May 13, 2024

Walking to the Roof of the World

Darrel Hartman 

Why climb Mount Everest? “Because it’s there,” George Mallory famously said. Then he died trying.

A century on, Mallory is best remembered for those three koanlike words. As Mick Conefrey writes in “Fallen: George Mallory and the Tragic 1924 Everest Expedition,” they are “both the simplest and the most enigmatic explanation of the lure of high mountains.”

Alas, Everest, highest of them all, is less enigmatic and arguably less alluring these days. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay logged the first successful ascent in 1953, it has been summited more than 12,000 times by upward of 6,500 different people. Every spring the Nepali army removes several tons of trash from this high-elevation tourist attraction. The human-waste problem has gotten so bad that, as of this year, visitors are required to pack their poop and take it with them.

The Everest that Mallory explored in the 1920s had less excrement and more romance. The climbing equipment was rudimentary: the flax ropes were as threads compared to modern nylon ones, and the wool clothing and hobnail boots were more cumbersome and far less effective than modern goose down and crampons. Mr. Conefrey, a documentary filmmaker who has written several books about Himalayan mountaineering history, also notes another major difference between then and now: Mallory and his peers “took risks that many of today’s climbers would find unacceptable.”

With the way through Nepal closed—it wouldn’t be open to foreigners until 1949—the only viable approach was via Tibet by way of British-controlled India. The British thus had the Everest arena to themselves, and by the time of the 1924 expedition—their third attempt in four years with Mallory as lead climber—they had begun to understand what they were up against.

The local porters could carry enormous loads at high elevations, but the expeditions of 1921 and 1922 had forced the Sherpas and British alike to reckon with the treacherously thin air of upper Everest. It slowed progress to a crawl, compounding the risk of frostbite, falls and death by avalanche, and menaced the mind and body in previously unimagined ways. These early explorers would have understood why the area above 26,000 feet is now called “the death zone.”

Mallory was only fully obsessed with Everest when he was climbing it. Away from the mountain, he had an adoring wife and three children and “the university job that he had always wanted,” Mr. Conefrey explains. His ambivalence about a third attempt is thus perhaps the most tragic thing about his fate. Personal ambitions and patriotic impulses ultimately tugged him away from such comforts.

Mr. Conefrey knows his characters and subject well, but his writing is overly casual, and the clichés pile up: climbers get “chilled to the bone” and go “back in the fray”; Sherpas sleep “cheek by jowl” as their morale hit “rock bottom.” When Mallory realizes that “the cavalry was most definitely not coming,” many readers will feel that the proverbial horsemen have also come up short as a metaphor.

The last third of “Fallen” deals with events following Mallory’s death, including the discovery of his frozen corpse in 1999. The location of his body and other gleanings provided tantalizing new clues about his final days and revived the debate over whether he and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, reached the summit.

Irvine is believed to have been carrying a handheld camera; it’s possible the film is still salvageable, but his body has never been found. The American climber Mark Synnott has suggested that a Chinese expedition secretly removed the body. Mr. Conefrey deems it “equally possible” that Irvine landed far below where Mr. Synnott and others have gone looking for him along the North Col route, access to which is controlled by China. Weighing the available evidence, Mr. Conefrey considers it “hard to imagine” that Mallory or Irvine reached the summit.

The formidable rock wall that stood in their way, the so-called Second Step, is now strung with fixed ropes and has an aluminum ladder bolted into it. Though it’s not exactly a walk in the park, many inexperienced climbers and even some senior citizens get up and over it every year. Over the past four decades, professional guiding operations have come to dominate activity on both sides of Everest. Will Cockrell’s “Everest, Inc.: The Renegades and Rogues Who Built an Industry at the Top of the World” seeks to explain how this came to be.

His account begins not with the likes of Mallory but with Dick Bass, a 55-year-old Texas oilman who, in 1985, became the first private citizen to summit Everest. Elite Western climbers helped Bass and others bag the peak in exchange for a free trip, thereby gaining experience that enabled them to set up commercial operations on Everest. They did what was already being done on mountains like Denali in Alaska and Mont Blanc in the Alps: market themselves to rich adventurers, charge for their services and assume responsibility for whomever they take up the mountain.

The first clients, Mr. Cockrell writes, were “restless, adventure-hungry people who knew little enough about mountaineering to be ignorant of the dangers.” A common joke was that everyone was guiding “Dentists from Dallas.” Then everything changed in 1996 when eight climbers lost their lives in the same storm while descending from the summit. This unprecedented disaster was the basis for John Krakauer’s bestselling book, “Into Thin Air” (1997), which revealed—or perhaps created—a mass audience that was “morbidly curious” about Everest. To this day, Mr. Krakauer’s withering critique of Western guides and clients continues to shape negative perceptions of the mountain. Paradoxically, it also sent Everest business “through the roof.” The IMAX film “Everest” (1998), which grossed nearly $130 million, also helped.

The first Nepali-owned guiding company started operating on Everest in 2006. After decades of thankless risk and toil, Sherpas finally got in on the action. This shift toward local ownership has only accelerated over the past two decades and is one of the book’s biggest takeaways. One American outfitter estimates that his Nepali counterparts now control some 95% of the Everest business.

One upshot is that it can be cheaper than ever to climb Everest. Nepali companies pay less for their commercial permits. They also offer less-than-full-service packages that many Western guides consider irresponsible. On the easier-to-climb Nepal side, the low-cost tours are one reason the crowds have increased, sometimes with fatal consequences.

The proximity of death makes Everest unlike other tourist attractions. “It has been suggested that the visible dead bodies on Everest reinforce the heroism of climbing it,” Mr. Cockrell ventures. Does this mean that a steady trickle of new fatalities is good for business? The provocative question goes unexplored.

A fiercer investigator might have spent less time admiring the latest generation of guides’ “impressive Instagram and social media skills” and more time digging into their business practices. I also found myself wishing that Mr. Cockrell, a writer and editor for men’s magazines, had pieced together his story with only a handful of his most revealing sources. His overpopulated chronicle comes with a “glossary of key players” that’s 16 pages long.

The market advantage on Everest these days is all about efficiency: getting more people up the mountain in less time. Great feats of logistical organization and, yes, mountaineering, are being performed in the name of growing the market. Boundaries are being pushed, in ways both impressive and troubling. Perhaps it’s to Mr. Cockrell’s credit as a journalist that he appears mostly undisturbed by these developments. This is, after all, the way things are, and in the case of Nepal, Everest has been an “astonishing economic boon” for one of the world’s poorest countries. For the moment, then, it looks as though every possible business opportunity will be pursued, “because it’s there.”

Mr. Hartman is the author of “Battle of Ink and Ice: A Sensational Story of News Barons, North Pole Explorers, and the Making of Modern Media.” 

Source: The Wall Street Journal


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