As another Himalayan season approaches, media attention focuses once again on the Everest guiding industry. The loss last season of 16 Nepalis in a single cataclysmic avalanche that raked the Khumbu Icefall has intensified a long-standing debate over the practice of stringing the mountain with miles of fixed ropes and constructing elaborate camps—complete with pallet-loads of bottled oxygen—all so affluent clients, many of whom have limited climbing experience, can stand on top of the world. More and more people are asking: Is this form of fully-catered climbing—enabled by a small army of Sherpas and other mountain workers who are exposed to enormous risk—really climbing at all?
It was none other than alpinism’s grand master Reinhold Messner, the first person (along with Peter Habeler) to ascend Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978, which he followed up two years later with the mountain’s first unsupported solo summit, who famously said that he would climb Everest by “fair means” or not at all. In his landmark 1971 essay, The Murder of the Impossible, Messner decried the growing trend of climbers using oxygen and excessive amounts of equipment to bring down a mountain’s difficulty, rather than rising up to meet the mountain on its own terms. He famously wrote: “Today’s climber doesn’t want to cut himself off from the possibility of retreat: he carries his courage in his rucksack…”
In an article last year in the Guardian that ran shortly after the deadly avalanche, British journalist and climber Ed Douglas addressed the essence of the Everest moral dilemma, i.e. the growing trend of guiding companies outsourcing the inherent danger of Himalayan mountaineering to Sherpas. “What if the term ‘Everest climber’ were given to the people who climbed the features of the mountain directly, rather than awarded to those who ascended its pre-fixed ropes? More honest accounts might result in a clearer vision of what takes place on Everest—the beginnings, perhaps, of real discussions about effective and lasting solutions.”