Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, May 27, 2006

An Everest Proposal

It looks like 2006 is shaping up to be the deadliest year on Mount Everest since the disaster of 1996, made famous to the general public through John Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Everest News is constantly updated and is a good source of info; the Wikipedia entry also looks pretty good.

Much of the controversy so far centers around the death of David Sharp, a climber who was (in everyone's opinion, foolishly) climbing alone and with limited oxygen. He died of cold and anoxia while a party of 40 went by him toward the summit. The only person who stopped to give him aid & comfort was one of the sherpas. Sir Edmund Hillary said I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top . . . They don’t give a damn for anybody else.

I'm branching off from comments I left at Steve Gilliard's blog about "Walking Past the Dead" on Everest. Caveat: I have no mountaineering experience and never will, since I tend to have barely enough red blood cells to function at sea level. My perspective is that of an interested outsider who has spent some time thinking about the economic and political issues involved as well as the drama and excitement of the summit.

Here are the problems as I understand them:

A. The opportunity to attempt to get to the summit of Mount Everest is an extremely limited resource. There are only a few weeks a year when an attempt might be possible, and weather will permit an attempt only on a subset of those days. Even when there is a "summitable" day, there are only a few narrow paths that can be taken to the summit Basically, there are only a limited number of slots to try summitting Everest, and the demand for these slots is growing very rapidly. The law of supply & demand means, then, that these slots are becoming more valuable, and many of them will be taken by people with more money than sense.

B. The government and people of Nepal and Tibet/China are the proper owners of this very limited and valuable resource, and they should be encouraged to administer it for the long-term good, and to some extent for humanity as a whole. However, we have to recognize that they will naturally be tempted to get as much money out of it as possible in the short term.

C. The number of people who have "summitted" each year has grown explosively over the past decade, but the number of deaths per year has not. In other words, the death *rate* on Everest has fallen, not increased. This speaks very highly of the Everest mountaineering community, and how (I guess) they have used a combination of accumulated human experience and better communications & weather forecasting to avoid a disaster like the one of '96. But sooner or later there will be a convergence of bad luck and too many under-experienced people too high up, and 30-40 people will die in a night.

D. One of the issues in administering Everest is the well-known problem of trash on the mountain. It's not just that the mountaineers are self-centered, it's that getting to the upper part of Everest requires every bit of energy the human body has: summitters don't generally have the time or physical resources to do anything else without near-fatal risk.

I know a girl who (as many do) wanted a horse. Her parents said: "we'll only get you a horse if you truly prove your devotion by cleaning stables for six months." She cleaned the stables, she got the horse. And then she had to clean more stables, of course.

So here's my suggestion:

1. make getting to the summit a two-year process. The first year you don't have the right to go above a certain altitude. You get to pay your $50 (or your $5000, more like), and you pick up the garbage. This earns you the karma points to make a summit attempt in a subsequent year.

2. I say "points" because I imagine that not all cleanup jobs would be considered equal. The Mount Everest Access Committee (or whatever it's called) would decide how to allot points from year to year, depending on what needs to be done at what altitude.

3. These karma points, like traditional karma, would be non-transferrable. You are not just cleaning up, you are proving that you personally have the moral as well as the financial and physical right to use this extremely limited opportunity. In other words, you have to be *good* enough, not just good enough. (And even if you don't feel like a good person, you have to act like it.)

4. Citizens of Nepal and Tibet (=sherpas) do not need to earn karma points, because it's their mountain. Also, they're not self-indulgent rich people.

5. You can think of the karma points as a charge the governments and MEAC levy to pay for the proper maintenance of the site as part of the common heritage of humankind. It may be possible or necessary for Mount Everest and its approaches to become part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site program.

6. The two-year licensing system would depend on cooperation between the governments of Nepal and China, because it would have to start off with a one-year moratorium in which no-one gets to summit. By "no-one" I mean *no one*: no exceptions, no favoritism.

7. You can think of the moratorium as the price the mountaineering community pays to the governments and to the rest of the world for the privilege of climbing Everest. Or you can think of it as penance for letting the situation get to this parlous state. It would also be an opportunity for the mountaining community to act as a community with a shared goal.

8. Yes, this would make attempting Everest even more expensive than it already is. However, whenever there is a strictly limited supply of something and a growing demand, it would be foolish not to expect the price to increase. Furthermore, the current system shoves cleanup costs -- which are part of the true cost of climbing Everest -- onto future generations of locals. The two-year karma point system just makes those costs visible and puts them on the people who should be paying them in the first place.

9. One advantage of the two-year system is that it requires more of a commitment in time and effort on the part of the summitter, and will thus tend to weed out people who don't have what it takes to be attempting Everest in the first place. I expect that the increase in cost (which favors the rich & foolish) will be more than outbalanced by the increase in rigor, so that a higher proportion of the summitting slots will end up going to people who can actually use them in reasonable safety. Juan Oiarzabal says that right now Too often people go to Everest without knowing what it is like above 8000m. They pay huge amounts of money – and they don’t pay for a climb, but for a summit. The two-year system would ensure that everyone who attempts the summit has experience at extreme altitude, and will be used to working in a group with other mountaineers.

10. This system would have to be backed by the UIAA and the IGO8000, working with the governments of Nepal & China. It would probably only succeed if some very prominent mountaineers promoted it from the start. I do not envy the task of the MEAC, which would have to determine what maintenance work needs to be done on the mountain, allot karma points, make sure no-one summits without a license, and herd cats.

There it is: my (really) modest proposal for cleaning up Everest, regulating traffic to the summit, keeping the local people and their governments happy, and reducing the death rate on the mountain. It's up to people in the mountaineering community to decide if this would work for them; I'm just someone with no personal interest in the situation who hates to hear about needless deaths and littering.

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