With the Everest climbing season nearly upon us there will soon be a flurry of articles in the mainstream media about how the world’s highest mountain has become a garbage dump littered with human corpses which rich people can now be carried up by teams of Sherpas.
Over the next few months I know many journalists with little or no knowledge of Everest or mountaineering will be under pressure from their editors to knock together something emotive at short notice by cutting and pasting from internet websites or phoning up somebody who might have climbed it once for a few urgent soundbites, so I thought I would put together this handy one-stop-shop media guide to save them some time.
1. Everest’s two main sides
Everest has two main sides, the north side, accessed from Chinese Tibet, and the south side, accessed from Nepal. Most people climb the mountain by the Southeast Ridge on the Nepalese side. This route was first climbed by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. The other commercial route is the North Ridge on the Tibetan side. This was first climbed by Wang Fu-chou, Chu Yin-hua and Konbu in 1960, but is better known as the route where George Mallory and Sandy Irvine went missing in 1924. There are also a number of more challenging routes which have only been climbed a handful of times by more gifted climbers. These include the West Ridge, the Southwest Face, the Kangshung Face, and the Northeast Ridge.
As you can see from the photographs above, the mountain looks very different from each side. Before you grab a photo off Flickr to illustrate your article, it’s probably worth establishing which side of the mountain you have been writing about to avoid looking like a muppet.
2. Climbing Mount Everest
One of the reasons Everest has become easier and safer to climb for less gifted mountaineers is the used of fixed ropes on the steeper sections. These enable climbers to clip into the rope using a device known as a jumar, which slides up the rope but locks in place when tugged from below. The jumar is attached to the climber’s harness using a length of cord known as a prussic. This provides two benefits. Firstly, if the climber falls the jumar will hold them, and secondly if they are struggling to climb a difficult technical section they can haul themselves up by tugging on the jumar. This makes climbing both safer and easier, but above 7000m, where the air is thin and breathing is much more difficult, it is still very hard work and the terrain can be difficult. Many articles about Everest make reference to a staircase of fixed lines which enable rich people to be dragged up by Sherpas, but as you can see from the photos above, fixed ropes and staircases are two very different things. Similarly, climbers do not trundle up and down Everest like commuters on an escalator, and suggesting they do will make you sound clueless.
The issue of Sherpas dragging clients up Everest also requires examination. There is a technique known as short-roping where a client is attached to a guide by a short 2 or 3m line of cord, but this technique is usually used on descent, to bring down a climber who is exhausted more safely. While the climber may lack coordination, they do need to have sufficient energy to walk, and it’s not possible to drag them down like a corpse. Short-roping climbers up a mountain is not unknown, but is generally frowned upon and rarely successful, as it is exhausting for both climber and guide, and extremely dangerous at high altitude. Exhaustion and dehydration are two factors which lead quickly to altitude sickness, and short-roped clients and guides are much more likely to suffer fatal conditions such as cerebral and pulmonary edema.
3. Everest clichés
There are a number of tired clichés that get trotted out by the media every time something controversial happens on Everest, many of which have only a flimsy grounding in truth or are ludicrously exaggerated with unselfconscious hyperbole. To save you the bother of Googling for them yourselves I’ve listed a few of the most common ones below.
These have been used so many times by so many people you can happily cut-and-paste them into your articles without fear of copyright infringement. A word of warning, however: you will be contributing to the decline of journalism as a profession, and readers will eventually desert your worthless news sites in favour of better-informed amateur blogs (and hopefully this one as well).
“Mount Everest is not only the highest mountain in the world, it is also the world’s highest garbage dump.”
“Every inch of Mount Everest is littered with refuse, including oxygen bottles, tattered tents and sleeping bags, frayed ropes, old batteries, plastic bottles, food containers, human excrement and the FROZEN CORPSES of the mountain’s hundreds of victims.”
