Article: Everest is Mighty, We are Fragile

In what is arguably the worst day in Everest climbing history, May 10th, 1996, Peter lost a great climbing friend; Rob Hall. Rob’s death, and that of seven others, was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. The tragedy generated much public debate about the nature of mountaineering. Peter Hillary contributed his perspective to the debate in a New York Times article (published 25 May, 1996).

Everest is Mighty, We are Fragile

by Peter Hillary

Over the past few years, I have watched the public awe of Mount Everest as the greatest mountain on earth and respect for anyone who succeeds in scaling it drift to an assumption that now things have changed.

Just as computer technology advances almost daily and our back-roads become highways and then freeways, people believe that surely now the tracks and camps on Everest are permanent fixtures that are improved each year. After all, in the European Alps you can climb to mountaineering huts high above the snow line and sleep in a comfortable bed and order food and wine from the hut concierge.

For Everest climbers, there has been progress, but it lies only in the technology of our equipment and communications. The mountain remains the same: huge, steep, cold and impassive toward our human endeavor.

Climbers approach the summit of Mt EverestOn the great mountains of the world there is constancy, and the Everest that took the lives of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine in the 1920’s is the same Everest that was finally climbed by my father and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, the same mountain climbed solo by Reinhold Messner in 1980; the same one I climbed on May 10, 1990, with Rob Hall and Gary Ball on a brilliant sunny day, and it is the same Everest that took the lives of eight climbers, including Rob’s, in a terrible storm on May 10, 1996.

Some things never change. While having all the right equipment and clothing is essential, it is only 5% of the mountaineering equation - of what is needed to reach the top. The rest lies with you. Do you have the drive, the psyche, the power?

Perhaps the greatest thing to change on Everest occurred on May 29, 1953, when Dad and Tenzing reached the 29,028 foot summit for the first time. It was like the breaking of the four-minute mile by Roger Bannister. The way was clear for others to establish records - but now not for humanity, but for individuals. This is a new age in which individual participation has usurped national spectatorship.

Just about everyone knows somebody who has jumped out of an airplane with a parachute on their backs, rappelled down a cliff face, rafted foaming white-water rapids or taken a motorcycle for a 100 mile per hour blast around a race track.

And so it is no surprise to me that the 100-year old profession of guiding clients up mountains has extended to ascents of the world’s highest mountain. A mountain that has been climbed by 615 people in 43 years and has taken the lives of about 150. Many of the clients are expert climbers without time to organise expeditions, while others are more motivated than experienced. Nonetheless, these professional expeditions have succeeded in getting many people to the summit safely.

Surely the time will come when the numbers on Everest will have to be limited just as limiting the number of visitors to Yosemite National Park in California has been considered. I would hate to see controls that were anything but first-come, first-served. The highly distasteful thought of a panel of assessors scrutinizing your qualifications, commenting on your objectives and counting the number of spare underpants in your day pack is objectionable to me. It is anathema to the personal right to challenge oneself.

What happened on Everest recently demonstrated the unbridled might of the mountain; its furious high-altitude storms and the fact that not even the experience and skill of two outstanding alpine leaders such as Rob Hall and Scott Fisher is enough when the “Big E” stirs.

I have heard people say they don’t care about such climbers, who, in their view, take pointless risks. It was suicidal; they knew how dangerous it was. “ They have satellite telephones, meteorological reports, Gortex jackets and good jobs. What are they doing?”

So should we discourage the risk-takers by despising and shunning them? Most of us want the people around us to be the same as we are and to feel the same as we do - and yet intellectually most of us will admit that variety is good. We admire people who try a little harder and who push the envelope a little further. Every success by an individual is an inspiration for their community - just as their failure is a time for the community to take stock.

So while Rob lies stilled on the steep icy flanks of Everest, I take stock both as a mountaineer and as a friend. I wonder about the future of my own mountaineering. The fact that Rob and Gary, with whom I climbed Mount Everest in 1990, have died on an 8,000 metre/ 26,000 feet mountain scares me. This latest alpine horror makes me feel very vulnerable. Despite what some people try to tell themselves, we humans are very fragile. We die easily.

The death of eight on Everest comes on the heels of my own uncannily similar experience on K2, the world’s second highest mountain, last year.

On August 13, eight climbers from three different expeditions were ascending the steep ice gully called the Bottleneck, just below the summit. I was becoming progressively concerned about the bank of evil-looking clouds encroaching from the north, from Western China, and at midday, in a cloud and falling snow, I decided to descend alone while the other seven continued on. I imagined them descending the following day and boasting of their sunset photographs from the summit, and asking “Why didn’t you come on up with us?” They never came back.

The weather deteriorated steadily, and I spent five hours of lonely anguish, lost in cloud and wind on plunging flanks and spurs between 26,500 and 24,000 feet. On finding the ledge where a small tent was pitched, I clipped into the top of our fixed ropes and began the 5,000 foot rappel down the Black Pyramid to the chimneys and couloirs of the Lower Abruzzi Spur. As I leaned out over the great void of the eastern flank of K2, which was engulfed in a cloud, the storm struck and I was blown about on the line like a cork on a string. I knew I had entered a new phase of terrifying uncertainty.

The storm raged into the night and early morning, blasting the mountain with winds over 100 miles per hour. When I reached the ledge at 22,000 feet where Camp 2 tents were lashed to the rock that rose above, I joined two other members of my team (who had descended earlier in the day) for a night of fear that our tents would be shredded by the screaming storm, leaving us vulnerable to the raging elements.

In my bones, I knew there was little hope for the seven on the summit. They no doubt were blasted from the mountain by the jet-stream winds, perhaps falling 12,000 feet to the twisting, turning Godwin Austen Glacier, which flows south through a corridor of spires and summits.

Surviving is sometimes the most painful role to play in this life. You get the opportunity to re-enact in your mind those closing scenes again and again and again.

While I can see such endeavours, particularly the successful ones, as a celebration of what people can achieve, of the sustained levels of stress that we can endure and of the magnificent intensity of the camaraderie that we share, there are other considerations. They lie far away but linked by bonds of love.

How do our loved ones cope with the absence and the knowledge that at times we are exposed to greater than normal risk? Many spouses must deal with lengthy separations caused by vocations such as oil rig workers, pilots, business executives, travel industry workers and yes, even mountaineers. Whether it is what you do for a living or whether it is a pursuit you need to do to satisfy something in your soul, they are all elemental to who you are. Maybe it is the acknowledgement by a spouse of their love and acceptance of their partner that they will endorse their going away even when it pains them.

Rob Hall was a generous man, a good friend to many. Even when he lived the high-profile life of an eminent adventurer and mountaineer, he remained approachable and mature. There are not too many who walk with the mantle of fame and remain true to themselves.

So for those who wonder, “Why do they do it?”, I can only say that, through the haze of lament and loss that has swept across the world of mountaineers and those who dream of mountains, I can remember what I would have said before May 10: “ To climb the great mountains is to leave the comfort of familiar places and to challenge the very essence of oneself. Perhaps there is no greater quest."