Along with glaciers and crampons, drama has become a fixture on Mt. Everest.
This season, attention is focused on a deadly avalanche that sent Sherpas packing for the season. Last year, media reports zeroed in on a rock-throwing fistfight that began at about 23,000 feet after Swiss climber Ueli Steck and partners reportedly dislodged ice that fell onto a Sherpa setting ropes below them.
To help keep the peace, the Nepalese government announced that it would station up to nine police and army officers at Everest Base Camp this season. As debates continue about whether a police presence is necessary or could even make any difference in how climbers behave thousands of feet above, the move draws attention to a long history of tension on the mountain.
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From historical questions about who owns Everest to logistical ones about who has a right to climb on which routes at what times, Everest brings out strong feelings. Now, with nearly 1,000 people at Base Camp and just a week or two each season when conditions are good enough for summit bids, said some Everest experts, it’s no wonder that tempers continue to flare.
“The more people you get there, the more chances you have for conflict,” said Maurice Isserman, a historian at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and author of “Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes.”
“The real problem with Everest is that it’s just way too crowded,” he said. “Climbing has this elaborate and evolving code of ethics. The really ethical thing would be to give the poor mountain a vacation.”
The first expeditions to Everest approached from the north in the 1920s, when Tibet finally agreed to allow access to British mountaineers.
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So, while the Germans tackled Nanga Parbat and the Americans focused on K2 (though they were ultimately beaten to the summit by an Italian team), the British worked on Everest until Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay finally reached the summit in 1953.
A decade later, the first Americans topped Everest as part of a massive government-backed expedition. The Chinese had already climbed it. Putting an American flag on the highest peak in the world was viewed as an act of heroism and prestige at the height of the Cold War.
Large-scale nationalistic expeditions soon gave way to smaller teams that traveled lighter and more quickly. The modern era of commercial, guided treks began in the late 1980s.
As the nature of expeditions changed, so too did relationships between foreign climbers and local Sherpas, Isserman said. During early expeditions in the 1920s, Sherpas were first employed primarily as porters for British mountaineers, who referred to them as “coolies,” a denigrating term for common laborers or slaves from Asia.
Over the next couple of decades, Sherpas emerged as skilled and serious mountaineers. When Norgay summited with Hillary in 1953, he had already participated in 11 previous Everest expeditions. No one was more experienced.
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Mutual respect gradually grew, and Sherpas have long welcomed foreign climbers, who make it possible for them to earn as much money in a two-month climbing season as a farmer could earn in 10 years, Isserman said.
But Sherpas have also become more aggressive at asserting their value to foreign expeditions, beginning as early as 1953, when Hillary’s team stayed in a hotel in Kathmandu while Sherpas had to sleep in a barn without bathrooms. Resentment brewed and the Sherpas almost went on strike.
Last year’s physical confrontation, however, was unprecedented, and may have struck panic into Nepalese officials. The fees that climbers pay for access to Everest make it a cash cow for the country.
“You don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” Isserman said. “What I imagine is going on is that they think, ‘We have to recreate a sense of stability and safety so that foreigners can come here and climb the mountain and not run into trouble.’”
As of last week, there was no sign of police at Base Camp, said Peter Hansen, a historian at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and author of “The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment.”
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Even if they police show up, he said, they were probably unnecessary. One reason is that most of the Sherpas’ feelings of anger and frustration are aimed not at foreign climbers but at the Nepali government, which many have argued, doesn’t do enough to compensate them for the risks they take on.
The media has also overblown reports of overcrowding and fighting, said Linden Mallory, a guide for RMI Expeditions in Ashford, Wash., who summited Everest with clients in 2011 and spent all or part of three other seasons at Base Camp since 2009.
“The first time I visited Everest, it was November, during the fall post-monsoon climbing season,” said Mallory (no relation to George Mallory, who died on the mountain during his third attempt in 1924). “I was expecting a much more trodden place with garbage piles and things like that, but it just looked like a glacier.”
In his experience, camaraderie is plentiful among Sherpas and Western climbers, even when they belong to different teams.
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“You’re all there to climb a pretty big mountain,” Mallory said. “There’s a lot of support and whether there’s a rescue happening or somebody is not feeling well, I’ve always felt that there are a lot of people outside my immediate team that I can lean on.”
Mountaineer and Everest blogger Alan Arnette agreed that the mountain brings out great goodness in people that often gets overlooked, and that plans to put police on the mountain were probably more of a symbolic gesture than an actual peacekeeping one.
“The media likes to focus on selfishness but there is an equal amount of unselfishness and humanity on this mountain that never (gets) reported,” Arnette said. “You have climbers and Sherpas every year who give up the summit to help strangers or guides who help other teams.”
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And even though reports from the 2012 spring season featured pictures of long lines and bottlenecks on the climb due to an unusually short weather window that year, many climbers who get to the summit do it quietly and without fuss. Arnette was the fourth person to stand on top of the mountain on the day in 2011 that he summited as the sun was rising at 5:30 a.m. He never had to wait a single minute at any point during his climb.
“You can cherry-pick your data and say 100 or 200 people are going for the summit on a single day,” he said. “But Everest is a huge mountain. You can find just as much data to show that there’s room for everybody.”