Updated June 7 at 9:54 a.m.
Alex Honnold, the death-defying rock climber known for scaling thousand-foot granite walls without a rope, has a well-rehearsed rule for survival: The key to climbing, he likes to say, is knowing when to quit. This applies in the small sense, as in knowing when to go home for the day. But it also applies in the larger sense, as in knowing when to stop altogether.
This is a rule most adventure-minded people are not good at following—including rock climbers and other mountaineers, for whom the costs can be especially high. Take Mount Everest: Since the explosion of Himalayan mountaineering in the early 20th century, the world has swooned over the madness of climbers and their refusal to stop, even—or especially—in the face of great risk. Today, that infatuation can seem more pervasive than ever. Jarring reports this season have described climbers waiting in line at Everest’s peak while others take selfies. Crowds are leaving behind piles of litter, and the death rate is spiking. Some struggling climbers have said that others ignored their pleas for help en route to the summit.
Leaving behind injured, hypothermic, or otherwise struggling climbers to fend for themselves has long been the stuff of some of the beloved accounts of both death and survival in mountaineering, especially at high altitudes. On Everest, there are no explicit rules about helping others, and forging ahead to ensure your own survival is common. The recently publicized problems on the mountain, however, have brought this code of conduct under widespread scrutiny. Many people have responded with surprise and anger, calling for more safety and altruism on Everest.
These demands say less about climbers than they do about everyone else, or rather about what the summiting of this legendary mountain has come to mean in recent years. While the romance of mountaineering continues to entice the world’s explorers—especially the growing number of amateur climbers who can afford the roughly $70,000 price tag of an Everest attempt—brewing concerns about mountaineering’s consequences complicate its mystique. People have become aware of what might be called the “Everest industry,” in which groups at every level are profiting off the mountain—from the Nepalese government, which is selling a record number of permits, to pop-up companies offering to take even the most inexperienced climbers to the top.
Nepal’s tourism board has claimed that the problems are unrelated to high numbers of climbers, and it remains unclear whether Nepal, a poor country that significantly benefits from tourism, has any plans to restrict access to Everest. But permits alone will not be what determines Everest’s future. Death on Everest once was generally considered an inescapable risk of venturing into the unknown. Sometimes, the mountain simply won. But now more than ever, people are asking why climbers are dying on the mountain, and declaring many of those deaths unnecessary and meaningless.
If the reasons for Everest deaths are unclear today, then so are the reasons for climbing the mountain. Whether Everest continues to sell out or gets shut down, its peak has lost its hold on the world’s imagination. Everest, as an idea and cultural force, is over.
The lone-mountaineer persona was centuries in the making. In 1336, the Italian poet Petrarch stood alone at the top of Mont Ventoux, allegedly the first person since antiquity to climb to the top of a mountain for the view. As Europeans climbed ever-higher peaks and eventually tackled the Himalayas, climbing required ever-greater skill and strength. Mountaineering became not just an activity, but an obsession. The monomaniacal mountaineering persona—driven to the point of great sacrifice, highly skilled, asocial, hyperfocused—has found its current expression in high-altitude climbing, whose participants (many of them professionals) have been known to return to climbing after losing their climbing partners; some even summit the very mountains on which they lost limbs.
Today’s “Everest selfie” gives a new dimension to this monomania, at precisely the moment when successful climbers appear before the public like addicts, or robots programmed to live out some mysterious inner directive. Critics characterize the legions of privileged amateurs who now ascend Everest as dilettantes who dishonor the mountain, endanger others, and move this most solitary and personal experience to the realm least appropriate for it: social media.
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.
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.
Free Solo, which won an Academy Award this year for Best Documentary Feature, is exhilarating because it captures that thing that has given meaning to summiting the Himalayas over the past century. It’s the thing that continues to outrun the cameras and that propels both the climber and the film itself forward, in pursuit of something mysterious and authentic. In the end, the experience of the climb belongs profoundly to Honnold, and only to him. As he moves inch by vertical inch up about 3,000 feet with nothing to save him if he slips, achieving something no person has ever achieved before, the audience is simply left to imagine what it must be like.*
This is what the most important first ascents do: They open up the magic of the mountains to the rest of the world. But the lesson of Everest is that such an inspiring space doesn’t stay open forever. Like everything else precious, it is not an infinitely renewable resource.
Mountaineering’s new challenge is figuring out what to do with this lesson. For climbers, the question is not how to prevent all people from dying in the mountains, if they’re willing to responsibly take the risk. Mountaineers have always believed that some things are worth risking one’s life for. Instead, the question is how to restore meaning to climbing, regardless of how the climb ends. Now that the magic has faded from Everest, where will mountaineering go to look for it?
* This article previously stated the elevation that Honnold reached with his famous climb rather than the distance the climb covered.