No room at the top in Everest rush hour

It's peak season on the world's highest mountain, and purists are fed up with the crowds of glory-seekers
  • @susborne

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bonita Norris's ascent of Mount Everest on Monday was not that she survived the deadly risks of extreme altitude and crippling cold, nor that, at the age of 22, she had become the youngest British woman to reach the roof of the world, but that, 18 months ago, the media-studies graduate had scaled nothing higher than the stairs at her Berkshire home.

That may, of course, be an exaggeration but it's true that Norris could not even claim beginner status as a climber when, one morning in 2008, she "woke up with a crazy idea – the kind of idea you dismiss as a pipe dream". Those were the opening words on her blog, on which she posted the briefest entry on Monday: "SUMMITED!!!!"

Norris, who, according to her mother, had not even climbed the tallest mountain in Wales before she set her sights on Everest, may, on the way down the Himalayan peak, cross paths with Josh Lewsey, a man better known for his two-dimensional sporting endeavours. The ex-England rugby star was yesterday waiting for a weather window before making a final assault on the biggest mountain of all.

"We're hoping summit day will be next Monday," Lewsey says via satellite phone from a windy Advanced Base Camp (6,500m), which he reached yesterday alongside his friend and climbing companion, Keith Reesby. "The challenge for me after finishing rugby was, in 12 months, to go from complete novice to the highest point in the world."

Norris and, if he is successful, Lewsey, are just two people who will become lost in an Everest hall of fame that now contains more than 4,000 names. Last year alone, more than 400 climbers reached the summit of the 8,848m (29,029ft) mountain of rock, snow and ice. A growing number of attempts by increasingly inexperienced adventurers are once again casting a shadow over a peak whose mystique is crumbling.

"Everest has become the ultimate tourist destination – a hardcore version of the Inca Trail in Peru," says the British rock climber Leo Houlding, 29, who summitted Everest in 2007 as part of a team that retraced the last steps of legendary British mountaineer George Mallory for a documentary film. "It's difficult, but there's so much infrastructure and support that any determined, fit and well-funded person can do it. I wouldn't even call it mountaineering."

Stephen Venables made his attempt on Everest when, he says, "it was still something that interested experienced mountaineers". In 1988, the 56-year-old became the first Briton to ascend the mountain without bottled oxygen. "Back then only mountaineers who had been on many Himalayan expeditions and who had done a lot of Alpine climbing would attempt it," he says.

In 1924, George Mallory – the man who said he wanted to climb the mountain "because it is there" – said: "The highest of the world's mountains, it seems, has to make but a single gesture of magnificence to be the lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy."

But where Mallory and the early pioneers, the rock stars of their day, stepped into the unknown in tweed jackets and leather hobnailed boots, today's climbers have the benefit of fixed ropes, hi-tech equipment, experienced guides and a Sherpa each. Meanwhile, better rescue services and hour-perfect weather forecasts have improved safety on a mountain that, in some earlier years, played host to more deaths than successes.

"There was the classic story of a New York socialite who'd never been in a tent before," says David Hempleman-Adams, who climbed Everest in 1993. "She got to Everest base camp and, on the first morning, asked the porter for a cappuccino."

For the latter-day Mallory or Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who became a global hero after he made first official ascent of Everest in 1953, it is often no longer enough to climb the mountain. Yesterday, a team of skydivers jumped out of a plane above the level of the peak for the ultimate aerial thrill. Others have skied down Everest, or skimmed its slopes while flying by microlight, hang-glider or hot-air balloon.

When they're not contriving more outlandish expeditions, today's conquerors of Everest are getting younger. Norris could be classed as a veteran alongside Jordan Romero, an American who will make his summit bid in the next few days, aged 13.

Meanwhile, the detritus of decades of climbing has left many sections of Everest blighted by mountains of rubbish. A team of 20 Nepalese Sherpas is working this month to remove more than two tons of litter, including rotting ropes, discarded oxygen bottles and tents, as well as some of the bodies of the hundreds of people who have died there.

The majority of the climbers now jostling for position on Everest would have no hope of reaching its summit – or even base camp – without the assistance of guides. Demand among mountaineers, many of whom raise money for charity (Help for Heroes, in the case of Lewsey) – or do it "for the T-shirt" – has created a lucrative market for guiding companies that employ local porters and experienced guides. Norris was assisted in her assault by Kenton Cool, the British mountaineer who, last year, helped Sir Ranulph Fiennes to become the oldest Briton to summit Everest, aged 65.

Robert Mads Anderson, the American leader of Venables's 1988 expedition, is now on Everest working for Jagged Globe. The Sheffield firm has seven clients on the mountain this year, each paying £58,000 plus the cost of flights and equipment. Tom Briggs, one of the company's expedition leaders, rejects accusations that Everest has become "easy" – or that the presence of commercial operators like his devalues a challenge that was once considered the world's greatest. "We only take people if they have been on big mountains before," Briggs says. "Half of our team reached the summit on Monday morning. They had a 10-hour climb from Camp 3 to the South Col, arriving in mid afternoon. After a few hours rest, at 9.30pm, they climbed for 20 hours to the summit and back. If people think that's easy at 8,000-metres, they need to go and do it."

Such is the lure of Everest that earlier attempts by the Nepali authorities to increase the cost of permits in a bid to let the mountain breathe (and to raise revenue) have failed to quench the desires of those with their heads in the clouds. There are caps on the number of people who can buy permits but on some days in peak season, more than 100 people can reach the summit in a day. "I'd never climbed such a busy route in 20 years." Houlding says. "Something has to be done."

Until then, and for all the safety nets modern mountaineering has laid under today's climbers, Everest remains a dangerous place. Five people died there last year, taking the overall toll to more than 300. Climbers take the risk because Everest offers something no other peak can. "To watch the sun rise approaching the top of the world, is a unique and magical experience," Venables says. And however reduced the challenge has become compared to that which Mallory faced, Everest, in the breathless words of Lewsey, "doesn't get any shorter."