“Thousands of climbers pay up to $65,000 to be dragged up Mount Everest every year, and the numbers are increasing. Many expeditions are led by guides who are more concerned with money than the fragile mountain environment.”
“Sixty years after it was first conquered, tourists complain that the summit of Mount Everest has become virtually gridlocked. Some have said the summit has become as congested as a busy motorway during a bank holiday Sunday, with climbers queueing for as long as six hours to scale the Hillary Step, tripping over FROZEN CORPSES as they wait.”
“There are so many DEAD BODIES on Mount Everest that if you stood them on each others shoulders on top of the summit they would topple over. Some corpses have been there for so long climbers use them as landmarks.”
“Tourist traffic to Mount Everest has increased in recent years, and millionaire clients with virtually no climbing experience fly into base camp to be shepherded up the mountain by international expedition companies.”
“Trash has been building up on Mount Everest for decades, including items such as oxygen cylinders, tents and beer cans, as well as HUMAN CORPSES, which remain frozen where they fell.”
“So many tons of rubbish clog up the world’s highest peak that the Guinness Book of World Records has officially recognised it as the world’s highest garbage dump.”
“More than 4,000 climbers have now scaled the 8848m peak since 1953, when it was first conquered by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay. Hundreds more have died in the attempt, while many have succeeded only with help from oxygen tanks, Sherpa guides, porters to carry their luggage, and a cocktail of high altitude drugs.”
“You can basically pay to get up Everest these days. As long as they are not too old or weak and can still use both legs nearly everyone can climb it if they have enough money. People without any legs have even climbed it.”
“The Nepalese call the mountain Sagarmatha and consider it to be sacred. They sometimes attribute climbing deaths to bad karma earned through foreign tourists disrespecting the mountain by piling up garbage and dumping human faeces in crevasses.”
“Every year about a quarter of a million tourists travel to Nepal to hike the Himalayas, and over 800 try to scale its highest peak, Mount Everest. About 90 percent of them have no actual climbing skills, and pay up to $100,000 for a guided trip up.”
“The two standard routes on Mount Everest are dangerously overcrowded and disgustingly polluted. Garbage leaks out of the glaciers and pyramids of human excrement turn the high camps into a high altitude toilet. Climbers say the higher they get the worse the trash problem gets.”
“Following a violent confrontation at Mount Everest Base Camp last year, when a mob of over two hundred angry Sherpas armed with knives threatened to kill a group of western climbers who had insulted them, the government of Nepal has slashed climbing fees by more than half in order to encourage even more visitors.”
4. Government announcements
The government of Nepal feels that media coverage of Everest over the last few years has tarnished its image. While it might seem logical for them to work with expedition operators and climbers to address some of the problems that have contributed to this, they have instead decided to act unilaterally and counter the bad press by making a number of bizarre announcements, which most expedition organisers have only found out about through the media.
The announcements are usually accompanied by a series of random quotes by government officials, whose names and job titles sound fictional if vaguely plausible. Here is a summary of the more recent announcements, together with some handy quotes to paste into your articles. While the quotes are genuine, I have changed the names of people to avoid pointing the finger of blame at any particular individual.
- Police are to be stationed at Everest Base Camp following a brawl at 22,000 ft last year.
“With police at base camp, Nepalese liaison officers — who accompany expeditions to ensure they abide by local laws — will no longer have to report incidents at the nearest police station a seven-day trek away.” Madsadhu Snottibhotti, chief of the Handwringing Division at the Ministry of Tourism
What Mr Snottibhotti didn’t mention is that in reality the majority of expedition liaison officers are notorious for staying at home and pocketing their fee, only turning up at base camp for a token photograph for the family album. For more about the base camp police force you can read my previous post about it.
- Each climber will now be required to carry 8kg of trash down from the high camps.
