You’re probably thinking,
“Maybe this is the year I quit smoking, drinking and banging Mr. Brownstone, and finally climb Mount Everest.”
I think that’s great. Dream big, I say. For myself, this summer I have every good intention of completing the entire Rootin’ Teuton Sausage Tour at Helmut’s Black Forest Café & Wurst Haus, which is totally similar.
While such laudable gustatory achievements have yet to gain wide acknowledgement, we are relentlessly reminded that climbing Mount Everest might be the noblest endeavor of which a person is capable. Think of it: Bravely pitting your fragile substance against that dangerous and indifferent monolith; fighting your way into the gasping sky to the greater glory of King and Country; surpassing the boundaries of physical and mental endurance in selfless celebration of the indomitable human spirit.
It just sounds so cool, right?
But before you mortgage the farm for a Sherpa-class ticket to Kathmandu, you should talk to Clark Jackson. For what it’s worth, Jackson may well be the only mountaineer in world history who never claimed to have picked up the sport for lofty philosophical reasons.
“I feel like it’s something I’m pretty good at,” he explains. “You always want to do things you’re good at.”
Way to suck the romance right out of it, Clark. Still, I’ve got to grant him points for getting after the world’s highest mountain. Goodness knows his wife wasn’t making with the kudos.
“Actually, nobody I know thought it was a good idea,” Jackson admits. “But I’m a pretty cautious climber, and I was pretty sure I’d be okay.”
On the mountain locals call Sagarmatha, okay is a relative term. Soaring more than five miles into the atmosphere, Everest is an unforgiving mass of rock and ice littered with the bodies of those who hadn’t the skill or judgment or luck to survive its treacheries. No other mountain even comes close to Everest in difficulty and sheer peril. Near its summit you breathe a third less oxygen than at sea level, making even simple tasks – tying a bootlace, adjusting a crampon, snapping a selfie – a universe of fatigue. A clear, still morning can become a blinding wilderness of swirling snow without warning, and the summit is frequently hammered by sustained winds exceeding 150mph. In the “death zone” at altitudes above 27,000 feet, the body begins to die, and no amount of rest or nourishment or bottled oxygen can stop the decay. The only salvation is straight down.
But danger means nothing to courageous men like me and Jackson. The expense, on the other hand, can be daunting, and you start paying through the nose long before you get within smelling distance of an honest-to-goodness yak. The typical climbing kit starts at $8,000 for gear, plus another $3,000 for bottled oxygen. Airfare from the Heartland will set you back about $2,000, an official Nepalese or Tibetan climbing permit can run an extortionate $25,000, and expect to fork over at least $2,000 for airport transfers to and from Base Camp.
Once you’re into the scene for a solid $40,000, it’s time to shatter that credit limit into smithereens and engage a guide service. For basic amenities like food, expect to pay $40,000. For Ambassador-class amenities like an actual guide, roped routes, and some assurance of first-aid as required, $80,000 is closer to the mark. For an additional consideration, true adventurers may also enjoy personal porters, personal cooks, and personal tent-putter-uppers.
I mean, you’re not an animal, right?
Figure fees on the order of $120,000 just to get your foot in the Everest Club door.
The spring climbing season is a brief window that creaks ajar as the jet stream’s savage winds shift north of the Himalayas, and slams shut again six weeks later when the summer monsoon unleashes storms and heavy snow from the south. Arriving at the 17,000-plus-foot base camp in late April, 2006, Jackson spent the next three weeks building his endurance and getting to know something about the dozen other members of his party, an international collection of diverse temperaments and outlooks hailing from the U.S., Britain, Austria, Brazil, Ecuador and Malaysia. Jackson quickly struck up a close acquaintance with British climber David Sharp, a friendly sort who’d tried – and failed – to summit Everest twice before.
“He was like a lot of Englishmen,” Jackson recalls. “A little eccentric and very opinionated, but a good guy. There’s a lot of down-time before a climb, so you have a chance to get pretty close to people, and I spent more time talking with Sharp than anyone else.”
A lot of what he and Sharp talked about was the increasing frequency of thefts on Everest.
“I was disillusioned because it went against my belief that everybody on the mountain is trustworthy, that everybody pulls together and helps each other achieve a common goal,” says Jackson. “It’s unconscionable to take something that someone needs to survive, and stuff was disappearing from camps almost every day.”
Who would do such a thing? In 2008, two years after Jackson’s tale was told, Michael Kodas published “High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed” detailing the prevalence of unethical guides, shady Sherpas, rampant prostitution, runaway gambling and outright fraud that has come to characterize Base Camp.
“Sherpas take the stuff to sell,” says Jackson. “I mean, there are good ones and bad ones, but the bad ones are pretty bad. Sometimes, equipment would be coming to Base Camp on yak-trains and the yak drivers would take off with everything.”
Jackson also got to know a Brazilian litterbug named Vitor Negrete who was making his second Everest attempt.
“He was nice, but he was definitely a different kind of guy,” Jackson says. “I called him ‘The Barbarian’ because he was really messy. He just didn’t care about anything but getting to the top.”
Then again, what’s a few Snickers wrappers amid the more than 50 tons of trash and flash-frozen sewage weighing down Everest’s brawny slopes? As it happened, thieves cleaned out Negrete’s Camp II even as he fought for his life in the thin air far above.
If there were plenty of experienced mountaineers present at Base Camp, the place positively teemed with rank novices who’d paid heavy fees to guide companies that promised an easy ride to the end of the world’s toughest hike.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t really look like they belonged there, like they weren’t really ready for Everest.”
