Freedom to risk your life

Mountaineering is dangerous, but legislation will not deter climbers, writes Stephen Goodwin
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The Independent Online
There was little surprise among mountaineers yesterday at the grim news from Mount Everest - at least eight climbers have died in the past few days and several more have suffered severe frostbite as high winds and blizzards have raked the 8,848m peak.

With the advent in the 1990s of commercial expeditions to the world's highest mountain, the growth in the number attempting Big E made a death toll on the scale of last weekend's inevitable. Clients on the expedition led by the New Zealander Rob Hall - himself presumed dead in the freezing hell above the South Col - had paid pounds 43,000 for the trip. The fee, one of the highest charged for Everest, included a satellite link to call home but no guarantee of a safe return.

Three people are confirmed dead from Mr Hall's team, including Yasuko Namba, a 47-year-old Japanese woman, who had just become the oldest woman to climb Everest. Scott Fischer, the leader of a mainly US commercial expedition, is also feared dead.

The climbing community has been uneasy about commercial expeditions. The idea smacks of package holidays, and it conflicts with the sport's principle of self-reliance. It also leads to overcrowding. Yesterday there were reported to be some 50 climbers spread about the Nepal side of Everest. May is the busiest month on Everest. Some 20 climbers tackled the summit on Friday but were hit by storms early on their descent. Frost-bitten and exhausted climbers were still being helped down yesterday.

Mr Hall and Mr Fischer are mountaineers whose track records stand comparison with the best in the hard game of Himalayan mountaineering. Mr Hall may have sacrificed his own chance of survival by remaining with a dying American client. He reportedly told his pregnant wife by satellite-phone on Saturday: "Hey, look, don't worry about me", but he was already badly frost-bitten and in a desperate situation above the South Col (8,400m).

Paying for a place on an expedition may generate a false sense of security, as one is part of a group led by a professional. Mr Hall had been to the summit of Everest five times, which was part of the reason he was able to charge such high fees. But as Tom Prentice, editor of the magazine Climber, summed it up: "In the final analysis, you are on your own. I'm not sure some of the people going on these trips know what they could be getting into."

Steve Bell, managing director of Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions, the UK leader in this field, is certain his clients know the score, but he acknowledges that for some firms there may be "conflict" between the experience required of punters and commercial viability. Mr Bell's firm has a mainly British team of three guides and seven clients on the Tibetan north side of Everest. They sat out the storm in a camp at 6,500m. Each client paid pounds 16,000.

Mr Bell has just started putting together an expedition from the Nepal side for May 1997 for which the fee will be pounds 25,000. But he insists commercial considerations never come before experience. Clients for Everest must have climbed above 6,500m - which means in the Himalayas or other great ranges - and be psychologically suitable.

Anyone conning their way on to a trip would most likely be found out above base camp and ordered down for the safety of all concerned, says Mr Bell. "He would just have bought a very expensive trekking holiday." The difference in cost between a climb from the south side or from Tibet is largely the result of the high peak fee charged by the Nepalese - $70,000 for a team of five and $10,000 each for additional members. The money goes into the government's coffers, but how much filters down to some of the poorest people on earth is another controversy.

Since Everest was first climbed in 1953, 750 people have reached the summit and 130 have died on the mountain. Cries for regulation in the wake of climbing accidents are nothing new. After the 1865 Matterhorn disaster, the Times thundered: "Is it commonsense? Is it allowable?" In 1882, following more alpine deaths, Queen Victoria wanted to "mark her disapproval" by legislation. But Gladstone doubted the wisdom of interfering - advice that mountaineers, who above all else value the freedom of their sport, would agree with today, despite the deaths on Everest.