You, too, could climb Mount Everest - for a price

Our consuming passion for 'safe-risk' holidays has little to do with real adventure, writes Charles Arthur
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The Independent Online
Any Old Testament prophet would have been proud of a voice like Brian Blessed's. The actor speaks with a rolling, deep roar, sometimes muted, sometimes not. On his return this week from a third unsuccessful attempt to climb Mount Everest, Blessed was clearly in the mood to condemn the sins he had perceived there.

"I found people taking food from our tents, our rations burgled," he said. "People shitting in our tents while we were out - though that's all right, it's so cold up there it goes hard as cement, you can clear it out easily. People turning up without enough provisions or tents, hoping someone else will help them." Reaching the summit was their only desire, and they didn't care how they did it. "I was horrified that such a high mountain experienced the lowest common denominator in human behaviour."

It was not only on the mountain itself that he was appalled. "The north [Chinese] side used to be a magic place. Mallory and Irvine started from that side in the 1920s. There was a beautiful monastery. Now, the north- side base camp has huge toilets the size of four rooms - and they're overflowing - while the monastery sells Pepsi."

His voice rises to a dull roar. "In four years' time they're going to build a hotel with a view that's the greatest on God's earth. What next? Funicular railways to the top with pressurised suits taking Yanks up for $50,000 a go, and them complaining that the weather's bad so they can't see the historic spot where Mallory and Irvine disappeared?"

Some might be surprised that the 29,028ft mountain has fallen so dramatically to earth. But to others, many of Blessed's complaints cut no ice. Given the choice between using a vacant tent as a toilet, or wandering outside, perhaps to slip down a gully - as one person did this month - wouldn't you take the first? "Sometimes it's just survival," says Stephen Venables, the British climber who reached the summit in 1988. "Or you're confused - as happens at high altitude - or there's a genuine misunderstanding about using something. It happens."

But to top mountaineers, the allure of Everest has diminished in direct proportion to the number of people on the mountain. "In the 1970s, you could only get on to one side of the mountain," says Venables. (The others were closed off by their governments.) "There would be one expedition in spring and one in autumn, and the people on them would be highly competent climbers - the cream - who had proven themselves elsewhere first."

And now? There were roughly 150 climbers, of varying ability, and 300 Sherpas on the mountain, as storms struck and killed a total of 11 in the past fortnight. All four countries bordering the peak now allow access - for a price, which starts at around $10,000 - and this has led to the proliferation of companies offering to guide inexperienced mountaineers to the place above all others. Classified adverts in sports magazines offer "your best chance of reaching the top of Everest". All you need is pounds 16,000 and some mountaineering experience.

The offers have been taken up eagerly. At one point last year there were almost 40 people standing on the "roof of the world", an area about the size of a large room. One, a Texan, twirled a lariat he had brought up as a memento from friends back home. He slipped and was only saved from falling thousands of feet to his death when his lariat caught on a rock at the edge.

The true fault lies in our supermarket-adventure culture. Nowadays, people love - even expect - the "safe risk", bought off the shelf: bungee jumping, parachuting, white-water rafting, scuba-diving, abseiling are all activities that used to be extremely risky but better equipment has reduced the danger so much that they can be part of a funfair, a charity activity day or a management training course. The adventure has been wrung out of them. All that remains is the perception of risk, among those who never really appreciated the dangers involved.

Similarly, to say that you have climbed Everest still has an iconic importance. True, it requires supreme fitness, and yes, it is dangerous: Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, who died in this spring's calamity, were two of the best mountaineers in the world. The risk of dying on the mountain is still calculated at about one in 33.

But which would you be more impressed by - someone who had climbed Everest, or who had topped the world's second-highest mountain? It should be the latter - K2 is technically far more demanding and, because of its remoteness, is always climbed without supplementary oxygen.

Is there adventure left anywhere? At this question, Venables almost explodes. "The Great Himalaya stretches for 2,000 miles! At its widest it's 200 or 300 miles across. There are thousands of peaks that have never been climbed there. I've done a climb that was just 18 miles from Everest, just off a popular trekking route; it took us three days of hacking through jungle just to reach the base of the mountain. You don't have to go far to find the wilderness."

And you do not have to travel to the more remote points of the earth to find a wilderness. Consider the case of Sir Ranulph Fiennes - best known for his frost-bitten, determined walks across the Antarctic. Now he is exploring the routes of London's sewers. The risks may be low, but he is demonstrating what all the great explorers have always had - the imagination to discover the unknown, rather than merely follow someone else's packaged itinerary.