Adding a bizarre, Hollywood aspect to the already surreal scene on the mountain, a Discovery Channel film crew was on hand to document the ascent of New Zealander Mark Ingliss, who lost both legs to frostbite while trying to scale Everest in 1982.
“It was a real circus,” Jackson sighs. “I understand the commercial aspects of mountaineering, but it was still pretty weird.”
On May 10, Jackson made his bid for the summit, a grueling three-day plod nearly 8,000 feet straight up, culminating in a brief, dizzying interlude beneath only the stars. Along the way he tumbled to another of Everest’s dirty little secrets.
“Like most people, I thought all Sherpas were expert mountaineers who could help you in any situation,” Jackson says. “I was surprised to find out that they don’t know all that much. They’re able to function at high altitude, but they don’t know anything about the equipment. Beyond being experts at following one route up the mountain, they’re not that much help.”
Of six others from his 13-member trekking party who achieved the holy grail of mountaineering, two perished miserably before they could descend to safety, including David Sharp, who died near the summit while troops of fellow climbers trudged past within inches of his prostrate form just two days after Jackson’s triumph. Even as Jackson struggled with the death of his British friend, word trickled down from above that Negrete had succumbed to altitude sickness as he descended from the summit on May 18, dying high on the side of the pitiless mountain. His cold fate was Jackson’s last straw.
“When I heard about the deaths, it changed my whole dynamic. After all that time and trouble, two members of my party died. Everybody told me that once you’ve been to the Himalayas, they get in your blood and you’ll always come back. But I don’t think I’d ever go back, even if I hadn’t made the summit. All of a sudden getting to the top of a mountain didn’t seem all that important. I just wanted to go home.”
It was merely the last – and worst – of many disillusionments Jackson suffered during his Himalayan holiday. As equipment, infrastructure and commercial incentives improve, unprecedented numbers of climbers are reaching Mount Everest’s summit. More than 200 hardy hikers joined Jackson on the summit 2006. A whopping 658 stood astride Everest’s white crown in 2013, nearly all of them scoring their goal during three short episodes of acceptable weather. There, on the very top of the world, it is now possible to stand in line for five hours waiting for the 200-plus people ahead of you to navigate the “Hillary Step” bottleneck.
While good news for the casual campaigner, that remarkable summiting success rate begs abuse. Because there may possibly be some few mountaineers for whom the summiting Everest is invested with the smallest element of personal aggrandizement, and since merely getting to the top is no longer sufficient to get your name in the hometown fish-wrap, there could conceivably exist a mild motivation within less sturdy psychologies to find other avenues to distinction.
“Everybody’s trying to be a ‘first.’”
Fact is, that trend has been apparent since at least 1990, when for no obvious good reason an Australian adventurer named Tim Macartney-Snape became the first to trek to the top of Everest from sea-level. Once that was accomplished, in 1999 Babu Chiri Sherpa had little choice but to become the first person to spend the night atop Everest. In 2000, Slovenian Davo Karnicar became the first to ski down from the top, and the following year Marco Saffredi, a Frenchie, and Stefan Gatt, and Austrianie, were the first to snowboard down the mountain. Also in 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to take the walk. The youngest to summit Everest was 13-year-old Jordan Romero in 2010, the oldest woman to do so was Tamae Watanabe, 73, in 2012, and the flat-out oldest was 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura in 2013.
In 2004, Moni Mule Pati and Pem Dorjee Sherpa, both of Nepal, became the first to get married atop Mount Everest, concealing their wedding plans until their hapless (and presumably giftless) guests were assembled thereon. In 2006, when Jackson was making his way onward and upward, Lakpa Tharke Sherpa, 24, claimed laurels as the first man to be naked on the summit, shedding his polars and standing totally starkers for three shrinkage-inducing minutes. As propriety would have it, Lakpa was later chastised for the deed by the Nepali government, which considers Sagarmatha sacred-ish, like a really big church with really hard pews.
Speaking of illegal attempts, the first-ever tweet from the summit was sent by Kenton Cool in 2011. “Everest summit no 9!” gloried Cool, the poetry flowing from his fingers like honeyed wine. “1st tweet from the top of the world thanks to a weak 3G signal.” Unfortunately, Nepalese authorities deemed his message, which was picked up and aired by the BBC, to be a commercial broadcast undertaken without the proper and expensive government permissions. Cool is now learning what it takes to scale the Nepali legal edifice.
Coincidentally, while being a “first” is now the goal of many Everest climbers, Jackson may well have snubbed a legitimate record of his own. A card-carrying member of the Kansas Potowatamee tribe, he is quite likely the first Native American to set foot on Everest’s peak.
“No one holds that title, and I’ve never heard of a Native American doing it, so I might be the first,” he shrugs. “But I don’t really want to go there.”
Indeed, Jackson considers getting one’s name in the history books a pointless, and potentially dangerous, preoccupation.
“One guy was going for his eighth summit,” says Jackson, shaking his head. “How many times do you need to climb it before your luck runs out?”
Three times for Sharp, for Negrete only two.
“I don’t want to be one of those guys who keep climbing time and again, who keeps pushing until something goes wrong.”
A reasonable position.
But that’s him.
Maybe your own ambition is more compelling than Jackson’s timely caution. Maybe you dream of being the first to wear a fake mustache on Everest, or to down the mountain’s first Jello-shot, or be the first to perform La Marseillaise on a harmonica with the whole world as your audience. I won’t dump in your corn flakes, so long as you have a good reason and $120,000.
But I won’t be joining you, I’m afraid.
I expect to have a lot on my plate.