Tragedy & triumph

Posted on May 22, 2012

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I remember with stark vividness when I climbed Aconcagua, my guide talked often about how getting to the top only really gets us half way … the summit is only the turn around point and under no uncertain terms, an opportunity to get complacent.  It may all be downhill after that but when utterly fatigued, physically exhausted, mentally drained and suffering from altitude, lack of sleep and general over-exertion, you can feel sort of drunk and not entirely within control of your thoughts, feelings and movements. Your ability in this state to make shrewd and smart decisions is completely impaired.

I was reminded of these very conversations earlier this week when I read about the tragic deaths on Everest just a few days ago.  This year has seen the most catastrophic season since that fateful series of events in 1994, one that many of us have since read dozens of books about … all telling their own side of a story, all without happy ending.

First conquered in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, Everest has since seen hundreds of summit attempts each year.  It is a symbol of achievement, extreme physical challenge and pride. The weather in these extreme climates and altitudes show no mercy … it is inhospitable at best and at worst, downright fatal. Such is the very fine line between life and death. I remember visiting base camp just a few years ago as all the expeditions were settling in. There shrouded in cloud, the beast herself. With her rockfalls and avalanches, storms and winds, she never lets you forget who’s boss.

Climbers speak of two kinds of hazards: objective and subjective. The subjective risks are those you can potentially control through skill and experience. The objective ones are events like avalanches and icefall that don’t care who you are, only that you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rarely has so much of the latter been stacked up against so little of the former … until now.  This year, although there were a few complaints whispered throughout that perhaps a safer route was possible through the icefall, most climbers seemed to accept these dangers as unavoidable. Sadly, in our worlds of extreme privilege, we all too easily become complacent and believe we are invincible.

I guess if anything good can come of this is that in future years to come, as expeditions from all four corners try to realise their dreams of standing on top of the world, that each and every climber will remember that no one ever really conquers Everest.  She is a beast whose variables no man can control.  Instead, she lets a small percentage summit her each year during a tiny window of time.

Perhaps Peter Habeler summed it up best when he said:

“I have not conquered Everest, it has merely tolerated me”

Ps. Pic is taken on the summit of Aconcagua (6,962m) with Lakpa Rita Sherpa who has stood on top of Everest 13 times! We were having our pics taken for a  potential Starbucks Via ad.

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