My thoughts on the recent photographs from the top of the world

I feel at a loss of what to write about the recent events on Mount Everest- the queues, the death toll… and then my personal social media feed filled with friends who have just achieved life long dreams by standing on top of the world, giving their own personal account of that summit day.

I feel at a loss because the photographs I see today are completely at odds with what my own experience of Everest felt like- where somedays it felt like you didn't see a single other person except your team mates. Where the mountain and you were alone. And could speak.

I see the recent pictures and I can’t reconcile the fact that I too have walked across that exact summit ridge. And my heart aches for those poor souls, who just like me, had a dream. It is just luck that I climbed this peak nearly 10 years ago, when getting to the top was a very different experience. There were other teams there, sure. But there was a collective fission in the air- an excitement. Shared adrenaline. We were in this together. Different teams but also one.

My knowledge is that this year there was a very short weather window for nearly 800 climbers to try and reach the summit. Just two days long. It’s the first weather window this year, and may well be the only weather window for the top of the world 2019 gets to see. 2 days out of 365. 2 days for 800 people to achieve their goal. Last year the numbers were similar but the weather window was 11 days long. No photographs like these reached the headlines.

Put this into perspective- Kilimanjaro gets around 35,000 summits a year. More summits than Everest has ever had by a huge stretch. Nobody is posting pictures of queues and ridiculing the 35,000 ‘idiots’ (to use Twitter terminology) who climb it because the summit of Kili is achievable all throughout the year.

But- the fact remains. People died on Everest last week because of that queue, and for the ones who survived- it must have been heart breaking to see the day you’ve dreamt of unfold in such an ugly way.

And I use ‘ugly’ seriously- because no experience of climbing a mountain should ever be dogged by having to slowly die standing in a queue. I’m sure the experience for all of them will be tainted by the part they played by the fault of their own presence.

My two pence worth is that the pressure cooker of moments on Everest like the recent photos show could be relieved if it was mandatory for all climbers to be able to prove that they have climbed on at least one 8000m peak prior to setting foot on Everest. This would mean that whether you were a billionaire or a life long climbing addict, everyone on those summit ropes would have the minimum experience to move quickly and effectively and react better to unfolding situations. 

Secondly, it would mean even more revenue for Nepal- which holds within its border 10 of the 14 8000m peaks.

Perhaps many climbers, forced to endure an 8000m peak other than Everest might get back to base camp after climbing say, Cho Oyu or Manaslu and say “I’m not doing that again!” and be satisfied that they tasted that rarefied air, climbed towards the moon, and came back alive… maybe Everest and the true gravity of climbing it would then be better respected and understood by the many in that recent queue who had never stepped foot on a Himalayan peak before.

Will the Nepal government make that change? I doubt it. They are a fast developing country and who are we in the West to tell them to change their policy? After all, if you buy fast fashion you have a lot more to answer for than for those souls on Everest- it’s just that you’re not forced to see the gravity of the problem you cause when you queue for the checkout at Primark.

Culture is about what we tolerate- and the culture on Everest needs to change. I hope that those who pull the strings on that mountain find within them the fortitude to do what’s necessary in the long term, whatever that may be. 

As for me, I am selfishly thankful that I climbed that mountain when I did. I am happy for those who made the summit this year, but my unease over playing my part in this circus is always there. 

I just have to remind myself that nothing in life is black and white- climbing Everest is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.