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To summit Everest is the dream of many professional climbers. They greatly appreciate the rugged beauty of the mountain, the challenges that lay before them and they love to experience what it feels like to stand on the roof of the world. There are those who want to climb the mountain in order to obtain some bragging rights because reaching the top is indeed the testament to courage and self-determination.
Moreover, there are those who will climb for the glory and fame and nothing more. These are the people who are willing to pay the price physically and financially to summit Everest. In the early 1990s it became clear that anyone who is relatively fit and can afford to pay a guide can reach the peak.
It was a wrong assumption, a fact learned the hard and bitter way by Jon Krakauer as he barely survived the attempt. His story talks about the importance of leadership, teamwork, goal-setting, and skills are required to conquer Everest.
Problems en Route to the Peak
The first major problem that the climbers had to deal with is none other than Mt. Everest itself.
The Sherpas who lived within the Himalayan mountain range were already familiar with the imposing structure but the rest of the world only knew about its astounding size when Sir George Everest, a surveyor general working for the British government measured the mountain and discovered that it is 29,028 feet or 8,848 meters above sea level (Weintraub, year, p.5).
It is almost five and a half miles high (Weintraub, year, p.5). Walking for five and a half miles on a horizontal plane is a challenge to most people. But imagine doing the same feat vertically and one could begin to understand the physical challenge of climbing Everest.
The second major problem is the thin air that surrounds the regions near the peak. Base camp is already at 17,600 feet and in this altitude human beings will find it difficult to breathe. The next step before summit, the launching pad for the final assault is called the South Col and it is located 26,000 feet above sea level.
In these kinds of altitude Acute Mountain Sickness is made evident by the following symptoms: loss of appetite; nausea or vomiting; fatigue or weakness; dizziness or light-headedness; and difficulty sleeping (Wenk, year, p.36). Climbers need to acclimatize correctly.
The third major problem is the number of climbers. Based on the topography of the mountain and the steep Hillary Steep there should only be limited number of climbers allowed to ascend on a given day. The treacherous weather can easily make a 30-minute walk into a five hour crawl, especially if there is blizzard.
The fourth and most significant problem was the high number of inexperienced climbers that tried to ascend on May 10, 1996. There was a crowd at South Col and more than 30 climbers are about to cause a traffic jam at the Hillary Step on the final day to the summit.
Those who do not possess the basic skills set required to climb an ice covered mountain should not even be allowed to go to Base Camp. But in this case the problem is compounded by inexperienced climbers who were chasing after glory and fame and not mindful of the safety of their team and other people.
As if the major problems are not enough there were secondary issues. First of all there was the commercialization of the ascent to Mt. Everest. Due to this factor moneyed clients are putting pressure on the guides to bring them up to the summit at all cost. According to Krakauer one Sherpa-guide was focused on one client because she promised a hefty cash bonus if he can bring her to the top (Krakauer, 1996, p.20).
But the real pressure was placed on the shoulders of the team leaders who also happened to be the owner and major stakeholder of the business.
The first team was led by Rob Hall with his Adventure Consultants team and the second one was led by Scott Fischer with his Mountain Madness team. Krakauer was able to put it succinctly why Hall and Fischer did not turn around when they were already past the deadline set by the both team leaders:
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Fischer had a charismatic personality, and that charisma had been brilliantly marketed. Fischer was trying very hard to eat Hall’s lunch, and Hall knew it. In a certain sense, they may have been playing chicken up there, each guide plowing ahead with one eye on the clock, waiting to see who was going to blink first and turn around (Krakauer, 1996, p.41).
The rivalry between the two camps was only part of the issue when it comes to the commercialization of the ascent to Mt. Everest. There were many climbers who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to climb and they will not be refused.
According to Guy Cotter, a New Zealander who summitted to Everest in 1992 with Rob Hall, “It’s very difficult to turn someone around high on the mountain … If a client sees that the summit is close and they’re dead-set on getting there, they’re going to laugh in your face and keep going up” (Krakauer, 1996, p.33).
The final secondary issue which could well be easily be considered as a primary concern is the lack of knowledge regarding the science of climbing the highest peak in the world. There is a good reason why Rob Hall charged $65,000 per person not including airfare or personal equipment (Krakauer, 1996, p.7).
