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Learning lessons from Mount Everest disaster

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Published : 2014-05-07 20:21
Updated : 2014-05-07 20:21

“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Mount Everest is an intrinsically irrational act ― a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”

― Jon Krakauer, “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster,” 1997

We never have been seized with a desire to climb Mount Everest. But we can understand the obsession to push into the thinnest air, to test your courage, skill and endurance, to plant your feet at the top of the world and boast of accomplishing a feat that most people would not dare.

Many climbers who had hoped to reach Everest’s 29,035-foot summit this season are packing up and returning home before they even attempted the ascent. Major touring companies have canceled planned ascents, after a recent avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides in one of the deadliest days in climbing history.

Nepal government authorities infuriated the Sherpas by offering a piddly $408 in compensation to the families of those guides who died in the accident. Major touring companies charge as much as $100,000 to climbers. Some of that money flows to the Nepal government. Angry Sherpas demanded larger death benefits, and a greater share of those proceeds. Even after the government sweetened its offer and agreed to some concessions, most of the Sherpas balked.

Rule No. 1 on Everest: No Sherpas, no climbing. The Sherpas are renowned for their mountain skills. They go first on ascents, hauling food and supplies. They test ice ladders stretched across crevices. They fix ropes and establish camps. They carve a path through the ice and snow for the paying customers ― climbers from around the world ― to follow.

So this climbing season ends with fewer boot prints at the summit. Among those who didn’t make it, The New York Times reported: A teenager with epilepsy who wanted to inspire others. A 34-year-old British banker who quit his job, sold his apartment and drained his savings to pay for the trip. And a California builder carrying the ashes of his younger brother.

Some of the disappointed realized a central truth: It’s not just about you. “We clients, Western climbers, are here by choice. We pay to come here and test ourselves,” Isaiah Janzen, an engineer from Iowa, wrote on his blog. “... I would still like to climb this mountain but there are things at stake more important than my selfish, arrogant, and egotistical summit ambitions.”

But Kent Stewart, an American climber, wrote in a blog post: “If I don’t ever make it to the top of Everest, I’m afraid there will always be a hole in my life, and frankly, that worries me.” Obsessions die hard.

There have been many deaths on the mountain since it was first scaled by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, on May 29, 1953.

There will be more.

One frustrated climber, Jon Reiter of Kenwood, Calif., had planned to scatter the ashes of his brother Jesse on the summit. He told The Times that the avalanche ― watching rescuers carry the dead Sherpas off ― prompted a question that all climbers grapple with: Is it worth the risk?

Reiter’s answer: “I have a great plan. I am going to go home and hug my 12-year-old. I’ve seen numerous things in my life, but nothing was ever driven home as to watch those guys on cables being brought down. ... I have put years of my life into this. But I am going home alive. I think I’m done with the mountains. I’m going to cherish what I have and count my blessings.”

Reiter didn’t make it to the summit. But we’d say he still triumphed. The mountain teaches many lessons, whether climbers reach the top or not.

(Chicago Tribune)

(MCT Information Services)

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