Everest: No room at the top

This week, Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper became the youngest Britons to climb Mount Everest. Justin Huggler in Kathmandu asks whether the roof of the world is too crowded
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During the past week, Rob Gauntlett has clung to the side of a mountain over a drop of several thousand feet. He has endured temperatures low enough to give him frostbite and been out of breath almost constantly, even when he was sitting still. He has lost three stone in weight. But Mr Gauntlett is a happy man because, last week, he and his friend James Hooper, both 19, became the youngest Britons to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

It is that time of year again, when the maelstrom of weather that rages over the world's highest mountain for most of the year clears for just a few weeks, and mountaineers flock from all over the world to climb it. May is just about the only "safe" time to climb Mount Everest, and Kathmandu's hotels are full of expedition co-ordinators hunched over laptops, trying to call their team members on satellite phones and cursing when they can't get through.

The mountaineers' restaurant, the Rum Doodle, is packed every night with climbers swigging back Everest beers and reminscing over the time they nearly lost several fingers to frostbite on K2.

Mr Gauntlett and Mr Hooper are recuperating at base camp after their climb, under the shadow of Everest. "James and I came up with the idea of climbing Everest about three years ago," says Mr Gauntlett, his voice still full of excitement down a crackling satellite phone line, four days after he reached the summit. "We've always been into climbing. But I suppose the thought of being able to set foot on the roof of the world, where so many great climbers have stood led to the expedition."

But it didn't go entirely to plan. For three years, Mr Gauntlett and Mr Hooper plotted and dreamed their ascent of Everest from the south side, in Nepal. But when it finally came to it, they found they just didn't have enough money to climb the south side. They would had to go round to the north, from Tibet. And even then, they still didn't have enough money.

"We didn't get the last sponsor till the day before we supposed to set off on the trip," Mr Gauntlett says. "We didn't have very good knowledge of the north side. In the end, it was such a rush that it didn't sink in that we were on Everest until we were halfway up." It's an expensive business to climb Everest. It costs about £25,000 to do it with professional guides and porters to help carry the gear. "And there's not even a guarantee that you'll reach the summit," laughs one professionl sherpa guide who has been on expeditions, but not to the top. "If the weather closes in you may have to come down again without reaching the summit. It's a lot of money to pay without any guarantees."

It's dangerous too. Last week, Thomas Olsen, an experienced mountaineer who had reached the summit and was trying to ski down Everest, died on the descent. Six people have died so far this year. "I think for me the most frightening thing was when we were on the north-east ridge in the dark, it suddenly dawned on me how easy it is to die on Everest," says Mr Gauntlett. "I realised the summit wasn't everything. You have to keep your wits about you and be very careful."

Despite the danger and the expense, people keep coming. This year, there are 53 expeditions from the Tibetan side and 29 from the Nepalese - not as many as last year's record of 101 from both sides. But then Nepal was on the verge of revolution a month ago.

Mr Gauntlett and Mr Hooper are just two of the many Britons who have climbed the mountain this year, including Phil and Pauline Sanderson, the first married couple ever to reach the summit, Rhys Jones, at 20 the youngest climber from anywhere to scale the Seven Summits - the highest peaks on each continent - and Conan Harrod, a 37-year-old who had to slide down Everest in 2003 after he broke his leg 820ft from the top, and came back this year to finish the job.

So overcrowded has the mountain become that, for years, an experienced sherpa known as the Ice Fall Doctor - mountaineering seems to favour such picturesque titles - has plotted out a single route up one of the bottlenecks on the Nepalese side that all climbers are obliged to follow in single file.

So what's the attraction? What's it like on top of Everest? "Well, to tell the obvious, it's extremely cold," Mr Gauntlett says, laughing. "When James and I got to the top, we didn't have a great deal of time to look around. But we saw the most incredible views of our lives and we'll never forget them. You can see the curvature of the earth." Back in Kathmandu, the first expedition parties of the year are returning and, by night, they are to be found at the Rum Doodle, the unofficial headquarters of mountaineeing in Nepal.