And the reason is that Hall understands Mt. Everest, the weather, the acclimatization process, the climbers, the Sherpas etc. However, no one has access to the same information, especially a climber attempting to conquer Everest for the first time. The number of dead bodies buried in the ice is a testament to how difficult it is to master this particular mountain.
If one will simply focus on Rob Hall’s team, the group with the highest chance of success, one can still see huge gap that separates them from their intended goal and their performance from Base Camp to South Col and finally on May 10 the date of the final ascent. First of all there were inexperienced climbers with the team that forced Hall to spread himself too thin.
He was already preoccupied with the safety of those who are not members of his team but with a large contingent of fourteen people it was just impossible for him to manage them correctly. In addition every time a team member gets sick or has to turn back the whole team can be easily slowed down reduces their overall efficiency.
If these factors were not enough of a problem, Hall was also hampered by the crowd of climbers forcing their way up into the summit. Aside from Fischer’s team there were also a group of incompetent climbers from Taiwan who made an already dangerous climb into a very risky venture.
Furthermore, Hall was unable to make adjustments with regards to perhaps an unforeseen development, the rivalry between the Sherpas. It was a classic display of human nature, one will not work if he sees his co-worker not putting the same effort as he.
A scientific study has to be made regarding the perils of climbing Mt. Everest. This is indeed an ambitious project but as long as climbers are allowed to trek this imposing natural wonder then researchers must volunteer or the Nepalese government must sponsor this endeavor.
The most important thing to know is the acclimatization process. According to the author of Into Thin Air: “A human plucked from sea level and dropped on the summit of Everest would lose consciousness within minutes and quickly die … A well-acclimatized climber can function at that altitude with supplemental oxygen—but not well, and not for long” (Krakauer, 1996, p.20).
The last statement is vague and an unacceptable proposition considering that many have already died. There must be a study to determine how the body should be trained to acclimatize itself properly.
If this is an impossible endeavor for the Nepalese government or even non-government organizations to tackle then the next best thing is a regulatory body that will create strict guidelines regarding who can be given permits to climb the mountain. When it comes to group climbs with a paid guide there must be a limit to the number of people that can be part of the team.
There must also be a system to allow only one group or a fixed number of individuals to climb the peak on a single day. It was a ridiculous idea to allow three or four teams to race their way to the top. There should be no race to Mt. Everest. It can only be done by teamwork and sharing of resources. If team leaders will compete and will treat it as a race to boost their ego then they should not be allowed near the mountain.
In the case of Rob Hall his organization should not be limited to the Himalayan mountain range, this means that he must have offices or representatives in key cities around the world such as New York, London, Tokyo, Sydney and Auckland if these are the places where he gets his clients.
He must establish offices here to help assess the proficiency of the climbers. If they cannot pass the test then they must not be allowed to climb Everest even if they are multi-millionaires and can easily afford the $65,000 fee.
The best solution is to combine the need for a regulatory body to limit the number of people at Base Camp and South Col and the need for a skill assessment of climbers. The regulatory body must be initiated by the Nepalese government specifically to monitor and manage the South Col assault of Mt. Everest.
This regulatory body must only focus on the fees that they can collect from the climbers but the safety of those who are there. Secondly, there is a need to assess the skills of the climbers. This can be done per group but ideally it must also be under the supervision of the government.
All of these can be achieved by securing the commitment of the Nepalese government that there is no other way but to regulate the business that is climbing Mt. Everest. They can increase the fee if they like but the most important thing is to limit the number of people given access to Base Camp and South Col. Part of their duties and responsibilities is to determine if the guides are skilled enough to bring people to the top.
The government can create a training facility at the base of the mountain and they can use this to gauge the skills of the climbers. The unscrupulous guides who are in it for the money will not be able to bring any clients even as far as Base Camp.
If this is the case then team leaders like Rob Hall and Scott Fischer will have to use part of their earnings to set-up an office where they can assess the capability of their clients. In the same facility they can also train them and educate them on the perils of climbing Mt. Everest, the importance of turn-around time and how to deal with acute mountain sickness. Hall and Fischer could have used this advice a long time ago.
Krakauer, J. (1006). Into Thin Air. Outside Magazine.
Weintraub, A. (2001). Mount Everest: The Highest Mountain. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
Wenk, E. (2008). One Best Hike: Mt. Whitney. CA: Wilderness Press.