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Because it is there

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaThe assault on Everest and the backlash as tourist zones reclaim their pride and privacy.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Traffic jam in Everet's death zone - the mountain strikes back

Everest traffic jam at the Hillary Step, 29,000ft up in the death zone - 11 climbers died in May 2019

ON 29 May 1953 when Edmund Hillary (a reclusive Auckland beekeeper) and his intrepid Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay emerged above the clouds to finally ruffle Mt Everest’s 29,029ft killer peak, it was the culmination of decades of romantic endeavour at the lung-bursting limits of human endurance. No mortal had set foot this high before. Sagarmatha, or Chomolungma, as the mountain is reverentially known in the Nepalese and Tibetan vernacular, was exclusively the abode of the Gods.

Later, in typically understated fashion – entirely without artifice or in the glare of media flashbulbs – Hillary said in an aside to a climbing companion, “Well George, we knocked the bastard off.”

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It was another George – George Leigh Mallory the storied British climber – who famously said of the lure of Everest, “Because it is there,” before vanishing with fellow climber Andrew Irvine in 1924 after being spotted pressing on 300m below the summit. His frozen mummified body was found in 1999. Irwine remains unaccounted for.

{The ruthless undressing of the world has eliminated the sense of discovery that inspired original wanderers who immersed themselves in local cultures

Since then over 200 people have died on the mountain through hypothermia, falls, oxygen deprivation, pulmonary oedema, inadequate acclimatisation, frostbite, dehydration, and heart failure. As many as 19 people died in May 1996 as competing expeditions slogged up through the oxygen-starved ‘death zone’ (above 26,000ft) and 11 more have perished in 2019 as overcrowding took its inevitable toll with waiting times dragging on fatally depleting oxygen and human reserves.

Why would anyone be willing to take such a risk? For the professional climber, the answer is simple. It’s the lure of the untamed wild. Because it is there. That very wild is now ferociously resisting attempts to tame it as assaults on Everest’s flanks have moved up to an industrial scale with 381 permits issued to 44 climbing teams in 2019.

The Nepal government does not cap expeditions (leaving traffic flow to be managed by climbing teams and tour companies) and appears hopelessly addicted to its US$300m annual earnings. A lack of government oversight has combined with the increasing commercialisation of professional expeditions that claim to place anyone atop Mt Everest for the tidy sum of US$60,000 or more. The onslaught of casual hikers and unfit thrill seekers has put not only their own lives at risk but imperilled their guides and created a blot on the landscape for those who came to experience something removed and unique.

Over 4,800 people have climbed the mountain, a staggering number given the risks involved and the amount of time it took for the first human being to make that successful ascent. Almost 300 have died. Apart from Everest’s high kill rate another half dozen may succumb to altitude sickness each year and pass away on the trek to the base camp before any climbing commences.

Over-harvesting of tourism is a growing problem all over the world and as with all such enterprises it is afflicted by diminishing returns as travellers seek out places less polluted by crowds, noise, and selfie stunts. There is a purity that true travellers (as opposed to cattle-herded tourists) desire that is harder and harder to find as the world’s last fastnesses are prised open by GPS, roads and megapixels.

Diminishing returns affect travellers, who derive less pleasure from their passion; the local culture, where craftsmanship is replaced by kitschy tourist gewgaws; and the local inhabitants, who eventually tire of the ‘invasion’ and push back to reclaim their lives.

Most of all, the ruthless undressing of the world has eliminated the sense of discovery and intelligent enquiry that inspired original wanderers who immersed themselves in local cultures and committed their knowledge to books. Today’s iPhone peripatetic is on a tight deadline with just a few minutes to shoot a selfie before racing on to the next point. The accretion of centuries barely rubs off on his New Balance soles.

Quaint doll’s-house cities like Bruges are clamping down on tourist numbers to fight the charmless monoculture of ‘chocolate and beer’ shops catering for short-term visitors. The mayor, rightly, wants the place to regain its pride as a Belgian UNESCO Heritage City. Macau wrestles with its flood of casino day-trippers. Amsterdam is playing with tourist taxes to limit the influx while Barcelona (a city of 1.6 million that annually hosts a staggering 32m tourists) considers a ceiling on new accommodation. All over the world there is a brewing clash between New Age purists and hardboiled business over the definition of ‘profit’. Is the pulse-calming tranquillity of a green view worth more (or less) than a coal plant that sullies our lungs but sets homes aglow? It is a question travellers need to ponder before ticking off the next item on that bucket list.

If Everest has taught us anything it is to slow down and smell the roses. There are limits to tourism on steroids. Unless, of course, as with deforestation and plastic rubbish, we are willing to despoil our one planet for a quick buck, fleeting convenience, and a photo op.


For Everest primers peruse the thoughtful and direct After the Wind by Lou Kasischke, the crisply written Into Thin Air by climber-journalist Jon Krakauer whose presence on the 1996 climb was claimed by some to have prompted team leader Rob Hall to take undue risks in the death zone, and The Climb by the late Russian mountaineer and guide Anatoli Boukreev.

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