Climbing High 4/7 '17
I can't remember how it started, but last night I went down an internet rabbit hole looking up information about the 1996 disaster on Everest. (Jon Krakauer wrote about it in Into Thin Air.) Well, that led me down the the more wide-rangingly morbid path of reading about other people who've died on Everest - that number is close to 300 since 1922. Most of those bodies remain up there because it's not feasible to remove them - people have literally died, trying. I'm haunted by the fact that some of these bodies serve as landmarks for subsequent climbers.
Just a warning: if you start looking into this topic...you can't avoid seeing photographs of the dead. The most interesting body to me, personally, is that of George Mallory, who ascended and died on Everest in 1924. His body was found in 1999, and it still has most of its flesh. I mean to say, it is not a skeleton. The flesh appears completely bleached white in photographs. (Edit to add: I'm interested because of how well-preserved his body is, not because of who he was.) For context...Mallory is the guy who gave us the phrase, "Because it's there," as an explanation for climbing Everest.
I have zero interest in climbing Everest, or even the more conveniently located (since I live in Seattle) Mt. Rainier, for that matter. I've been up to Camp Muir on Rainier, which is at about 10,200 ft. From there I could see the next leg of the journey that climbers take when they attempt the summit. It becomes a technical climb (as opposed to a "hike") from there - Camp Muir is where summit aspirants spend the night before the final 4,200 ft. push. I still remember looking at the crevasse field on the Cowlitz glacier, which is immediately adjacent to the stone shelter that was built up there in 1921. That view created a pit of pure dread in my stomach. I enjoyed the rest of the day - particularly "boot skiing" down the Muir Snowfield - but that dread haunted me all the way down. I was relieved when my friend Siobhan and I got back to our car. Since then, I haven't been up to anything even approaching that altitude.
Another memory from that climb that sticks: how it feels, physically, to ascend above ~8500ft. where the oxygen deprivation starts to become very noticeable. It's a weird experience: working so hard; fighting for breath while making very little progress.
Mt. Everest is 29,029 ft. at its highest point. That is 3.4 times the altitude at which I started experiencing oxygen depletion on my way to Camp Muir. Climbers hang out for days at severeal different points in order to acclimatize to the altitude. Those who undertake that climb know that death is a serious risk, they feel the lack of oxygen, and yet they continue on up anyway.
I can't get my head around it: the desire just to attempt the summit of Everest, the persistence necessary to weather the extreme oxygen deprivation - to say nothing of the cold - and then passing all of those bodies along the way. To keep going, despite all of that.
Just to be clear: I don't think it takes courage or heroism to climb Mt. Everest - nor would I call it "ambition," exactly. It certainly takes desire and persistence. Also required: a downright pathological degree of hubris - verging on stupidity, in my opinion. I also don't begrudge anyone who chooses to make the attempt. Mostly I don't. I have serious questions for the ones who climb up that high when they have small children at home. Everyone leaves loved ones behind, but children are different. Dependents.
Why am I so fascinated by the stories, then? Why do they have the power to lead me down rabbit holes?