High Crimes

Here I go, back on my dangerous-true-adventures kick. I think this is a winter thing with me; if I have to be indoors and stir crazy more than I want to be, then the least I can do is live vicariously, reading books about plain-old-crazy people, who do things like dive into 5-mile-deep caves, or climb 5-mile-high mountains.

The book in question, High Crimes, is fascinating not so much because of the mountaineering derring-do described, but more because of the dastardly deeds that frequently accompany them.

You tend to focus so much attention on the implicit bravery of someone walking over a crevasse suspended on ladder, and carrying 100 pounds of gear on his or her back, that you assume a sterling character accompanies the obvious raw courage required.

According to author, Michael Kodas, there's more than enough greed, chicanery, sabatoge, and outright criminality to go around on Everest's slopes. We're talking about things as harmless as grabbing a roll of duct tape from someone else's pack, or as egregious (dare I say, murderous?) as stealing air bottles from downed, but living, climbers, or guides deserting their charges on the mountain when the going gets rough. We're talking about people who solicit funds for charity and then use the money to pay for their expedition; set ropes being removed to prevent others from making the summit; tents, food, and other life-saving gear stolen while the owner is on the mountain top.

One of the problems, Kodas explains, is that by far the majority of people who climb Everest (the specific location of the capers in question) have no business being there. They have no experience, and no physical conditioning, they're too old, too weak, and don't have a clue. What they have, is money.

And indeed, in a poor country like Tibet or Nepal, money talks. Sherpas, the Nepali ethnic group who have made a living out of the physical quirks (such as expanded lung capacity and oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood) that result from being born and living at high altitudes, are just as culpable in the high crimes as anyone. In spite of our American tendency to see the romantic good in the poor and tribal, Kodas spares no one in his indictment of what has become the million-dollar business of summiting Everest.

Oddly, while climbers spend an inordinately - and dangerously - long time in the so-called "death zone," or an altitude at which your body literally begins to break down, to die, Everest isn't a technical climb the way, say, K-2 is. While ropes are necessary, they're not for climbing rock faces or rappeling. They're simply for hauling your failing body up steeper sections of the slope. If it weren't for the cold and thin air, Everest might be a challenging but not impossible climb for a moderately experienced climber.

The first inklings of evil on Everest surfaced during the 1996 season. Says Wikipedia, "The 1996 Mount Everest disaster refers to a single day of the 1996 climbing season, May 11, 1996, when eight people died on Mount Everest during summit attempts. In the entire season, fifteen people died trying to reach the summit, making it the deadliest single year in Mount Everest's history. The disaster gained wide publicity and raised questions about the commercialization of Everest.

"Journalist Jon Krakauer, on assignment from Outside magazine, was in one of the affected parties, and afterwards published the bestseller Into Thin Air which related his experience. Anatoli Boukreev, a guide who felt impugned by Krakauer's book, co-authored a rebuttal book called The Climb (both of which I have read). Expedition members Beck Weathers and Lene Gammelgaard wrote about their experiences of the disaster in their respective books, Left For Dead and Climbing High (neither of which I have read). The storm's impact on climbers on the mountain's other side, the North Ridge, where several climbers also died, was detailed in a first-hand account by British filmmaker and writer Matt Dickinson in his book The Death Zone (later republished as The Other Side of Everest)."

Krakauer, an experienced outdoorsman and climber, was one of the first to shine a real spotlight on the questionable practice of dragging half-dead tourists bodily up the mountain, on bottled air and dexamethazone from practically day one, just so they can say they summitted. Not only is is dangerous for the tourists (who often suffer unintended long-term consequences due to a lack of physical conditioning), but it's extremely dangerous for their guides and Sherpas, who are put at high risk to literally carry these adventurers up - and in many cases, worse yet - down, the mountain.

The guides and Sherpas have to carry more gear than is reasonable, have to set more ropes and take more precautions (all the while suffering from anoxia themselves) than they would normally have to do, and have to watch out for fledglings whose skills warrant a hike in the Green Mountains, not a death-defying excursion in the Himalayas.

But both guides'and Sherpas' complicity in all this is mostly greed. We can be somewhat sympathetic, of course. Many of the Nepali and Tibetan tribes people live in very poor circumstances, and simply want a chance at all the fine things modern life has to offer. Worse, they are exposed to the richest of the rich - those who can spend $65K or more on a couple week's adventure up a mountain. The (often, Western) guides are often fueling their habits for expensive gear and an adventuring lifestyle they would otherwise not be able to entertain by carting people up and down mountains and on other extreme adventures.

Kodas introduces us to a climb he took in 2004, as a reporter for a newspaper, in which "As he moved up Everest, Kodas watched his expedition disintegrate in a mess of recriminations, thefts, lies and violence. At the same time, a sociopathic guide was leading a 69-year-old doctor to his death on the unforgiving slopes. The twin disasters led Kodas to delve into the commercialization of Mount Everest, and to discover that such experiences were becoming a depressing norm." (Publisher's Weekly)

Kodas' writing isn't that strong, merely ordinary, but his reporter's willingness to dig into the background of his subjects - and to observe the layers beneath the surface - make the book riveting, and honest.

Writes one Amazon reviewer, Thom Holzel, ""The fate of Everest in an age of greed" is the subheading of this well-researched work. It is depressing beyond words to learn how strongly many wealthy middle-aged men feel the need--the desperate need--to purchase their own Everest summit. The contrast of these dilettantes to the real men who over 60 years (1920's-1980's) climbed the mountain "because it is there" could not be greater. And now the field has become even more clogged with the addition of the politically-correct riff-raff: the first one-legged climber, the first blind climber, the youngest climber (15), the oldest climber (71), along with the long list of "first" climbers from each nation. What ever happened to mountaineering for the glorious fun of it?"

Well said, Thom.


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