Requiem for Everest

To 1996. Here goes, as promised.

When I arrived Mount Everest for the first time, back in 1996, my life was different, times were different, the mountain was different. I still remember my first glimpse of it. Turning a corner on a dirt path out of Namche Bazaar there it was – so alien, so fearsome, so full of promise. How would I ever get to scale those snowfields in the sky. It seemed ludicrous.

Actually it wasn’t the first time I made its acquaintance. We had met once before, back in the early 80s, on a trip across the globe Tom and I made as kids to try and find our calling. The Transiberian railway from Russia, a bunch of trains with straw floors through China, and finally a truck carrying water melons took us to Lhasa. Everest looked smaller from that side, so small we decided to climb it.

Oblivious of permits and high altitude we hiked to basecamp with ten packs of Marlboros as main supply, tried to reach North Col, fell asleep at a mountain stream and were mercifully rescued by one of the two proper expeditions on the peak. Their jeeps promptly brought us back to the main road where we spent a few days trying to get a lift to Kathmandu, trading a local yak herder our hat for his egg and onions.

Coming back to the mountain 15 years later was a different adventure. We were climbers now, sharping our skills in Alaska and the Alps. Everest had some 600 summiteers, a banner in KTM celebrated Carlos Carsolio as the fourth man in the world to have scaled all the 14, 8000ers without 02. The peak was dominated by national teams and independent mountaineers. Commerce just budding, we would meet Scott Fisher and Rob Hall on the slopes, and laugh secretly at their clients short roped to them like ducks in a row.

The irony then that one of them, Jon Krakauer, would write an all time bestseller about the mountain, but it was a sign of change to come.

Everest didn’t let go of us easily. We spent 4 years on its slopes learning the ropes before it allowed us to touch its crown. And it would keep us for 15 years more, through Explorersweb, now following others struggling in our tracks and into a new world. This time Everest took us to the deepest spirit of man, an experience no less dramatic than once was our climb.

We saw people abandon each other on the mountain for no reason at all. There was Nangpa La, children shot before the eyes of apathetic mountaineers. There were the Olympic games, monks setting themselves on fire while climbers looked the other way, surrendering their own human rights for nothing more than a summit certificate.

Trying to accept what was happening almost broke my soul. That’s Everest for you. There are peaks more beautiful, harder, wilder. But only Everest did this to us.

There were those who helped me cope. The few who dared to rise against, stand up to the crowds. But then they all went and died.

Today we are nearing 8 000 victories on Everest. This season the peak reportedly had a few hundred summits in a mere day. The ascents are broadcast on social media in brief, impersonal, and politically correct postings targeting superficial friends and popularity likes.

K2 and the other 8000er peaks, once imagined impossible to guide by mountaineers, are tamed by Sherpa, supplementary oxygen and fixed lines.

After Everest, we went on to the Poles. Those have changed too. These days Antarctica is guided just as Everest and the North Pole is considered impossible.

The so called Adventure Grand Slam title – once held by the few individuals who managed to climb the tallest mountains of our world and walk to the farthest of its corners – is now awarded crowds on hiking peaks and week-long skiing vacations. The lot underwritten by prestigious clubs, self-proclaimed historians, and acclaimed in media controlled by the affluent and their special contacts.

Well, who am I to understand. Heck we didn’t even claim our Everest summit certificates, we were too busy partying in the penthouse at Yak and Yeti (yes, Ericsson was a great sponsor).

We could spend years talking about all that. In fact we have. It gained us many enemies and a few friends. In this age of Facebook it may surprise some kids we are pretty proud of that.

Everest took us through heartache but it shaped us on the way. It convinced us to believe in ourselves. It showed us the weakness of many, and the power of one. And it made us hatch big ideas.

Through all the nonsense there are real explorers still out there. The new Luis and Clark, the Columbus, the Marco Polo, the Amundsen, the Shackleton. Some are right here on Pythom, others walk their own roads and still others are being born today. They don’t need our laments but a path to something new.

For Tom and I, there is only one such way. It goes up, dear friend. It goes up farther than we’ve ever been. It goes straight up to Space, to other planets in our solar system. How will we ever get to scale those snowfields in the sky, we ask ourselves. It seems preposterous. But hey, one step at a time. Just like once on Mount Everest.

Related story: 1996 Mount Everest: We were there, and here’s to our friends.