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Monday, May 20, 2013

Longtime Everest Climber Calls Mountain A ‘Powder Keg’

Mount Everest as seen from an aircraft from airline company Drukair in Bhutan. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mount Everest as seen from an aircraft from airline company Drukair in Bhutan. (Wikimedia Commons)

This year’s Mount Everest climbing season has already been marked by conflict. A fight that broke out between Western climbers and Sherpa guides last month has been the buzz of the mountaineering world.

Climber Peter Athans has stood at the summit of Mount Everest seven times. He’s also guided many expeditions and has ties to the Sherpa community.

He says incidents of fighting are very rare.

“With this route crowding, with the issues of timing … it just puts the entire community there at an extreme amount of risk.”
– Peter Athans

“We don’t see this type of behavior on Everest that much,” Athans told Here & Now. “You’re an ambassador from your own country, and this is a place that sees hundreds of travelers at this time of the year. If you choose to, and want to have ultimate liberty at high altitude in an extreme environment, there are other places you could choose to go.”

What is more important and troubling, Athans said, is the overcrowding on the route, which can only accommodate a trickle of climbers.

Waiting along the dangerous, exposed route — whether to climb up or down — creates hazards and anxiety among climbers.

“I mean, you can imagine what it’s like to be waiting at the top of the Hillary step [a near-vertical rock face], above 28,000 feet, and you have a team of 100 people who are moving up through to go to the summit.”

In addition, because the window to reach the summit is so short, the gridlock makes climbing Everest extremely dangerous.

Peter Athans has climbed Mount Everest seven times. (Facebook)

Peter Athans is pictured climbing Mount Everest. (Facebook)

“With this route crowding, with the issues of timing, only having a limited number of resources to complete one’s climb, it just puts the entire community there at an extreme amount of risk,” Athans said.

The commercialization of Everest also invites people who feel overconfident about their abilities and are drawn to the rarified air without considering the possibility of failing to summit.

“You put out to the world that you’re going to go on and take on this objective, and it’s a huge amount of time away from family, from work, and it’s a large amount of money, it’s a large amount of psychological energy, preparation physically,” Athans said, “So sometimes getting to the top of the mountain is the most critical thing, and getting back down is the last thing on your mind.”

But summiting Everest remains one of the more profound and exclusive clubs a person can belong to.

“The quality of light is completely different,” Athans said of standing on the summit. “It’s very, very bright. It’s almost surreal. And if you’re lucky and blessed enough to be on top when there’s a beautiful day, you just see the world spread out beneath you.”

Have you ever dreamed of climbing Everest? Or do you have ideas on how to address the problems there? Tell us on Facebook or in the comments.

Guest:

  • Peter Athans, mountaineer, seven-time Mount Everest summiter and filmmaker.

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  • John Ryan

    I began rock climbing in the 70s with the intention of advancing to alpine climbing, and eventually doing Everest.  I’ve never climbed outside of North America, and don’t plan on ever doing so.
    I’ve thought of several ways to deal with the Everest  crowding. 

    1. Summit permits could be limited to climbers  who’ve previously summitted another 8,000 meter peak.
    2. A second, parallel fixed line could be put up for descending climbers.
    3.  A third line could even be put in in some places, to allow faster climbers to pass slower ones.
    4.  Nepal could limit the number of climbing permits, and start a lottery system to award the permits.
    5.  Get more climbers to try in the fall; it’s possible.  It’s even possible to summit in the winter.
    6. Encourage strong climbers to try the West Ridge route pioneered by Hornbein and Unsoeld in 1963. Only 5 climbers have ever succeeded on that route, but with their knowledge and the latest equipment more certainly could make it.  With sherpas and fixed ropes it could become more viable.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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