From a Safe Distance: Reading about Mountaineering

Reading books about mountaineering–written by mountaineers–reminds me of reading books about physics written by physicists. In both cases, I’ve flirted–ever so lightly–with the subject matter: in the case of physics, I’ve done high-school physics, taken a graduate level class in mathematical methods for physicists, taught myself the basic mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, read philosophy of physics monographs and journal articles; and so on.  In the case of mountaineering, I’ve done some high-altitude hiking and basic climbing in a variety of locales (the Himalayas, the Andes, New Zealand etc). In both cases, I know just enough of the difficulty of the work described to understand it and to be in awe of those capable of it: I am in awe of the pristine beauty of the theoretical foundations of modern physics; I wish I were capable of manipulating these structures that intrigue me so. I am staggered by the fearsome beauty of the world’s really big mountains; I only wish I were brave and skilled enough to attempt climbing them.

Among the many pleasures of my just-concluded trip to India–with my wife and daughter–was the chance to dip into my brother’s small, but high-quality, mountaineering library. So, while in India, I read: The Will to Climb: Obsession and Commitment and the Quest to Climb Annapurna–the World’s Deadliest Peak by Ed Viesturs; Everest: Alone at the Summit by Stephen Venables; Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer by Anatoli Boukreev; and Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. Viestur’s book details his attempts to scale the deadliest eight-thousander of them all, Annapurna; Venables’ the alpine-style ascent of Everest from the Kangshung Face in 1988; Simpson’s his memorable escape to safety after suffering a near-fatal accident while descending from a successful climb of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes; Boukreev’s is a collection of diary entries translated from the original Russian, which provide some insight into the mind of a man who found himself playing a central role in the controversy surrounding the 1996 disaster on Everest.

In each case, there are stories of extreme human deprivation and endeavor, and descriptions of unimaginably harsh environmental conditions: the mountains are no place for the faint-hearted. Every one of the mountaineers above is a brave man, but each finds and experiences terror in the solitary high reaches of a big mountain: Viesturs–arguably the most self-avowedly cautious major alpinist of all–finds it on Annapurna’s treacherous, avalanche-prone slopes; Simpson experiences it during his painful crawl back down the Siula Grande glacier; Venables during his exhausting descent from Everest’s summit; Boukreev on many a wind-swept face of the big peaks he so masterfully climbed during his tragically short career.

Thus, to read the physicist’s or mountaineer’s biography or autobiography is to create and sustain a state of admiration and awe. In the case of mountaineering, I experience another emotion: the stirrings of a very primal fear. The heights, the extreme cold, the loneliness, the sustained, persistent state of exhaustion, all these add up to an experience that strikes me as almost unbearably unpleasant and fearful. Those who can undertake it again and again are, as far as I’m concerned, easily worthy of admiration.

From a safe distance.

Brawling at Twenty Thousand Feet: The Everest Punchup

The high-altitude slopes of the world’s highest mountain–Mt. Everest–might seem like a strange place to indulge in fisticuffs but that’s precisely what happened on April 27:

It takes a lot to rattle Swiss climber Ueli Steck….on April 27, while attempting to climb Mount Everest, it wasn’t the mountain that nearly killed him but a mob of angry, stone-wielding Sherpas, who descended on Steck and his two climbing partners as they hid in their tent….Steck, Simone Moro, 45, of Italy, and Jon Griffith, 29, of the U.K., had gotten into an argument with the Sherpas earlier in the day while climbing above Camp 2 on the sheer Lhotse face. The Europeans were climbing independently and Alpine-style – fast, light, and unroped – while, 150 yards away, roughly 15 Sherpas were attaching ropes to the face to be used by the commercial guiding companies….Steck and his crew eventually had to step over the Sherpas’ ropes to reach their tent, at which point the lead Sherpa started shouting and hitting the ice with his axe. “Motherfucker!” Moro exclaimed in broken Nepali. “What are you doing?” The Sherpas claimed ice had been dislodged onto them. Griffith thinks it was all about pride. “We believe that we hurt his honor by climbing so fast,” he says.

The fight between the Sherpas and the climbers has now been adequately documented, and ample analysis offered of all the things that have gone wrong on Mt. Everest: the overcrowding, the increasing number of unskilled climbers being led up the slopes by guides from commercial companies, the dangerous waits for fixed ropes, the increased risk-taking to get to the top at any cost.

Much, if not all of this, is old hat, and has been part of the established narrative on Everest for a while, especially since the 1996 disaster that claimed the lives of nine climbers: Everest’s camps and slopes are crowded places, theaters for fatal conflict and confusion. The views and the air are pristine but little else. And neither is discord on a mountain new: read Galen Rowell‘s In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods for a description of the endless bickering on a 1975 American expedition to K2 in the Karakoram.  

What is new about this latest story is the physical conflict between Sherpas and climbers (Sherpa porters have occasionally gone on strike for better wages; unsurprisingly, this has always been portrayed in Western narratives as blackmail) . Sherpas have been faithful servants, guides and indispensable aides to their clients: they fix ropes, cook food, conduct rescue missions, support climbers in every way possible. A simple way to comprehend their value is to imagine a hot cup of tea thrust through the flaps of a tent early in the morning: waking up for a day’s climbing in sub-zero temperatures suddenly becomes much easier.

In return, they are paid, respected by some climbers and condescended to by a great many others who insist on treating them like children, like the usual grinning natives of exotic adventure tales. To most external observers of the Himalayan mountaineering world, it is clear it is one of the last colonial domains still existent: the dominant vision that emerges is that of the gora saheb, accompanied by his faithful Man Friday, moving up the slope.

This endless condescension, this treatment of the Sherpas as simple-minded illiterates that might do the grunt work, but lack the nous of Western climbers, is visible even in the report above: the European climbers were climbing ‘Alpine’ style, thus possessed of all the skill and dexterity possible, while the Sherpas were merely plodding away, grimly fixing ropes. Classic dichotomy on display: skill vs. brute force. The writer of the article imagines it is only Europeans who can climb Alpine-style; perhaps the Sherpas don’t climb Alpine-style because they are always taking care of someone or something on those slopes?

Then, the cause for the fight: the natives ‘pride’, that old problem whenever you deal with brown or black folk–just like ‘face’, which they seem inordinately worried about losing. Sherpas, sadly, appear incapable of comprehending and appreciating the sophistication of their Western counterparts. (The mentally-challenged Griffith appears to not know the difference between fixing ropes for clients and climbing solo.)

Was ice dislodged on them? We won’t know. The story is never, ever, theirs. It’s always about the non-Sherpas:

“If the Sherpas had been as media savvy as the Euros, the story hitting the news would have been ‘Euro climbers insult, threaten, and endanger Sherpas,’ instead of ‘Sherpas attack climbers,’ ” says IMG co-owner Eric Simonson.

Unsurprisingly, the title of the Men’s Journal story, the one that ironically enough, is the source for the quote that I have excerpted above reads: ‘Attack on Mount Everest: A mob of Sherpas assault three Western climbers…’

Attack, assault, mob. Its pretty clear who is at fault for the Men’s Journal writers.

What is clear to this writer is that Steck, Moro and Griffith needed an ass-whipping and that the Sherpas’ cause would have been considerably helped if more such beat-downs had been administered in the past.

Forget about respecting mountains. Those who climb in the Himalayas need to begin by respecting its peoples.