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Chokepoint at the Second Step: Climbers can spend hours in the death zone waiting for their turn to use the ladder. (DAVE WATSON/AP)
Chokepoint at the Second Step: Climbers can spend hours in the death zone waiting for their turn to use the ladder. (DAVE WATSON/AP)

Wade Davis

Fascination with the fatal mountain Add to ...

Last weekend, Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine added her body to the 400 or more corpses that litter the flanks and ice fields of Mount Everest. Three others died that day, old and young, men and women, a German, a South Korean and a Chinese. Urged by her Sherpa guides to turn back, Ms. Shah-Klorfine insisted on reaching the summit, which she did, though it meant her death on the descent. Today and tomorrow, undeterred by the tragedy, another 200 climbers from a dozen countries will strap on their boots and eagerly walk to heights where the air is so thin that humans cannot long survive. Most will return. Some may not. For every 10 climbers who have reached the summit of Everest, one has perished in the quest.

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What are the ingredients of this perfect storm that brings death to the mountain every spring? First there is the pressure of time. The climbing season on Everest is short, a mere two months squeezed between the end of winter in late March and the onset of the monsoon in early June, with the optimal window for summit attempts being but three weeks in May. Second, there is the structure and geography of the mountain. The highly technical routes on Everest – the North Face, the West Ridge, the legendary Kangshung Face – defy all but the most accomplished of Himalayan climbers. For commercial expeditions, and for the vast majority of climbers, there are only two viable options. Those who climb from the south follow the tracks of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who in 1953 trekked through Nepal, made their way through the notorious Khumbu Icefall and climbed the ice face of the Western Cwm to reach the South Col before enduring a brutal final ascent that took them to the summit. From Tibet, climbers follow the footsteps of George Mallory and Oliver Wheeler, the first Canadian on Everest. In 1921, it was Wheeler who discovered the doorway to the mountain from the north, up the East Rongbuk Glacier to the North Col, and from its crest a long slog up the shoulder of the North Ridge to the Northeast Ridge and ultimately the base of the summit pyramid.

Neither conventional approach is easy, and each has unique perils. These hazards aside, the challenges of both popular routes are for the most part less technical than physical; On Everest, raw endurance counts for more than skill with a belay. Long before any client sets out for the summit, the guides establish a ribbon of fixed ropes stretching the entire length of the route; the client need only clip in and trudge up a well-trodden track. Easier said than done, of course.

The danger is the very wrath of the mountain, the extremes of elevation and weather. Frigid nights give way to blistering days, and with the scorching sun there is a constant danger of dehydration. Then there is the matter of oxygen. At 8,850 metres, the summit of Everest, atmospheric pressure is one-third that of sea level.The air itself cannot sustain life. Climbers call it the death zone. Every minute one spends there weakens the body and increases the likelihood of injury or death.

Hence the tragic events of last weekend. Each of the approaches taken by commercial parties has one serious impediment. The Northeast Ridge is blocked by the Second Step, a formidable pitch of vertical rock that must be scaled even as the climber peers down to a knife-edge of ice and rock, exposed on one side to the Kangshung Face, a drop of 10,000 feet, and on the other to the North Face, a mere 9,000 feet. On the southern route is the equally daunting Hillary Step. Today, fixed ropes on the Hillary Step and a ladder on the most difficult section of the Second Step make things easier, but neither obstacle can be turned, and on each there is room for only one person at a time. With as many as 300 climbers making their summit attempts in a single day, the Hillary Step and the Second Step become chokepoints where climbers can end up spending hours in the death zone, exposed at high altitude, waiting their turn. According to reports from the mountain, on the day that Ms. Shah-Klorfine died, delays stretched to over three hours, even as the weather turned, leaving exhausted climbers exposed to severe cold and winds gusting to 130 kilometres an hour. It is remarkable that only four were lost.

I often wonder what the early British mountaineers would have thought of today’s rather sordid commercial scene. In 1921, Mallory and Wheeler had to walk 500 kilometres off the map across the Tibetan plateau just to reach the base of a mountain no European had embraced at close quarters. When Wheeler first crested the North Col, he encountered a wind unlike anything he had known. Scarcely able to stand, fearful of suffocating in the swirling eddies of snow, he focused on his breathing, drew his hands around his face, and with a discipline honed in the terror of shellfire on the Western Front slowed down the world until a new rhythm could be found and air inhaled during the lulls between the blasts of the gale.

They soon came to know what the conquest of Everest would demand. To the horror of the old guard at the Royal Geographical Society, codgers who for the most part had never climbed higher than their desks, George Finch argued in 1922 that the “margin of safety must be narrowed down, if necessary to the vanishing point.” A climber on Everest must drive himself, beyond exhaustion, “even to destruction if need be.”

“We must remember,” Mallory wrote on the eve of his return to Everest in 1922, “that the highest of mountains is capable of severity, a severity so awful and so fatal that the wiser sort of men do well to think and tremble even on the threshold of their high endeavour.”

My thoughts turn also to those who have born witness to our obsession with the mountain. I once met a Buddhist living in a nunnery at the base of Everest who had spent 45 years in isolated retreat, dedicating her entire life to the recitation of a single prayer. To those prepared to sacrifice everything in a quest to reach the summit of the world, such spiritual devotion may seem like a waste of a human life. Most Tibetans find it equally incomprehensible that one would choose to walk to heights where the air is so thin that consciousness is obliterated. To enter the death zone deliberately, to risk losing the opportunity of personal transformation and escape from the realm of samsara merely to climb a mountain is for them a fool’s folly, the waste of a precious incarnation. As the Abbot of Rongbuk Monastery wrote of the British expedition of 1922: “They camped at the bottom of the mountain, then, I heard they camped for seven times for each level they reach, with great effort they use magical skills with iron nails, iron chains and iron claws, with great agony, hands and feet frozen. … [Some]left early to have limbs cut off, the others stubbornly continue to climb. … I felt great compassion for them to suffer so much for such meaningless work.”

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