Perhaps Everest should simply be closed. Such a move would be more complicated than it appears. The loudest protests would undoubtedly come from climbers themselves—but not the most skilled ones, who already have access to, and in many cases more interest in, the less frequented Himalayan peaks. The greatest impact would be on climbers for whom Everest is the best or only Himalayan opportunity, and, correspondingly, on the local Sherpa support economy that has been built around them. Sherpas are pro climbers in the truest sense—paid to guide others into the world of Everest—and many of them die while doing their job. Any moves to permanently close off the summit or dramatically lower the number of permits issued each year would have to seriously consider the effect on Sherpa communities, currently engaged in their own debates about their future as climbers. Large-scale relocations might be undertaken, as if a natural disaster had occurred.
In a sense, though, a disaster is precisely what has already happened. This disaster consists not just of the traffic jam at the top or the high death count. It encompasses a vulnerable mountain environment that has ballooned with economic growth. Due to climate change, the Himalayas could lose more than a third of their glaciers by the end of the century. This could have devastating consequences for the 1.7 billion people living in the mountains and in downstream countries, who are at risk of flooding and the destruction of crops.
Between Himalayan warming (growth at its most abstract and hardest to mitigate) and the “zoo” and “garbage dump” on Everest (growth at its most obvious and tangible), the scale and complexity of the recent damage to the region is only now beginning to come into view. If success in climbing indeed depends on knowing when to quit, now might be the time for climbers and everyone else to stop romanticizing the Everest summit and instead focus on ways to protect this revered place.
It’s telling that Everest’s most maligned season comes on the heels of the success of Free Solo, the documentary about Alex Honnold’s unprecedented ropeless climb of El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, last year. Everest, the highest point on the planet, and El Cap, described in the film as “the center of the climbing universe” and “the most impressive wall on Earth,” are mountains at the limit of the imagination. While the two are structurally quite different, both symbolize the greatest challenges that mountains can offer the human mind and body. Along with K2, the last mountain that remains to be summited in winter, they are the icons of peak climbing, if you will: humans getting the most there is to get out of mountains.
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Contrary to his supposed rule, Honnold himself is very much the embodiment of the mythologized climber who doesn’t quit, sacrificing anything to achieve his goal. In the documentary, Honnold’s task is presented as his alone—in ongoing tension with the rest of his life, which involves other people (most notably his girlfriend), middle-class suburban stability (buying and furnishing a home), and even the documentary film crew following him. Everyone close to Honnold worries that the cameras will distract him or make him act recklessly, so the crew members go to great lengths to obscure themselves as much as possible. At the moment of the historic climb, the camera operators have to update one another on Honnold’s location over walkie-talkies, because he is continuously ahead of where they think he is, literally outrunning the cameras.