“Everest is a shit show,” said Aaron Huey, a National Geographic photographer who is currently documenting the culture of Sherpa guides. Ten years or more ago, I mused, that pronouncement would have stirred up protestations, or at least murmurs. But this May, the Friday morning crowd, coffee mugs in hand, spilling well out the doorway of the Ah Haa School for the Arts at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride, simply nodded in rueful agreement.
The last three spring seasons on Everest have seen controversies spiral into disasters. In 2012, Russell Brice, the most experienced leader of guided expeditions on the mountain, sent his whole team home early (no matter how much money the clients had paid for their junket) because he deemed the Khumbu Icefall unjustifably dangerous. When some 500 climbers later reached the summit, second-guessers accused Brice of chickening out.
In 2013, ace mountaineers Simone Moro and Ueli Steck provoked an unprecedented riot by ignoring the agreement to let the Sherpas put in the fixed ropes on the Lhotse Face without interference by Western climbers. It didn’t help that Moro, alarmed by an apparent fracas between a Sherpa and his partner, yelled (in Nepali), “Motherfuckers, what are you doing?” At Mountainfilm this year, Sender Films’ High Tension, documenting the chaos, which culminated in a mob of angry Sherpas confronting the superstars and throwing rocks at their tent, packed the Conference Center and led to another heated panel discussion.
This spring, of course, Russell Brice’s gloomy prognostication came true with a vengeance, as an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas fixing ropes and carrying loads on that treacherous passage. The tragedy shut down the season on the south side of Everest, and at Mountainfilm the repercussions bounced off the walls of several auditoriums.
At the Friday morning session, titled “Nepal and the Money Train,” Conrad Anker, who found George Mallory’s body on the other side of the mountain in 1999, argued that commercial guiding on the South Col route no longer amounted to real climbing. “It’s become a high-altitude luxury camping trip,” he offered. “Camp chairs, DVD players, a big-screen TV at base camp . . . . If you need nine oxygen cylinders on summit day, you shouldn’t be there.” Wade Davis, author of the prize-winning chronicle Into the Silence, about the three British Everest expeditions in the 1920s, pointed out that the paltry 13 pounds that General Charles Granville Bruce offered the families of the seven Sherpas killed on the 1922 expedition actually amounted to more money than the $400 the Nepalese government promised to pay each of the families of the Sherpas killed in the icefall this spring.
An air of cynical distrust vis à vis the Nepalese government and the Nepal Mountaineering Association wafted through the panel. Ben Ayers, Nepal country director for the dZi Foundation, devoted to improving Sherpa village life, recounted an exchange with a government official who had come up with a solution to the “conga line” of hundreds of nose-to-ass climbers jumaring up the fixed rope on the Lhotse Face each spring. “We’ll just fix another line on the face,” said the functionary. “We?” queried Ayers. “The Sherpas,” emended the official.
Suddenly a young woman in the audience demanded the microphone. She had just returned from Everest, and she was pissed. “The reason I’m here is not the accident,” she declared. “The Sherpas leveraged the accident to make political demands on the government.” Evidently little fazed by the deaths of the 16 in the Khumbu Icefall, she was bent on trudging on up the mountain. But “an agitator threatened to burn down our Sherpa’s home if he continued on Everest.” Our Sherpa? I asked myself.
Norbu Tenzing, the son of Tenzing Norgay, gently summed up the modern corruption of the traditional way of climbing Everest that had made his father a hero. “Somehow the spirit is lost,” said Norbu.
The filmmakers of High Tension, who had set out to document Ueli Steck’s attempt to climb the West Ridge alpine-style and without bottled oxygen in 2013, had pulled a rabbit out the hat by capturing the violent confrontation between Steck and Moro and the Sherpas enraged at being called “motherfuckers.” “The story completely changed on us,” reported director Nick Rosen, in the panel discussion following the screening. On film, Moro tries to apologize for flinging an epithet in Nepali that reached the absolute nadir of insult (“This is a very, very bad word,” one Sherpa said). But in the next breath, Moro dismisses the rock throwers as “a few bad apples.”
To my mind, the sagest moment in the whole film came from the mouth of Tashi Sherpa, as he gazed back over more than 80 years of Sherpa service to Everest climbers. “The resentment was always there,” said Tashi. “This incident was waiting to happen, and it will repeat, as long as the Sherpas are humiliated.”
On Sunday, Wade Davis and Conrad Anker shared the lectern to talk about Mallory. Though both men are experts on the British expeditions of the 1920s, they had never appeared together on stage. It made for a curious back-and-forth. Having discovered Mallory’s body by deliberately poking outside the 1999 expedition’s designated “search zone,” Anker had deeply admired the Everest pioneer both before and after that fateful moment. “We all looked upon his mummified body with the greatest respect,” he said, “and with deep humility.” (Full disclosure: Anker and I co-wrote The Lost Explorer about the discovery.)
But Davis was having none of it. “The reason,” he pronounced, “that the deaths of the seven Sherpas in 1922 happened was the vanity of George Mallory.” And of all the members of the three expeditions, he added, “Almost every one of the 26 men was more likeable and more interesting than Mallory.”
Everest won’t go away, and the suggestions for ameliorating the mess it has become sounded to me like wishful thinking, if not pie-in-the-sky. It bothered me that only a few of the speakers on the three Telluride panels seemed truly devastated by the tragedy this spring. Sixteen deaths in a single avalanche matches the worst disaster in Himalayan history, equaled only by another avalanche catastrophe on the German expedition to Nanga Parbat in 1937.
The exception was Aaron Huey, who, though not a mountaineer himself, reacted strongly to the screening of High Tension. The end of the film dwells on the tragedy, “and yet,” said Huey, on the verge of tears, “it’s overlaid by happy music. There’s no happy ending to this story.
“Everest is completely out of control. It’s like crack.”
Meanwhile, on May 23—the same day as the first of the Telluride Everest panels convened—the Chinese woman Wang Jing reached the summit via the South Col. Originally a member of Brice’s team, she ignored the leader’s suggestion that she switch to the north side, hiring a “phantom operator” instead. (This sleight-of-hand could have caused Brice to be banned from Nepal for five years.)
With apparently limitless funds at her disposal, Wang convinced five Sherpas to guide her to the top. Those six were the only climbers to get up Everest on the south side this spring season. To avoid the unpleasantness of the Khumbu Icefall, Wang arranged to transport her teammates, herself, and all their gear and food directly to Camp 2 by helicopter.
Wang confessed that the deaths of the 16 in the icefall the previous month had made her “very sad.” But she had an agenda she couldn’t ignore—to complete the so-called “Explorer’s Grand Slam”—reaching the top of the Seven Summits and the North and South Poles—in record time. Missing out on Everest would have put the kibosh on her whole campaign.