Mob scene on Mount Everest

SUN JOURNAL

Climbers: Increasingly, teams and individuals are lining up to follow in the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hillary.

April 26, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Mount Everest. Top of the world. Goddess of the sky.

Theme park?

It's hard to keep the players straight this year on the world's highest mountain.

More than 500 people -- climbers and support staff -- are on Everest's slopes, sizing up the competition and trying to find a way to distinguish their assaults from those of the other 50 or so teams.

There is no end to the hype, the attempts to be first at something, as if simply climbing a mountain with a "death zone" at its 29,035-foot summit weren't enough of an accomplishment.

A computer search of newspaper articles published during the past 30 days shows more than 300 references to Mount Everest. Web sites and newspapers are touting these gimmicks:

A 38-year-old Slovenian wants to be the first to ski nonstop to the bottom. He tried four years ago and lost two fingers to frostbite.

A Ford dealer from Alberta, sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., wants to be the first to beam live television from the summit.

An all-Danish team, an all-female Nepalese team, an all-Dutch team, a resident of Nunavut (a Canadian territory) and an Iowa emergency-room doctor all seek to become the first in their respective categories to conquer the mountain.

A 36-year-old Sherpa hopes to top Everest in 16 hours and break the speed record of 20 hours and 24 minutes set two years ago by another Sherpa.

A 14-year-old Sherpa wants to wrest the title of youngest to the summit from a 16-year-old.

At least three men in their 60s (ages 61, 62 and 69) want the distinction of being the oldest to stand atop Everest.

Web sites are hawking souvenirs -- coffee cups, T-shirts, fleece jackets, ball caps -- all with an Everest 2000 logo. The CBC site is selling a "soft, furry gray" yeti -- a 22-inch-tall version of the abominable snowman -- for $21.95.

The traffic controllers at www.everestnews.com are attempting to maintain contact with as many groups as possible, but they are having trouble, as noted in this dispatch about a German-Austrian team attempting an ascent without bottled oxygen: "They kindly faxed us their very nice materials, but frankly since no one on the staff knows German, we are in the dark."

Blame George Mallory. The Englishman started it all in 1924 when he disappeared high on the slopes while trying to be the first to reach Everest's summit.

The what-happened-to-Mallory debate lasted 75 years, until he literally resurfaced through the melting snow below the summit as a freeze-dried corpse. His broken bones indicated that he fell to his death -- not the first to do so, and certainly not the last.

Everest has been climbed more than 800 times, beginning with Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. The mountain also has picked off 165 adventurers, including the eight who died in May 1996 and became part of Jon Krakauer's best-seller, "Into Thin Air."

Outside magazine, which sparked the public's Everest-mania by publishing part of Krakauer's account, displayed a seldom-seen funnybone this month with a full-page cartoon by Tami Knight, a Canadian climber and author of "Everest: The Ultimate Hump."

The cartoon has jugglers, babies, even three-eyed aliens on the slopes of the mountain. Knight says the magazine's spoof is quite unusual.

"None of the premier outdoors writers are going to shoot themselves in the foot by exposing the stupid goofiness that this is," she says from her home in Vancouver. "They're all sashaying up to the Mallory pie and helping themselves to a piece of this."

Knight says her spoof of Everest gimmicks "is like shooting fish in a barrel, like Monica and Bill," but she's sure that some sober members of the mountaineering community will take offense.

Perhaps she can take comfort in the fact that Mallory had a sense of humor about the mountain. "Don't forget," he teased friends the year of his death, "it's just a big pile of rocks."

A review of the climbing permits shows that no country has a lock on Everest-mania. The Nepalese government has given permission to, among others, five American teams, three British teams, three Spanish teams, one Korean team and one Indian team. The Tibet side includes three Japanese teams, three Russian teams and a Spanish team in period garb attempting to duplicate the 1924 Mallory expedition -- with the exception, they hope, of the tragic ending.

This season, climbers have run into trouble and required medical assistance.

A Sherpa cook collapsed and had to be brought down the slopes in a yak medevac operation. The native of Nunavut suffered a cerebral and pulmonary edema that required steroids and oxygen to save him.

So why are people paying money for, perhaps, the chance to spend eternity on Everest's slopes?

Good economic times breed clients willing to pay for today's equivalent of a 1950s African safari. And many amateur adventurers want to make their mark in the "new millennium," as indicated by the team names -- Dreams Can Happen: Everest 2000; Andulucia Everest 2000; Everest Environmental Expedition 2000; Team Everest 2000.

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