Don’t Climb Every Mountain

All mountain climbs contain an element of risk. How a mountaineer chooses to approach that risk, using the sum of the physical, mental and emotional powers at his or her disposal, is the basic challenge of the endeavor. At its best, mountaineering rewards shrewd and independent decision making.

Sadly, events on the south (Nepalese) side of Mount Everest this season suggest that while the risks inherent in climbing the mountain have never been greater, a majority of Everest climbers are increasingly estranged from the decision-making process. Two intersecting trends are to blame: the rising number of people attempting the mountain, and the cumulative effects of global warming, which is slowly yet steadily drying out the Himalayas, resulting in rockfalls, avalanches and sérac collapses.

The sheer number of people courting Everest — this season, approximately 750 foreign climbers and local Sherpas, from 32 expeditions — has created a system whereby the entire climbing route is institutionally maintained. Approximately six miles of rope is strung up the mountain each April, secured by hundreds of snow pickets and ice screws. Sections of aluminum ladder are employed to span crevasses too wide to safely step across.

The principal organization responsible for this artificial trail is the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, a professional cadre of climbing Sherpas known as the icefall doctors. Although important decisions are generally made by rough consensus among expedition leaders, and often guides and volunteers will help with maintaining the route, a vast majority of climbers simply start at the bottom of the mountain and go where the ropes lead them.

The classic route from the south, as pioneered by the British in 1953, follows the Western Cwm, a natural valley, and is exposed to falling hazards for much of the way. Climbers must contend with two notorious risks: the Khumbu Icefall and the Lhotse Face.

This season, hampered by dry conditions, the mountain has been dangerously alive. Last week, rock fall on the Lhotse Face resulted in a half-dozen serious injuries, and one very near miss was reported when a titanic avalanche ripped between camps 1 and 2, thundering completely across the valley and obliterating the trail. “At certain times during the day there are more than 50 people on this path,” the writer Mark Jenkins wrote recently in a dispatch from the mountain for National Geographic’s Web site.

Climbers speak of two kinds of hazards: objective and subjective. The subjective risks are those you can potentially control through skill and experience. The objective ones are events like avalanches and icefall that don’t care who you are, only that you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rarely has so much of the latter been stacked up against so little of the former. Although there were a few complaints whispered through base camp that perhaps a safer route was possible through the icefall, more to the center of the formation, and the lines on the Lhotse Face were moved farther to the side in response to intense rockfall that was strafing the normal line, most climbers seemed to accept these dangers as unavoidable.

In the end, mountaineers have one final option at their disposal. They can choose not to be there in the first place.

Last weekend, Russell Brice, owner and operator of Himalayan Experience, one of the largest and most respected operations on the mountain, told his combined team of more than 60 clients, guides and climbing Sherpa staff members that he was canceling the rest of their season. On his Web site, Mr. Brice was succinct: “I had long and serious talks with the Sherpas, the icefall doctors and my guides, and we have made the decision to cancel the expedition. We can no longer take the responsibility of sending you, the guides and the Sherpas through the dangerous icefall and up the rockfall-ridden Lhotse Face.”

Everest summit season, traditionally stretching from the second week of May to the beginning of June, is upon us. The world will probably soon hear of great triumphs on the peak, and there is equal capacity for great calamity. May the shrewdest and most independent decision of the season not go unnoticed.

Freddie Wilkinson is a guide, author and climber from Madison, N.H.

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