Everest base camp in Nepal. Photo: iStock
Everest base camp in Nepal. Photo: iStock

It is summit-chasing season again on Mount Everest. The once-pristine mountain is among the most lethal environments on Earth, but that has not diminished its popularity with climbers.

Nepal’s department of tourism said it had issued a record 365 permits to climb the world’s tallest peak as of April 19.

But it’s more like gloating: “I climbed the Summit of Folly.” Sadly for genuine mountaineers, Everest has become a dangerously overcrowded peak that attracts egotistical record-chasers who have contributed to one of the worst pollution crises on the planet.

Devastating avalanches, blizzards and earthquakes in recent years have killed more than 300 people in the so-called “Death Zone” above 8,000 meters. This lethal legacy continues to be ignored in a business that demands US$30,000 to US$1.4 million per client for the chance to boast: “I climbed Everest.”

Including Sherpa guides, thousands will be trampling around Everest again this summer. But should they be permitted to do so? Some Eastern Himalayan peaks are home to less visible life forms that have not yet been properly studied by scientists, and they could be disturbed by unnecessary intrusions.

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A trekking path leading to Mount Everest in April 2015 — shortly before an earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people in Nepal.

Will Nepal continue choosing to pay a much higher environmental price than the US$120 million earned from Everest tourism?

The once-pristine mountain is among the most lethal environments on earth, but that has not diminished its popularity with climbers

Commercial Everest climbing is not about guts; nobody pays fat fees to exhibit courage. Courage is a firefighter rushing into a collapsing, burning building to rescue people, or anyone else putting themselves at risk to save others.

Lurching into the Death Zone several kilometers above sea level, where oxygen is scarce, to join the long ropes and ladders-led queues of “climbers” is pure folly. “Traffic jam at Everest” is a ridiculous headline that is seen all too frequently. So what next for Everest crowds clogging the summit trail? A cable car up the icy Lhotse Face?

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Bangladeshi mountaineer Wasfia Nazreen descends the Lhotse Face on Everest.

Everest is not for adventure sports, unwholesome activities that result in tonnes of garbage being left behind, as well as huge quantities of human excreta that have begun to contaminate snowy glaciers that provide drinking water.

The authorities should protect Mount Everest, just as India banned tourists from Nanda Devi (7,816 meters) in 1983.

First Tenzing Norgay helped Edmund Hillary put his disrespectful feet atop Sagar Matha, or “Mother of the World,” as Nepal knows the world’s highest mountain. Then Rob Hall, “pioneer of commercial expeditions” to Everest, unlocked the gateway for yearly seasons of the “living dead.”

Hall lost his life in 1996, when eight climbers died in a sudden blizzard that struck an unusually busy Everest “season.”

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The 2015 film Everest chronicles the 1996 disaster that killed Rob Hall and seven others – and exposed both the ugly and unselfish sides of human nature. 

The Everest base camp is a challenging enough trek. Go no further, unless for the greater good, such as scientific study.

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Spanish mountaineer Araceli Segarra at the Berlin premiere of the Imax film Everest. Segarra summited Everest while studying earthquakes in 1996.

In the Death Zone where Hall lost his life, the body becomes dysfunctional and one’s thinking becomes muddled. Some refuse to return when they should, and die trying to reach the summit with insufficient daylight for the descent.

Those who are too badly debilitated to make the descent are sometimes left to die. “If I stay with you, we both die. So I must leave you.” And climbers such as Rob Hall lose their lives by choosing not to abandon fallen team members.

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British mountaineer George Mallory on the Aiguille Verte, France, in 1909. Mallory and teammate Andrew Irvine may have been the first to summit Everest. Mallory died during the dangerous descent in 1924. Eric Simonsen’s expedition found his body in 1999, with evidence suggesting he had reached the summit.

The departed have an eerie presence in Everest’s Death Zone – such as the German mountaineer Hannelore Schmatz. For years, climbers saw her corpse frozen in a sitting position, her eyes open, hair blowing in the wind – until she was blown away.

Then there’s the so-called “Green Boots.” It is the body of Dorje Morup from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, according to team member P.M. Das (The Indian Ascent of  Qomolangma [Everest], 1996), and not Tsewang Paljor, as is commonly believed. Morup and Paljor both perished in the 1996 Everest blizzard.

Until 2014, when Dorje’s frozen corpse suddenly disappeared, it had been left lying twisted where he fell, with thousands of climbers passing by it on the way to the top, a “living dead” trail marker wearing green boots.

There is something ghastly, degrading and inhuman in this reach-the-summit-at-all-cost madness on Everest.

The lives of brave people have been lost during expeditions to bring back bodies. Why not use ice, snow and sheets to cover the dead?

Last week, I asked a surviving member of Morup and Paljor’s 1996 expedition, a mountaineer who has since reached the summit twice: “How did it impact you seeing the frozen bodies of climbers? Can anything be done other than leaving them exposed?”

His silence spoke volumes.

Give Sagar Matha this silence. For the good of many, let no glory-lusting humans trespass on this glorious mountain.

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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