General · 1st July 2012
At an elevation of 7,900 metres on Mount Everest, Ralf Dujmovits made the difficult decision to abandon his sixth ascent of the highest mountain on Earth. The weather had turned bad and, as one of the most experienced climbers in the world, the 50 year-old German realized that the risks of proceeding were just too great — for himself, for his climbing companions and his sherpas.
That's when he saw “in the distance on the Lhotse face,” as he noted in his internet diary, “a human snake, people cheek by jowl making their way up. There were 39 expeditions at the same time, amounting to more than 600 people. I had never seen Everest that crowded before,” he reported. “I was thinking how absurd the scene was. I had a strong feeling that not all of them would come back.... That leaves you with a really oppressive feeling that some of the people would soon be dead. I was also filled with sadness [for] this mountain, for which I have immense respect together with the experienced sherpas, that a great deal of that had been lost” (Globe & Mail, May 31/12).
Indeed, four people did die on Everest that May 18th weekend, adding their corpses to the nearly 200 now littering its high slopes. The boast of climbing the world's highest mountain is beginning to ring hollow and foolish, a mere tourist excursion in which people “drink [oxygen] like it was water,” Dujmovits notes, and anyone can attempt the ascent — even a short, fat French journalist and a Turkish-American who insisted on packing his bicycle to the summit to fulfill a “dream at whatever the cost.” As a consequence, according to Dujmovits, “the [appalling] jams of people... led to hours of waiting around which led to hypothermia and exhaustion. Many were dehydrated. But none of that seemed to have put people off.” As Dujmovits concluded, “People nowadays treat the mountain as if it was a piece of sporting apparatus, not a force of nature. It really makes my soul ache” (Ibid.).
This aching soul invites closer scrutiny, a search in our sense of the sacred, in the importance of mystery, in the magic of wonder, in our long and intimate history with Earth as the genesis of our existence. Perhaps the very act of summiting Everest is a fulfillment that ruins dreams, an accomplishment that defiles innocence, a victory that brings defeat. Perhaps success is a kind of destroying and knowing is a kind of killing.
Dujmovits was certainly concerned for the people who would likely kill themselves on Everest that May weekend. His concern didn't seem personal, that the significance of his own efforts would be diminished by the ascent of others — by so many others. He seemed mostly concerned about the mountain being treated as “a piece of sporting apparatus”, as a mere object, as a wholly impersonal thing, and that the quest to reach the highest place on Earth was becoming an empty fad that was diminishing the stature of every climber, and of Everest, too. If people couldn't respect themselves and the sacredness of their own lives, how could they respect the mountain and the sacredness of nature?
Perhaps Dujmovits was feeling that something wild and powerful, something natural and holy is being defiled by yet another rampant expression of wanton human desire, that the urge to reach the summit is becoming less an honourable pilgrimage than a vain and empty exercise in ego gratification, that the rule of empty pride is displacing something more selfless, humble and precious. Avarice is turning the grandeur of a mountain into a trivial trinket, just as the ubiquitous following, flocking and crowding is continually diminishing the value of everyone and everything. The ingenuity of crass commercialization and the tides of mass consumption are diluting and cheapening the magic and the mystery of being alive on this astounding planet. Whatever is touched by this process is more available and less valuable. Everest is still 8,848 metres high but it now seems lower, less formidable, less clean, less important, less respected and less inspiring.
Thus Everest becomes a symbol of our treatment of the planet, an image of what happens to environmentalists and naturalists who come to know nature, who fall in love with its intricate beauty, and then find it degraded or ruined by those who exploit it for prestige, fashion, profit or the plastic badge of material success.
Anyone with a hint of environmental sensitivity feels this daily as nature is systematically displaced, occupied, used and abused by the manic activity of our culture's industrial hysteria. Because we can do things doesn't mean we should. The frantic pace of constructing and intruding, of trespassing and polluting, of exploiting and defiling, of callous indifference to the integrity of landscapes and ecologies is ultimately self-defeating. Our creative ingenuity for ascending symbolic mountains is ultimately more disquieting than satisfying. The “appalling jams of people” on Everest's littered slopes is a metaphor for the pipelines and tankers, the refineries and factories, the mines and tar pits, the highways and cars, the concrete and congestion, the chemicals and concoctions that clutter, defile and poison our planet.
Let us hope that the 200 corpses littering the slopes of Everest are not the harbinger of our future as we climb ever upwards, abusing nature in our headlong quest for more and more of everything, seemingly heedless of the dangerous altitude and the bad weather.