Thursday, June 01, 2006

Everest or Bust

It's been an interesting season on the world's tallest moutain, where the climbing window is a scant month per year, people have to acclimatize for six weeks before they can take a crack at the hill, climbing costs can hit $100,000 USD, and controversy has raged this year.

I first became interested in all things Everest a few years ago after reading Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's account of the 1996 disaster in which 8 people died in one day when a group of commercial climbers and guides got caught in a ferocious storm. In 1996, guided tours of the mountain were just starting to take hold, and critics later argued that the presence of unskilled climbers on the mountain that year - most notably socialite Sandy Pittman, a buddy of Martha Stewart's who yapped publicly about whipping up specialty coffee on her Dean and DeLuca coffeemaker at base camp - put other climbers at risk and contributed to the deaths of other climbers. The 1996 season became the deadliest on Everest's peak.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the disaster with a record-setting season, including oldest man, first diabetic (sponsored by a pharmaceutical company) ,and first double amputee to scale the peak. In the last ten years, commercial expeditions have become commonplace and Everest is now strewn with garbage - one of the climbing expeditions this year gathered up 1300KG of litter from the mountain - and bodies. One of the latest additions to the graveyard in the sky is Brit David Sharp, a climber who was making a solo ascent without oxygen and was passed by by 40 climbers ascending the mountain. As far as we know, only 2 people tried to help him; Sherpa Dawa, who busted his ass trying to get Sharp down the hill, and double-amputee Mark Inglis, who gave Sharp oxygen but continued his summit.

This is not the first time an ailing climber has been left to die alone, so it's somewhat interesting that there has been so much discussion of it this year. The argument for this type of behaviour is pretty straightforward: in the "Dead Zone" of 26,000+ feet, conditions are so harsh that people, quite literally, start to die. Ailing climbers aren't helped down the mountain because it's almost impossible to move yourself at that altitude, let alone a 200 pound man who's suffering from hypoxia, can't get to his feet, and is hallucinating. Certainly, Rob Hall, who was by all accounts one of the best guides in the world, lost his life in 1996 when he refused to leave his almost dead client.

Those who know me, know that my university degree is in Criminology, I work in computers, but I really want to be a writer. (Confused much, Maia?) My degree wasn't a total loss, however, (even though it took me until I was almost 30 to pay back my loans, priced at a reasonable 10.5% interest rate); it helped me feed my long-term love affair with trying to understand society as a whole and people in particular, with a special interest in deviant behaviour. History is full of pundits who have tried to explain humanity's many foibles, most notably Sigmund "I Like Your Cigar" Freud. I learned about most of them in school, but isn't writing - and reading - a way for all of us to try to figure out how life really works, why we do the crazy things we do, why a sock left on the floor by your partner almost makes you stroke out, why your friends sleep with horribly unsuitable people? I think it is.

And I think a good argument can be made that spending half of your life in the clouds is a little bit deviant. The truth is, I find the mindset of mountain climbers to be absolutely fascinating. They're driven, solitary and deliberately expose themselves to horrendous conditions, (I like to sleep until noon). What on earth compels people to risk bodyparts to frostbite, relationships to distance, their very life to a mountain?

I'd love to find out, really, and right now I have the most overwhelming desire to research and write a novel about a mountaineer who takes on Everest. Think about it - it would have everything: Conflict! Hardship! Coffee!

Unfortunately, 3 things stand in the way of me writing my sure-to-oversell-the-Da-Vinci-Code novel:

1) I hate the cold. Seriously. Can't stand it.
2) I hate camping. John and I camp out once a year in August and I start dreading it right about now. Luckily, I'm not going this year. (Ha!)
3) I don't like mountain climbing. When I was at Whistler last year, I hiked over the top of a crest to see if the hill beside me was any easier than the one I was headed down. 2 things I learned: at Whistler, when they say black diamond hill they bloody well mean it, and hiking at a 8,000 feet is torture. BHJ said I was actually blue by the time I got back to him. I love the mountains, and I love to ski, but my piddly thirty foot hike was enough to convince me to keep my perambulations at sea level.

Since it's - sadly - unlikely that my book will come to fruition, I'd suggest checking out an excerpt of Jon Krakauer's excellent Into Thin Air. I'm quite a fan of him and his no-nonsense writing.

Sir Edmund Hillary (who was the first to scale Everest in 1953 with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay) blasted the 40 climbers who passed by the ailing Sharp on their way to the top, most notably double-amputee Mark Inglis, fueling a lot of international bickering about high altitute right-and-wrong. Days later, however, an extraordinary rescue effort was launched to save the life of another climber, Lincoln Hall, who, despite being declared dead the night before, was later found alive, carried to safety by 17 climbers and sherpas over a 30+ hour ordeal that used up 36 bottles of oxygen. Since that much activity at that altitude means that a crack at the summit will have to wait until next year, none of the rescuers made the peak. I suspect that the (non fiction) book deals are being made for that story as I type, and I, for one, plan on reading at least one.

Maybe I'll figure all this out yet.

Cheers,
Maia

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