Talking Everest with mountaineer Pat Morrow
Over the past week, the media has been pumping out stories about the recent deaths on Everest, which at last count totaled four in one day. Much of the coverage—and even more of the commenters—seemed less focused on the lives lost and more concerned with issues of overcrowding and inexperienced climbers on the mountain.
According to a report in the Star, Shriya Shah-Klorfine, the Toronto woman who was part of the group that passed away this weekend, spent nearly six hours in what has become known as the “Death Zone” based on its low levels of oxygen and cold conditions. This is said to be the result of a “traffic jam” the woman was stuck in, as an estimated 150 to 200 people tried to reach the top between Friday and Saturday. In the Star, a friend of Shah-Klorfine was quoted saying Shah-Klorfine “received no warning that, with the massive backlog, it would be dangerous to press onward.” But according to explore contributing editor Pat Morrow, who was the second Canadian to reach the top of Everest and the first to complete the Seven Summits, climbers should be playing a bigger part in preventing these issues. We spoke with Morrow to get his take on the recent events and what the real issues are when it comes to bagging the world’s highest peak.
explore: With so many people climbing Everest, do you think someone needs to step in and restrict that number of climbers on the mountain?
Pat Morrow: I’m sure a number of people have petitioned the Nepalese government to do that, but it’s a big moneymaker for them and it might take a different tactic for change to occur.
explore: So it’s not up to the government?
PM: Well they’re not doing anything about it, and that’s because it makes so much money. Nepal doesn’t have any serious industry, so tourism is the driving force there. Everest is a bit of a cash cow. I think if anyone wants to curb the crowding issue, it has to be the guides and even the clients who are signing onto these trips. They have all the information in front of them, they can see the situation, and if they head over there with all that knowledge, it becomes a “buyer’s beware” thing.
explore: Do you think everyone, including less experienced climbers, have had this information in front of them previous to the recent media coverage?
PM: Why would an inexperienced mountaineer sign up for Everest, period? That’s the question I’m asking. I’m wondering what business they have going over there if they don’t even know that there’s a crowding issue. In this day and age, a quick mouse click on the Internet will give you the whole history of what’s been happening on Everest. Anyone who does any background research will immediately see there have been issues in the past.
explore: You’re right, despite all of the recent coverage, it doesn’t take long to find out this isn’t exactly a recent issue. The Everest disaster in May of 1996 [which led to eight deaths] certainly brought the mountain’s commercialization into question.
PM: There were even incidents before that, but because the deaths in 1996 happened to have some Americans involved, it got widespread play in North America and ultimately in Europe.
The fact that there are inexperienced climbers being shepherded to the top of Everest works as a calling card for other inexperienced climbers, and there’s a certain amount of responsibility on anyone that goes on any mountain trip, not just Everest.
explore: When you climbed in ’82, your team was just one of two that was allowed on the mountain in the fall climbing season.
PM: Exactly! And the level of experience there was way better than the level of people going now, because we were self-reliant and we had the mountain to ourselves. There’s no mystique left in Everest in the climbing world, however, the public is still utterly fascinated with Everest, and that’s why they’re lining up in droves to throw down their money and be shepherded up there.
explore: Do you think under today’s conditions you would have faced more difficulty climbing Everest, even with your skill level?
PM: If I were to take the same route everyone else does, sure. Sherpas and guides are in the same amount of danger as their clients with much less experience are.
explore: So the greater issue is overcrowding, rather than inexperience?
PM: Well, experienced climbers could look at the situation and chose to go at a different time of year, post-monsoon for instance, or chose a more difficult route like the West Ridge to avoid the crowding. The general media doesn’t know anything about mountaineering or mountaineering culture, but when they zero in on things like overcrowding, you know there’s a problem. And when the media plays up the tragic elements, the irony is that interest in mountaineering spikes, drawing even more crowds to Everest.
explore: You’ve said there are dozens of other mountains you’d rather be on today. Any regions that are really great for mountain climbing that tend to go ignored?
PM: There are peaks in all of the mountain ranges in the world that are attractive mountaineering challenges, and that’s what mountain climbing is all about to me. It’s about pitting yourself against yourself—overcoming your fear and using your skill level, which you build up over a period of years, until you take on more and more difficult climbs—rather than joining on to these popular expeditions, just to put yourself on a tick list. I tend to go on mountains with an intimate group of friends to get away from people, so to speak.
This article was originally published on May 24, 2012