Jewish World ReviewJune 4, 2003 / 4 Sivan, 5763

Mark Patinkin

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Consumer Reports

When challenges no longer inspire | There was some uninspiring news from Mount Everest last week.

A Japanese man broke the record for the oldest climber to reach the peak. He was 70. Then a girl became the youngest climber. She was 15.

Soon after came more uninspiring news:

A Nepalese Sherpa broke the record for the fastest climb from base camp to the top. It normally takes a week; he did it in 13 hours. A few days later, another Sherpa reached the top in 11 hours.

Why uninspiring?

Because I miss the old Everest. I miss it being among the most unreachable spots on earth, so forbidding that no human was able to climb it until 1953. I miss the way that in the decades after, each rare ascent remained a notable conquest.

That's changed. Now, more than 1,200 people have climbed Everest. Every year, a few hundred more do so.

In the past, only the most skilled made it to the top, after years of climbing lesser peaks. Now, non-mountaineers can pay $65,000 or so to go with professional climbing tours. There have been stories of wealthy types who pay for extra Sherpas to carry their gear and basically "push" them up.

Everest's toughest areas have been made easier. The Khumbu Ice Fall now has dozens of aluminum ladders bridging its crevasses. The steepest vertical ascents have permanently fixed ropes.

I'm not saying it's easy to summit Everest. Or that the climb is without risk. More than 175 have died trying.

But I remember reading ``Into Thin Air,'' about the 1996 expedition where a dozen were killed. There was a traffic jam at the last critical obstacle, called the Hillary Step. People had to wait hours for their turn, and meanwhile, a storm blew in, trapping climbers near the top.

That disaster raised questions about the Everest "tour" industry. When people pay $65,000, there's a subtle pressure to continue even if conditions are risky or the climbers exhausted.

So there was a pause in paid excursions. But not for long.

Climbing Everest is now a bigger industry than ever. Veterans remember when base camp, where climbers depart from 17,550 feet for the 29,035-foot summit, was a few tents. This week, there are 500 tents there, representing a record 65 expeditions. There's even a bar-type area where you can order beer.

Surveying this, Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first two to climb Everest 50 years ago today, observed: "I'm not very happy about the future of Everest."

He was in part talking about the abuse of the landscape itself. Recent expeditions were sent to bring down tons of litter.

But what I'm mourning is the loss of the mountain's mystique.

I suppose it's no surprise that in 2003, when adventure vacations have become an industry, many wilderness places have gotten a little crowded.

Still, you'd think the highest, most forbidding place on earth would have remained an almost unreachable realm.

You'd think that.

Mark Patinkin is a columnist for the Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services