair-naysayer-ego… Anonymous…. Wow, you habe a very strong backbone!
Btw, never seen seen an “anonymous” on a mountain. You ghost?
Granted, many should not be there – a lot of Indians and Chinese.But slshing Everest climbers like you do just proves you have ZERO knowledge of the world of high altitude expeditions.
Please, just shut up.
nepalitimes.com/here-now/because-we-are-there/

Brian T
Guest

“…many should not be there – a lot of Indians and Chinese..”.

LOL, that’s cute. Who died and made you king of the mountain?

Damien Francois
Guest

7 out of 9 who died on the South side were Indians.
You were there, too? I doubt it.

Alulkoy Kent
Guest

White Westerners have defiled and desecrated the sacredness of the mountain with their filth, trash, and their moldy carcasses. They have been prostituting the Indigenous Sherpas for decades. What the Sherpas see when the Climbing season comes are the Walking Dead. If you can’t see this for yourself, then your ego, disrespect, and self-importance is bigger than your common sense!! The sherpas are the only real Hero’s!!

Alulkoy Kent
Guest
Maybe it is the Americans, English, Germans, Russians, Danish, Norwegians, Aussies, and New Zealanders who Shouldn’t be there since they don’t have any sacred ties to the mountain. They are the only ones who see it as a “Thing” to be conquered. They have no spiritual ties, or respect for anything, and they never have. They don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves, especially other climbers or the Sherpas. They have no better skill or rights to be on the mountain! If anything, they should stay off, it is always the loudmouthed Westerners who put themselves or other people… Read more »
Damien Francois
Guest

You are talking about the holiness of mountains but don’t seem to exactly understand what that means today. Please read “The Holy Mountains of Nepal”!
http://www.vajrabookshop.com/categories/vajra-publications/products/holy-mountains-of-nepal-die-heiligen-berge-nepals-les-montagnes-sacrees-du-nepal

nope nope
Guest

Nirmal Purja never mentions the sherpas he’s working with? Get your facts straight please.

Kam
Guest

Yours is the only article I have read which is disparaging of Nims’ incredible challenge. It is disingenuous at best of you to equate the backlash against Everest climbers to a move to belittle his project possible.
He mentions and gives credit to his Sherpa teams often too.

Klaus
Guest

That same Mrs. Revol complained her rescue two years ago wasn’t for free and timely enough…

Dave @ Accidental FIRE
Guest

That metro stop in Madrid has a great paella right down the street….

Iain
Guest
Time to address the elephant in the room. The companies that offer these package tours. It is they who accept practically anyone who has the money, no matter how inexperienced (well known that every season people turn up who have never even wore crampons) it is they who choose the window to summit, it is they who rush to get people up and down as quickly as possible. It is they who never publicly accept that people literally die in their hands, always quick to trumpet their success but never the tragedy, it is they who are now expanding to… Read more »
csj
Guest

The military does a similar, but much larger business, with hundreds of thousands of people.

Gllint Breightly
Guest

If enough climbers keel over, they can build a set of stairs out of them. Then we can all climb it.

anon
Guest
Kilian Jornet. You use him in your article. A man proven to have performed 2 schemes of fraud on Everest in May 2017. Including 4 witnesses on May 22 who were, per Kilian’s own time-reports, right behind him for a multitude of hours. They would have seen him and his light ascending for a long time, and then he would have walked right by all of them in his descent. None of the 4 saw him. 2 climbing groups of 2. 2 US climbers (the Anderson cousins from Iowa), and 2 Indian climbers. Their testimony and articles can be found… Read more »
Anonymous
Guest

Darwin in action.

Damien
Guest

You deserve the ARMCHAIR-Idiot award, no doubt!

Bulgakov
Guest

And you for being of mean spirit, deserve the other, indubitably!!

Damien
Guest