“We are not asking climbers to search and pick up trash left by someone else. We just want them to bring back what they took up.” Ungriandi Adhikuri, chief of the Penpushing Division at the Department of Waste and Sewage
When this announcement was first made it was unclear whether climbers were expected to bring down litter left by previous teams. Not only is much historical trash frozen in place, but 8kg is an awful lot of additional weight for an exhausted climber struggling through a dangerous obstacle like the Khumbu Icefall, and many teams would transfer this duty to their hard-working Sherpas instead. Later announcements, such as the above quote, suggest this is not the case. Nobody is disputing that clearing up the detritus left by many previous expeditions on the south side going back to 1951 is a good thing, but it will be interesting to see whether this particular plan is workable. Reputable teams already pack out their own trash from the high camps, so a directive to bring down 8kg would be meaningless anyway.
- Mountaineering fees have been slashed from $25,000 to $11,000
“We brought about this change after seeing widespread malpractice. We have seen that in order to reduce the royalty cost per member, separate expeditions with separate team leaders managed by different organizers decided to go as one group. But once they are at the Mt Everest Base Camp, the teams split and operate independently.” Ang Shagging Sherpa, head of the Mountaineering Division at the Ministry of Culture
In fact for most climbers permit fees have increased from $10,000 to $11,000 since almost everyone climbed under a group permit anyway, which until now has been $70,000 for 7 climbers. By making individual permits the same price as group permits there is a danger the south side of Everest will see a return of the mavericks who plagued the north side until recently.
- Climbers will now be expected to attend an intensive pre-orientation programme designed by government authorities to avert any untoward situation during the climbing period
“There will be a special pre-orientation programme for the climbers and their helpers to alert them on dos and don’ts to maintain peace in the region. The orientation programme is aimed at averting any untoward situation.” Andi Gandhi, head of Naughty Step at the Ministry of Ethics
Perhaps the strangest announcement of all is this one, which seems to be a direct response to last year’s incident involving the superstar climbers Ueli Steck and Simone Moro. It’s not unique for climbers to attend a pre-expedition briefing on commercial peaks – climbers on Denali in Alaska receive a presentation from the national park rangers – but these briefings usually focus on safety and waste management rules (Denali climbers are given a green bucket to crap into). This particular announcement seems to be about preventing fights, which until last year have never been a huge problem.
5. Everest nomenclature
Everest is named after Sir George Everest, Surveyor-General of India from 1830 to 1843 by his successor in the post Andrew Waugh in 1865. Legend has it that an Indian surveyor called Radhanath Sikhdar rushed into Waugh’s office in 1852 clutching a piece of paper scribbled with trigonometric calculations. “Sir, I have discovered the highest mountain in the world,” he is supposed to have cried.
The name was controversial because British surveyors from the Survey of India had a directive to find local names for geographical features wherever possible. There is reasonable evidence that the local Tibetan name of Chomolungma was available to them if they wanted to use it. Chomolungma has been translated variously as Unmoveable Goddess Who is a Benefactress of Bulls, Unshakeable God Elephant Woman, Land of the Hen Birds, The Peak Above the Valley, and The Mountain So High No Bird Can Fly Over It, but its usual translation is Mother Goddess of the Earth. The name Sagarmatha, meaning Brow of the Sky in Sanskrit, is used to describe Everest in Nepal, but this name is even more recent than Everest.
It’s not necessary to call it Mount Everest. You can simply call it Everest if you like and most people will know what you are talking about. While the word Everest could also refer to Sir George Everest, a UK manufacturer of double glazing, or a slang term for an impossible task or an ultimate ambition, its use in a mountaineering context is unlikely to confuse anyone. It’s worth bearing in mind the word Mount has other connotations for some readers. For example, the Biblical phrase “Moses went to Mount Olive”, also describes an action that would have enraged Popeye.
Here endeth the media primer on Mount Everest. Of course, not all journalists give their profession a bad name, and should the good ones stumble across this post I hope they find it entertaining if not particularly useful. If you think I’ve missed anything, as I’m sure I have, then please post it in the comments.