Named after W E Bowman's comic novel on mountaineering, the Rum Doodle used to offer free drinks to anyone who had reached the summit of Everest, until the owners discovered the mountaineers drank so much that it was threatening to put them out of business, and switched to offering free food. It is here that conquerors of Everest replenish themselves with huge Rum Doodle steaks - buffalo, of course, because in Hindu-majority Nepal the cow is holy and it is illegal to consume beef. On the rooftop terrace sits Park Young-Seok from South Korea, who has just made his second ascent. The first climb was in 1993, without oxygen, in emulation of his hero, Reinhold Meissner. And this year he and his sherpa colleague, Serap Jagbu Sherpa, became the first men to traverse Everest - to ascend from one side and come down from the other. Mr Park wants to be the first man to climb the Seven Summits, the 14 peaks higher than 8,000m, and the so-called Three Poles - north, south and Everest.

For these men, merely climbing Everest is too easy. They crave greater challenges. So Mr Park is planning to ascend Everest next time by a route never before used. "Mountains are my life," says Mr Park. "If I stop climbing I'll probably stop living as well." He has raised serious money for disabled children with this year's expedition, but he freely admits that's not the reason he climbs. When you aks him what impels him up the mountain he just repeats: "It's my life."

There have been rumblings this year that the sherpas who climb Everest with Western expeditions get a raw deal, and are often exploited. But Serap Jangbu Sherpa is having none of it. The first sherpa ever to climb K2, the world's second highest mountain and considered vastly more difficult to scale than Everest, he is as passionate about climbing as Mr Park. His is burnt crimson by the sun and the harsh winds on top of Everest. "Climbing is my life," he echoes. "When my father climbed Everest I was a child." He is full of dreams, he wants to become the first sherpa to climb the world's 14 highest peaks.

When he and Mr Park were traversing Everest this month, there was a desperate moment, he relates. "Mr Park fell on the way down and I was very afraid, because at that point it takes two of you roped together to climb down," he says. "There is no chance to climb down alone. If he was dead, I knew I was going to die up there. But he was alright." "You've got to stop," says his friend, a fellow sherpa. "You've got a son and daughter." Mr Sherpa laughs.

Mr Sherpa is an exception. He yearns for the high peaks. "You won't find many sherpas who enjoy mountaineering," says Elizabeth Hawley, an American-born woman who has been paintstakingly documenting every ascent of Everest since 1963. "Most of them see it as a business." Loben Sherpa, who has been organising expeditions to Everest for years, agrees - but he is dismissive of those who say sherpas are exploited. "Not many sherpas think so," he says. "A sherpa who summits on Everest is looking at making a minimum of $3,000 [£1,600] for 60 days' work. His equipment is paid for, his meals are free. That's a lot of money in Nepal." Where there is confusion, says Mr Sherpa, is over low-altitude porters, who carry food and equipment up the mountain trails to base camp. In fact, very few low-altitude porters come from the sherpa ethnic group, who have a stranglehold on the high-altitude jobs. The low-altitude porters come from other groups, such as the Tamangs, and they sometimes do get a raw deal, paid as little as 150 Nepali rupees a day (£1.11), without insurance or proper cold-weather equipment such as boots, socks, gloves or hats. An organisation called Porter's Progress, in Kathmandu, is calling for equitable treatment for low-altitude porters, and offering porters to Western expeditions at a fixed rate of $10 a day, with equipment and insurance.

There has also, in recent years, been much concern over the environmental damage caused by overcrowding on Everest's slopes, with expeditions leaving behind oxygen bottles, soft drink cans and other rubbish. The Kathmandu Enviromental Education Project, or KEEP, says in recent years the situation has improved after a series of high profile clean-up expeditions, but there is still a long way to go. Clean-up teams from Japan and Korea displayed the rubbish they found left behind by expeditions from their own countries in exhibitions at home to discourage future mountaineers from leaving their trash behind.

Miss Hawley has kept detailed records of every expedition to the summit of Everest for more than 40 years. Born in Chicago, she moved to Nepal in the Fifties from New York and now considers herself to be "from Kathmandu, not anywhere else". She follows expeditions from a beautiful, high-ceilinged office in an old Kathmandu villa that doubles as her office as honorary consul of New Zealand, a posting arranged for her by Sir Edmund Hillary, first to scale Everest along with Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, in 1953.

She funds much of the work from her own money and is a legend among mountaineers. Perhaps she can shed some light on what drives mountaineers to climb. "I've never climbed a mountain in my life," she says. "It's masochism climbing mountains, and I'm not a masochist."