Climbing Everest

How Memorial Day marks the end of Mount Everest climbing season.

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Memorial Day, as everyone knows, marks the beginning of summer (even if the actual solstice isn’t till June 20). But in Tibet and Nepal it marks the end of the brief spring climbing season on Mt. Everest, which straddles the border of the two countries through which the Himalayas rise like a jagged, Mesozoic spine.

At 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) its nearly oxygenless summit is the highest terrestrial point above sea level. Mt. Everest is also a bit of an obsession of mine, ever since I picked up my parents’ National Geographic at age nine and read the heartstopping account of Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld’s harrowing 1963 first ascent of the mountain’s daunting West Ridge, a considerably more challenging accomplishment than the Nepalese route by which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay originally surmounted the peak 10 years earlier, via the South Col and Southeast Ridge.

Hornbein and Unsoeld summited so late in the day that they were unable to escape the mountain’s icy clutches by nightfall, thus forcing an nearly suicidal bivouac above 28,000 feet—the highest open bivouac in history at the time—during which their bottled oxygen ran out and Unsoeld lost all his toes to gangrenous frostbite.

I read the article at least five times over, studying the amazing photography by climber Barry Bishop, who summited on the same day as Hornbein and Unsoeld but by the traditional South Col route and was trapped on descent along with the two West Ridge ascenders and also lost all his toes to the brutal cold.

I ran to the library and checked out Sir Edmund’s book on his and Tenzing’s historic first ascent then went back and checked out every book on Mt. Everest, then every book on mountaineering.

Whence this boyhood fascination and why does it persist into adulthood? Maybe it was the death-defying nature of high altitude climbing that captured my imagination at an age when I was just coming to grips with the notion of mortality. My interest took root at a time when I was seriously asthmatic and perhaps studying this mode of extreme adventure was a form of escape; or maybe I understood what it was like suffocate.

I think, though, I was simply captivated by what human beings could do at the margins of their physical and mental limits. In fact climbing Everest does not require great technical mountaineering skills as much as it requires a capacity for sheer endurance and the acceptance of prolonged suffering to achieve a monumental personal goal.

People always ask, do I want to climb Everest? No, thank you. I like my toes too much. But I do have a kind of perverse attraction to heights. Not long after that first article about Everest, my family visited Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan and I inched so close to the sandy cliff edge of Big Bear Dune that my mother gasped and jerked me back by my shirt collar.

Later I would return as a college student to climb up Big Bear and leap off that same cliff on a hang glider, nearly breaking my neck when I crashed into the beach below. I still love hiking through the mountains and make nearly a weekly pilgrimage in good weather up Massachusetts’s Monument Mountain. The highest I’ve ever been is 14,000 feet on a dizzying day-long hike up Longs Peak in Colorado.

I’m strictly armchair when it comes to the Himalaya, though. Every year, beginning in mid-April, I follow the action on Everest through a couple of websites, one of which I especially like—alanarnette.com, which doubles as a fundraiser for Alzheimer’s research.

Nowadays many commercial expeditions and professional guides usher fit but sometimes relatively inexperienced climbers safely to the top and back in ever increasing numbers. The death rate has come down considerably, to about 3 percent. This year 13-year-old Jordan Romero from California became the youngest American to reach the summit, though not without controversy: Critics claim it sets a dangerous precedent encouraging high risk behavior by children. 

With so many people assaulting the flanks of the world’s greatest mountain I do find myself missing the romance and myth of an earlier era, when mountaineers like George Mallory attempted the climb in hobnailed boots and tweed coats, and read Shakespeare aloud with his expedition mates while tent bound on the Northeast Ridge on the Tibetan side. On June 8, 1924, accompanied by Andrew Irvine, Mallory made his third attempt on the summit. He and Irvine were never seen alive again.

I don’t know if a mountain is worth giving your life for, even Everest. But perhaps it is that very question itself that is at the heart of my interest.

Do you have a quirky fascination with something? Post a response and let me know. I don’t want to feel alone!

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