It’s hard to hang on to a reliable mental image of Mount Everest these days. Is the great Himalayan peak still among the planet’s foremost symbols of inaccessibility? Or is it going the way of Mount Fuji, slowly evolving in the popular mind from a lonely, forbidding, lethal fortress into a routine trekking destination for the masses?
Perhaps no one cares either way, except for sentimentalists and greenies. But people should care. Japan is understandably excited about the achievement of Takao Arayama, who earlier this month became the oldest person ever to scale the 8,850-meter peak — he is going on 71 and deserves his accolades. But look at the bigger picture. The man whose record he edged, Yuichiro Miura, was just three days younger than Mr. Arayama when he reached the summit in May 2003.
It rather diminishes the mountain to think of it as the latest destination of choice for septuagenarians, even exceptionally fit ones. And that is a pity. The more crowded and packaged and technology-assisted our lives become, the more we need our stern, remote old icons of solitude.
To be fair, Everest is still pretty stern. Corpses are visible from the trails in the oxygen-thin upper regions known as the death zone, where lungs grow distressed and minds cloudy and it is all climbers can do to get themselves down safely. Already this month (always the busiest on the notoriously weather-challenged peak), 15 climbers have been killed either going up or going down. That brings the number of fatalities on Everest since New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay conquered it in 1953 to more than 180. It also puts this season’s death count past the 1996 toll of 12, previously the highest ever on the mountain.
Mr. Hillary himself issued a public rebuke last week to the more than 40 climbers from different teams who have acknowledged leaving a lone Englishman to die, apparently after he ran out of oxygen, while they pressed on by to the summit. The mountain is certainly no Sunday picnic spot, and it does not always bring out Sunday-best manners in its devotees.
So yes, climbing Everest is still a ferociously difficult undertaking. At the same time, though, the mountain hasn’t seemed truly remote or lonely for a long time. In those 53 years since the first confirmed ascent, more than 2,000 people have succeeded in duplicating the feat, and thousands have tried to.
Against the 15 fatalities on Everest this season, chalk up the hundreds of survivors: There have already been 53 expeditions from the Tibetan side and 29 from the Nepalese side, counting among their numbers American, Australian, Austrian, Brazilian, British, Canadian, German, Korean, Philippine, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Swiss and Turkish climbers — and of course, the Japanese.
And that’s just on the flanks. The throngs on the actual summit this May included not only Mr. Arayama, but also the first double amputee to reach the top. They now join the Everest circus stars of yesteryear: the first blind climber to summit, the youngest (a 15-year-old), the first married couple, the first to ski down, the first to snowboard down, and so on. Accurate or not, the impression of Everest as no match for human resolve (and money and lots of really fancy equipment) just keeps on growing.
There are nothing but downsides to this. For one thing, it surely encourages far too many mediocre climbers to hazard an Everest attempt. How many of those that do make it to the summit would never have come close without being “nannied” up there as part of expensively outfitted and expertly led expeditions?
And therein lurks another problem: Those expeditions do not bring down nearly as much gear as they tote up. Hence Everest’s growing reputation as a trash magnet — a problem long familiar to lovers of Mount Fuji. Last summer, a team of Chinese volunteers collected 10 tons of garbage above 5,000 meters — mainly discarded oxygen bottles, stoves and tents — on the Tibetan side alone.
According to the nonprofit Katmandu Environmental Education Project, the situation has improved slightly following some well-publicized clean-up expeditions, including those led annually for several years by Japan’s Ken Noguchi. Still, these are all volunteer efforts, and it’s hard to know how long they can stem the tide of trash left by the endless stream of climbers.
Last, but hardly least, there’s the sense of spiritual loss that attends the taming of Earth’s wildest places — the oceans, the forests, the deserts and above all the mountains, which were once held sacred for a good reason: They stood closest to heaven. That is why, even as we celebrate Mr. Arayama’s personal conquest this month, we might want to reflect as well on the value of leaving a few things on this planet forever unconquered.
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