Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Commercial Everest

Like many other people, I was struck by the sharp contrasts between the commercial expeditions that Krakauer describes in Into Thin Air and the private expeditions we have previously encountered.  While Herzog, Blum, Bancroft, and Arnesen all performed feats that had never before been accomplished, by the time Krakauer and the other 1996 expeditions reached Everest, "Everest's easiest line - via South Col and the Southeast Ridge - had been climbed more than a hundred times" (24).  Moreover, Dick Bass had shown in 1985 "'that Everest was within the realm of possibility for regular guys'" (Weathers as cited in Krakauer 25).  This not only reduced the prestige of summiting Everest among serious climbers, who regarded it as a "'slag heap' - a peak lacking sufficient technical challenges or aesthetic appeal to be a worthy objective for a 'serious' climber" (23), but it also transformed Everest into a radically different mountain from the one that had been climbed by Sir Edmund Hilary.

In contrast to Hilary and his expedition, some of the people that climbed Everest in 1996 fit within the stereotype derided by the traditionalists.  These people, "if denied the services of guides would probably have difficulty making it to the top of a peak as modest of Mount Ranier" (27).  While Krakauer goes out of his way to dispel this stereotype - he states, "The fact that a climber has paid a large some of money to join a guided expedition does not, by itself, mean that he or she is unfit to be on the mountain" (113) - he still recognizes the dangers inherent in participating in a commercial expedition: "In climbing, having confidence in your partners is no small concern . . . But trust in one's partners is a luxury denied those who sign on as clients on a guided ascent; one must put one's faith in the guide itself" (45).  If the guides or expedition leader are untrustworthy or a bad people, as Woodall, the leader of the South African expedition was, climbers can face incredible danger.  Thus, commercial expeditions can still present serious risks to their climbers.

The differences between the commercial expeditions Krakauer describes and those of Herzog, Blum, and Bancroft and Arnesen appear most clearly in the material conditions the climbers experience in 1996.  Whereas the climbers on the private expeditions of Herzog et al. were either extremely or relatively isolated both at base camp and on the mountain, the Everest Base Camp of 1996 was extremely crowded: "More than three hundred tents, housing as many climbers and Sherpas from fourteen expeditions, speckled the boulder-strewn ice" below the mountain (72).  In addition, the material conditions at the Everest Base Camp are luxurious in comparison to the base camps of Herzog et al.  Krakauer describes these:

Our mess tent, a cavernous canvas structure was furnished with an enormous stone table, a stereo system, a library, and solar powered electric lights; an adjacent communications tent house a satellite phone and fax.  A shower had been improvised from a rubber hose and a bucket filled with water heated by the kitchen staff.  Fresh bread and vegetables arrived every few days on the backs of yaks (73).

Finally, none of the expedition members had to carry loads of gear and food up Everest, which constituted a major endeavor on the private expeditions of Herzog et al.  The commercial expeditions relied solely on Sherpas to establish the successive camps and to carry all of the necessary gear up to those camps (91).  Thus, Krakauer and his fellow climbers climbed Everest in relative luxury in 1996.

Krakauer admits that these conditions and the derision they generated among "serious" climbers initially persuaded him to abandon his "boyhood fantasy of climbing Everest" (23) because it did not fulfill their criteria for prestigious or meaningful climbs: "Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important that how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable" (23).  Clearly, the commercial expeditions up Everest did not fit this description.  Despite his desire to be a "serious" climber, Krakauer decides that climbing Everest under the conditions derided by his "serious" colleagues is worth their derision and leaving behind his family and friends.  He accepts the assignment from Outside magazine because "I was in the grip of the Everest mystique.  In truth, I wanted to climb the mountain as badly as I'd ever wanted anything in my life" (107).  Do the material comforts and crowded nature of the Everest climb detract from the purpose of mountain climbing, which climbers usually describe as a chance to get away from the distractions of daily life and to think?  Or does it add a new, meaningful aspect to mountain climbing?  Should mountains be commercial enterprises?


  1. I too had similar thoughts about the commercialization of Everest. Everest, as the highest mountain in the world, is inherently shrouded in a sort of unattainable mystique. Yet, commercialization and tourism have dramatically increased the accessibility of this once only dreamed about summit. True, climbing Everest is still incredibly dangerous, as Krakauer's book speaks to. However, the increased access to Everest has diminished its prestige for some, as Krakauer explains. Should there be a limit to what is commercialized? Similarly, should there be regions/places/events that modern day technology and globalization do not touch and are thus maintained in their original state? Krakauer talks about how Sherpa culture transformed when people began coming to climb Himalayan mountains, and the influx of tourism and technology changed the native culture. I'm not saying that this is all bad, but there is definitely a sadness that comes with altering a native culture. Similarly, as exciting as the idea of summiting Everest is, it's almost equally as exciting (for an armchair climber like myself) if it's still unattainable and unchanged. Maybe I'm being idealistic and old-fashioned, but for me there's definitely a sour aspect of making Everest more accessible through commercialization.

  2. Taking the conversation in a different direction, I'm very interested in how a group brought together by a commercial company differs from a private expedition. The quote you used about the luxury of trusting one's climbing companions really made me question the nature of this kind of expedition, which is inherently driven by individual interests rather than a group goal. Though the teams of Blum and Herzog may not have been familiar with all members of the team when forming the group, each of these missions was working for a cause larger than the individual, where there was the implicit understanding that some people would not summit, but that the team would measure success as a unit. Which is not to say that personal interests do not interfere in these private expeditions, because they absolutely do. But individual interests do not drive the team, as they do in the commercial expeditions seen in Krakauer's account, where each person climbs with the ultimate goal of summiting Everest. I wonder about the different forms of bonds that a person forms in a private versus a commercial group, or whether the intensity of the adventure renders such differences negligible.

  3. I raised a similar question at the end of my blog post about Into Thin Air: is climbing Everest a wilderness experience? My own answer to that question is that it depends on your definition of wilderness. For some people, an expedition to the top of Everest may very well be a wilderness experience. For me, however, the slopes of Everest no longer fit my definition of wilderness. It’s too crowded, too covered in trash, and too impacted by human presence.

    So I guess my answer to your first question is yes; for me, the commercialization and number of people on Everest changes the experience and would detract from the experience. I keep thinking of Krakauer’s description of the group dynamics when they embark on their push to the summit. “We were a team in name only… Although in a few hours we would leave camp as a group, we would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much”(213). When I read that passage, the acceptance of the lack of community was striking, and slightly scary. Part of what I love about backcountry trips is the community that can develop within a small group, even if it consists of strangers at the beginning. That aspect of a wilderness experience was noticeably absent in Krakauer’s account of his guided group.