Let’s get to the heart of it: Shriya Shah-Klorfine’s dream of climbing Mount Everest was not worth dying for. Even in an age in which self-fulfilment reigns supreme, you could call personal quests that involve fatal danger and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars vainglorious. Or, at the very least, dangerously single-minded.
This is not a condemnation of Ms. Shah-Klorfine, the gutsy 33-year-old Canadian woman who, after two years of intensive training but little actual climbing experience, reached the top of Everest last weekend, only to die a horrible death during her difficult descent, gasping for oxygen and crying, “Save me!”
She was by all accounts brave, fit and determined. But when it came to a pivotal moment on a snowy, windblown mountain, she was physically unable to think straight, and to see her personal obsession for what it had become: a lethal folly.
She was one of four climbers to die that day, partly because overcrowding on the mountain slowed her climb and left her debilitated, and partly because she apparently disregarded the advice of sherpas to turn back. “I want to reach the top,” she reportedly vowed.
It was by all accounts an overwhelming obsession. According to earlier Globe reports, Ms. Shah-Klorfine, a Toronto entrepreneur, and her husband had remortgaged their house and put off having children so she could take on Everest.
Unlike others, she had grown up in Nepal in the shadow of the great mountain. But like so many other dreamers, for her it was never just a mountain, but a way to stand at the top of the world, to do her personal best, to conquer, achieve and, well, even to become famous. (Explore Magazine reported in 2009 an “astonishing million-plus hits” when it typed “motivational Everest speaker” into a search engine.)
But you are also risking your precious life, not in a war to save others, not even to better society but instead to fulfill a deeply personal goal that has unfortunately become hackneyed – you practically need a traffic cop to manage the summiteers trudging up the world’s highest mountain.
Nova Scotia climber and Everest achiever Mike Sutton told the CBC that we shouldn’t be questioning Ms. Shah-Klorfine’s skill or the crowded conditions of the mountain but applaud her for “trying to succeed at her dream, for actually getting to the top of the world.”
He offered, without irony, “my sympathies for her not being able to come down and tell us her story.”
With respect, he is wrong. Now is the perfect time to question it all – the adequacy of the training, the overcrowding, the strategies for coping with oxygen-deprived and therefore cognitively impaired climbers to help them recognize their limits, and the goal itself.
Like everyone else, I have been sadly mulling over Ms. Shah-Klorfine death, humbly knowing I don’t even have the physical wherewithal to climb to the top of Toronto’s CN tower, let alone the world’s highest peak. So I have an innate respect for those who perfect their bodies and pursue their dreams of physical derring-do.
My favourite quote from Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay in 1953 became the first men to reach the summit of Everest, is not his famous “I am a lucky man. I have had a dream and it has come true, and that is not a thing that happens often to men.” It’s the more reflective one about the camaraderie of “sharing in the dangers” with one’s peers: “It’s the intense effort, the giving of everything you’ve got. It’s really a very pleasant sensation.”
Rereading it made me wonder whether climbing Everest has become less about sharing and more about a lonely and maybe even misguided pursuit.
But there’s a paradox here in our attitudes toward this complicated, singular, expensive and, for almost all of us, unattainable goal: We only shake our heads when they die.
I once went to hear some of those “motivational Everest speakers,” the remarkable Mallory family from Barrie, Ont. – three grown kids and their father Dan, an insurance broker who marshalled his family to climb the seven summits, the highest peaks on every continent.
For me the most riveting speaker was Laura Mallory, a then Western University nursing student who in May, 2008, at 20 became the youngest Canadian woman to make it to the top of Everest. She had already climbed Kilimanjaro.
On Everest, after developing bloody diarrhea and vomiting blood into the snow, she at first gave up and struggled back to high camp as her father and two older brothers carried on to the top.
But the next day, with her father’s blessing, she got up and did the final climb herself when a Sherpa agreed to go with her. She was out of contact with her father for hours, and he feared she had died. But then, from the very top, she called her mother on a crackling satellite phone: “Mom, Mom! I did it!” Laura Mallory told her.
I had goosebumps as I listened to her story, and later joked with her about how hard it must be to find a guy who isn’t intimidated by her prowess. “Yes,” she graciously replied, “you’re sitting around and some guy asks what do you do for fun and I say ‘Well I climbed Everest,’ and he gets a look in his eye.”
I thought about her for weeks after. She impressed me so much with her bravery and her composure. Right now, at 24, she is climbing Alaska’s Mount McKinley with her brother Adam.