Conquering Mount Everest is undoubtedly one of man’s greatest feats. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary, with the help of his guide Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, made mountaineering history as the first man on the highest mountain in the world.
Sixty years later on the anniversary of man’s ascent, 101 East presenter Steve Chao, retraces Sir Hillary’s footsteps to Everest Base Camp at 17,598 feet.
During this journey, he discovers that banking on the desire to scale the world’s tallest mountain, local and foreign mountaineering operators are cashing in on the job.
Participants are made to sign an indemnity form and pay up tens of thousands of dollars for an experience of a lifetime. It is not just money they are handing over, but also their lives.
Up in the mountains, expedition leaders make all the calls, leaders like Russell Brice. Brice runs the Himalayan Experience and has been guiding expeditions to the Himalayas since 1974. Nicknamed the “King of the Mountain”, Brice shows how camping in the wilderness can be done in style.
But when it is time to summit, Brice commands his team like an army officer. The weather on top of Everest changes within hours, meaning mountaineers can get lost when visibility decreases and severe storms ravage the top. A wrong forecast by Brice can spell danger for his team. The window of opportunity to scale Everest is tiny and last year, Brice abandoned their summit plan.
The increasing demand for Everest expedition trips has also created a boom in trekking business, drawing climbers with no prior experience
Eleven climbers died in 2012, making it the second deadliest year in Everest’s history. One of the climbers was Shriya Shah-Klorfine, a 33-year-old Nepali-Canadian businesswomen. Her husband Bruce Klorfine says it had always been her dream to climb Everest but she was unprepared for it. She went with Utmost Adventure Trekking Company and reports claim that she was with inexperienced sherpas, an ethnic group from Nepal's most mountainous region, high in the Himalayas.
We put these claims to the manager of Utmost Adventure Trekking Company.
Another danger on Everest is called “Summit day crowding” - with hundreds of climbers flocking to Everest each year armed with limited oxygen supply, a traffic jam is formed and climbers can only count down to the last of their oxygen supply. We speak to Nepal’s tourism minister to ask if there should be better regulation for issuing permits.
On this episode of 101 East, we celebrate the victories but ask if the growing tourism is putting lives at risk.
By Steve Chao
As a child, I can remember reading the incredible tale of Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish conquistador, who in the 16th century, went in search of the fountain of youth - drawn to it by its fabled restorative powers.
That story came to mind, as I arrived at the foot of Everest and watched lines of climbers inch their way up the Khumbu Icefall.
From my vantage point at base camp they were just tiny dots, underscoring how massive the glacier leading to Everest’s summit is, and how herculean a goal it is to attempt to reach the peak.
While over the years I had entertained the idea of Everest, the reality of how dangerous and how difficult a challenge it is, makes one take pause.
Standing there, I found myself asking, “what compels someone to risk their lives to actually do this?”
Certainly, you could say Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay found immortality here. In the annals of human achievement, they will forever be remembered as the first to stand atop the roof of the world.
But what of the 4,000 others that have since summited?
We find Sudarshan Gautam going through practice runs in the icefall with the sherpas he has hired. A Nepalese-Canadian, his climb is made remarkable by the fact that he lost both his arms as a child during an accident, when his kite flew into electricity lines.
Whether that moment changed him, or he was always so determined, it is hard to say. But from that accident, Gautam taught himself how to eat, write, and even drive with his feet. Now he was intent on showing the world he could also climb and climb high.
“Disability is not an inability,” Gautam shouts down to us from where he is climbing, and then laughs. Over lunch, his positive spirit fills the tent, and makes just about everyone on his team smile.
He has only ever climbed 6000-metre peaks - Everest is 8848 metres - yet he was not deterred.
“For my daily life too, I am climbing so many high mountains - when I wake up, and sleep, I have to face so many things, like eating, driving,” he said.
Gautam shares how he sold his restaurant in Calgary, Canada and is spending $100,000 on this venture, but he sees it as an investment. A successful summit, he believes, will make for an impressive enough resume to help launch a political career.
“I did not just go to Canada to earn money … I went to Canada to do something good for the Nepalese community. I want to do something good through business, and through politics.”
He is not the first to use Everest as a launchpad. The year before, another Nepalese-Canadian, Shriya Shah-Klorfine, also arrived on the doorstep of the Himalayas. She had taken a loan from a bank in Toronto, and believed conquering the mountain would help her become a motivational speaker.
To her, it did not matter that she had never climbed a major mountain and that later, her own sherpas would warn her she was too slow to make it.
All that was background noise to her goal.
By sheer will, on the afternoon of May 19, Shah-Klorfine made it. She unfurled the Canadian flag, took the standard summit photos with the relevant banners to thank her sponsors. Then started on her way down. She never made it. The next day, a new batch of climbers going for the peak, would walk by her lifeless body. She had collapsed from exhaustion just 300 metres from the top, and never got back up.
'A circus of causes'
That Everest has become a circus of causes, is something Russell Brice, one of Everest’s most seasoned and cautious expedition guides laments.
He remembers how in the 90s, base camp was made up of two or three expeditions. Today, there are literally dozens of operators whose encampments make up a sprawling nylon city. More than 400 climbers will make for the peak this year.
The worrisome point for Brice, is that many are coming without the proper mountaineering expertise.
“If people don’t have any experience, they shouldn’t be coming to Everest as a first mountain. This is not the place to learn to climb mountains,” he warns.
Referring to Shah-Klorfine, and her motivations, he says, “Even if it’s what you wanted to do, go climb some other mountains and then you have more stories to tell and then you will be a better public speaker.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Singapore’s Khoo Swee Chiow. His story is one of successful transformation. Where once he spent his work days hidden behind a computer as an IT specialist, his first climb up Everest in 1998, allowed him to become a motivational speaker.
But before he even entertained the idea of tackling its slopes, he spent a decade building his abilities on smaller peaks.
“It’s all risk management,” he says, “you train, you select your sherpas, you minimise all risks.”
Khoo speaks from experience of having completed three successful summits of Everest. Unfortunately, high winds and a throat infection forced him this year to abandon his fourth attempt.
Tibetans have long revered Everest as a living deity, giving the mountain the name “Chomolungma”, meaning the mother Goddess of the world.
That such a deity could provide the elixir to long life, is something that 80-year-old Yuichiro Muira would perhaps agree with.
We met Muira just before his ascent of Everest. Despite four heart surgeries, he was convinced such physical challenges only make one more youthful.
“If senior citizens let themselves get tired, then sickness comes,” he says. “Senior citizens should be healthy and active, [and] then a human being is happy.”
To prove the point, one of his sons, who is climbing with him is using his father as a guinea pig, to study the anti-aging benefits of climbing such a tall peak.
In the final weeks of May, the tallies of the triumphant have started pouring in. Everest enjoyed the longest good weather in decades, allowing scores to summit. Muira won the title of the oldest, while Gautam became the first amputee to reach the peak without prosthetics.
Historians for a long time now have said they believe the tale of Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Youth is just that, a tall tale, and yet, it lives on today.
And that, I realised is what ultimately draws adventure-seekers to risk it all on Everest. The world’s highest mountain, despite having been climbed by so many, still captures the people'sc imagination. And to be part of that, speaks to our individual, and humankind’s eternal quest for meaning.
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