Mid-life crisis brigade take over Everest

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK on Mount Everest, American climbers found George Mallory's frozen corpse, at least 18 people reached the summit and a 15-year-old Nepali boy came close to doing the same thing. And in a Chinese restaurant in Kathmandu a veteran Everest guide confessed she had had enough.

"I feel like some kind of mountain prostitute," said Heather MacDonald, a US mountaineer who has guided groups of climbers up many of the world's highest peaks for the past 10 years. "I'm more a teacher than a guide but these days the clients don't want to learn and are not interested in climbing; they just want you to get them there. They've read a couple of books and they want the fast track. They are usually men in a mid-life crisis who feel they have to reaffirm themselves. The United States is doing well, the economy is fat and suddenly they say `I need to challenge myself'. They are shopping for some kind of meaning in their lives."

The arrival in droves at Everest's base camp of what have been characterised as "dentists from Dallas" has its origins in the Everest disaster three years ago. On 10 May 1996 a group of more than a dozen climbers, several of them rich, middle-aged and inexperienced, were nearing the summit when a storm hit. Eight died, and four more were to die on the mountain in the next few days. One survivor, a pathologist from Dallas called Beck Weathers, suffered such severe frostbite that he lost half his right arm, the fingers of his left hand and his nose.

Big news at the time, the disaster's impact was amplified when a climbing journalist, Jon Krakauer, who was in one of the groups approaching the summit that day, wrote the story up in a book entitled Into Thin Air. Published in 1997, it became a bestseller. He told how the wealthy thrill- seekers, some of whom had not unpacked their new boots before arriving on the mountain, were babied up Everest by Sherpas and guides. The most egregious client, a millionaire socialite called Sandy Hill Pittman, brought two laptops, five cameras, two tape-recorders, a CD-Rom player and a printer, and insisted on having much of the equipment - useless at this altitude - tugged practically all the way to the summit. At one point Krakauer described Pittman's Sherpa hauling her up on the end of a rope, like a horse pulling a plough.

Then the whole ill-assorted crew was swallowed up in a storm described by a witness at base camp as looking "like a tyre-dump fire." Those killed included the leaders of two of the groups, exhausted, it appears, by the effort of shepherding their flocks at 29,000 feet.

A cautionary tale, one might have thought, enough to clear Everest of neophytes. But the tales of frostbite and delirium have brought the punters running as never before. Elizabeth Hawley, a US journalist based in Kathmandu who is the unrivalled authority on Himalayan climbing, said: "The effect of the disaster was that they had more inquiries from prospective clients the next year."

Ms MacDonald confirmed: "People were inspired by the disaster. The business of some of the guiding companies went through the roof."

Ms Hawley said this month was the peak time for attempts on the summit: "There are more than 15 parties on each side of the mountain." While these include the professional expedition led by Eric Simonson which found Mallory, many are Dallas-dentist types, fumbling with their crampons and desperate to make it to the top.

In addition, as Ms Hawley recited wearily, there is the usual army of stuntmen and Guinness Book of Records aspirants. "Three men are trying to be the oldest on the summit, one boy is trying to be the youngest, and there is one man, a Sherpa, who wants to stay on the summit for 20 hours. He will probably die on it."

Ms MacDonald, who is working as Ms Hawley's assistant, added: "People are always coming to us before they set off and asking `Am I the first person to go to the summit in a leopardskin cloth?' "

Like Kathmandu, trekking up Everest has been transformed in the past 35 years. The pioneer of the sport was a retired English Gurkha officer,Jimmy Roberts, a mountaineer who, on retiring in 1962, settled in Kathmandu and started the first trekking agency. The term "trekking", itself borrowed from the South African Boers' Great Trek, was his coinage. He called his agency Mountain Travel.

He is dead now, but Mountain Travel still prospers, though it is better known for its Tiger Tops resort in Chitwan National Park. But Mountain Travel is beset by competitors. Entries for trekking agencies fill eight pages in Kathmandu's Yellow Pages, and Mountain Travel is hemmed in by More Than Mountain Trekking, Mountain Adventure Trekking, Mountain Cougar Trekking, Royal Mountain Trekking and Mountain Way Trekking. Or you could take a punt on Lotus Trek, Tip & Top Trekking, Sunny Trek or Star Trek. For $250,000 (pounds 156,000) to $300,000 (plus $70,000 for the permit), many of them would agree to set up your own Everest expedition. By the end of this week it had been conquered 1,050 times since Hillary and Tensing got there in 1953 (leaving aside the question of Mallory's possible achievement 29 years earlier). With luck, your trip could be added to that illustrious list.

But it would certainly be a gamble. Steve Webster, director of sales at Mountain Travel, noted that the new generation of would-be summiteers has far less time to spare than its predecessors. "People come out and expect to get to Everest base camp in 10 days. We believe you need at least 15 days to acclimatise to the altitude, and so we turn them down. But there are many other agencies who will accept the request.

"There is no proper regulation of trekking agencies," Mr Webster pointed out. Now and again a rogue agency is brought to the trade's attention, but competition is so fierce that the temptation to offer ignorant clients the impossible dream must often be overwhelming. Likewise, there is no regulation for the guiding companies that promise to take clients, whether veterans or novices, to the top. Russell Brice, a mountaineer from New Zealand settled in France, has set up what he calls the International Guiding Organisation to set standards for guides on peaks above 8,000 metres. But for now, climbing Everest remains a free-for-all.

As such, it is the world's highest crap game; and, as happened three years ago, the losers lose all.

Yet they will continue to stream up the slopes in their leopardskin loincloths and brand-new boots. And, jaded though she may have become, Ms MacDonald knows in her bones why they do it: "Going above 25,000 feet is the best drug on the planet. That's why they all come down looking like junkies."