I’m here: Everest, Camp II, plus about 40 metres. At my feet, a crampon gripped the ice in perfect 12-point French-technique position; exemplary style except for the fact that it lacked an attached foot. Crampon failure can be lethal, but on this slope, not much steeper than a black ski run, it rated only nuisance value. I sighed, and slumped to the snow for the awkward asana and cold-fingered fumbling required to reattach it.
It took a few seconds for what I saw to register: a dawning disaster. The sole of my right boot had delaminated. It flapped off the boot, attached only at the toe. I was peripherally aware of other climbers staring at me. They were all, in their various languages, thinking the same thing: you’re fucked!
This was the end of the climb. There’s no way I could clamp a crampon to a boot without a rigid sole. Not only could I not go up, there was even a question of how I would get down the mountain, although I thought I could manage it using the fixed ropes and a saint-load of patience.
Off to the side, David, the expedition leader, was attending to Stephan, who was bent over his ski pole, looking spent. My hypoxic brain struggled, dimly aware that an answer to my problem lay somewhere in my mind. But there was too much sensory input just here: a blinding, sapphire sky; the incessant wind; the pitying glances from the passing train of climbers. I turned, unclipped from the fixed rope, then limped back to the tent over the steep, fractured rock. The sun crept past noon. Tomorrow was the first of just two forecast ‘summit window’ days, and scores of climbers, having all banked up like water behind a dam wall, were moving up to Camp III ready for the summit push that night. I wrestled with zips, laces, velcro and the electrical cables of my toe-warming system, took off my boot and a half, and clambered into the tent. It was cold and empty: a bit of gear stashed in the corner, but the sleeping mats and bags and most of the other stuff was in climbers’ packs heading for Camp III.
Tents high on big mountains are repellent spaces. They have wildly uneven floors: a millimetre and a half of nylon on a lumpy bed of ice with, at Camp II, the occasional rock jutting up to scotch any chance of a comfortable night. Their floors are strewn with dried juices and blobs of food spilt while cooking and eating; wrappers and bits of paper dropped by clumsy, cold hands; human hair; feathers of escaped down wafting around or sodded with dirty ice in the corners. They smell bad: sweat and noodles and fear. Worst of all, they lack heating.
Seeing my stuff-sack of gear triggered a memory of what I had stashed here, at 7820 metres, way up the North Ridge of Everest: half a small tube of glue. I rummaged and found it: Bostik Multi Bond, Industrial Strength. I liked that ‘industrial’ bit— sounded promising. I sat, pondering my boot: an ass with mouth open, tongue lolling (the boot, not me), and thought how I might effect this repair.
David was hovering outside the door of the tent. He squatted down. ‘James, what are you going to do? Are you going down?’
The general view of the annual Everest ‘carnival’ is justifiably critical. The media always reports the deaths and spectacle. There are lots of deaths: the South Col Into Thin Air debacle of ’96, Lincoln Hall’s death and resurrection in 2006, the icefall avalanche deaths of 16 Sherpas in 2014, and the earthquake-triggered base camp destruction the following year. In 2019, photos of a ludicrous human traffic jam on the Nepalese summit ridge drew condemnation and scorn. That particular snafu resulted in several deaths due to dehydration, cold, exhaustion and the depletion of oxygen supplies caused by the hours spent waiting in line.
Death is just one bad thing that happens on the mountain. There’s theft from tents so that guards have to be deployed; climbers walking past the ill and dying; cut-price companies supplying tainted oxygen and incompetent guides; the rumour of a brothel at base camp; helicopter-insurance fraud; climbers, no, clients, so inexperienced that they are sitting outside base camp tents, about to head up the icefall with no clue about how to put on their crampons. And how about the photo of two Sherpas helping an overweight climber over a bulge of snow high on the North Ridge, shoving him up from below, one to each buttock.
Stomping up the glacier to Camp I this year, at about 6500 metres, where there is only half the air there is on a beach, I was comprehensively overtaken by a young woman moving much faster. I was alone, carrying an 18-kilogram pack and breathing ambient air. She had two Sherpas, one just ahead, one just behind, carrying large packs, each with a missile array of spare oxygen bottles lashed to the outside. She carried a small daypack, just large enough to hold one four-kilogram bottle, which was connected by the tube to her facemask. I assume she was breathing the maximum flow: four litres per minute. After about four hours the cylinder would be empty, at which point she could just plug in another provided by her retinue. We were both climbing Everest, but she was doing it with a company that charges two or three times as much as the one I was with.
The services of a personal Sherpa cost perhaps US$10,000 for the duration of the trip. A single bottle of oxygen costs upwards of US$500. The climber who passed me might go through 20 or more bottles. She would be sleeping with oxygen supplementation even at ABC (Advance Base Camp). Along with all the other expenses, her trip might cost more than US$80,000.
I too climbed with a company that relied on Sherpas. I did not have one to carry my personal gear, but the six we employed did almost all of the work, carrying loads and establishing the camps, pitching the tents, melting snow for water and cooking on the mountain.
The climb is protected by fixed ropes. The role of fixing these is performed by the CTMA (China Tibet Mountaineering Association), by decree, and at an inflated price. They employ students from the Lhasa School of Mountaineering, dozens of them. It’s work experience, Tibet style. A continuous seven-millimetre line is established, when it suits them, from the base of the headwall below Camp I all the way to the summit, four or five kilometres away and more than two vertical kilometres above. Almost no-one would have, and few could have, reached the top without these ropes.
The 23rd was the first day of the fine-weather window. That meant the 22nd was the last day of the bad weather. Yet this was the day the ropes were put in, so there were young Tibetan climbers up on the summit ridge in marginal conditions, not only climbing but carrying and stringing out many hundreds of metres of ropes, banging in pitons and snow stakes, tying knots, moving unprotected on steep ground. They were invisible but essential. Their activity on the slopes leading up to the summit does not count in the summit stats. They are unheralded, only attracting attention when they die in numbers, as happened on the Nepalese side in 2014.
A sense of deja vu was keeping me company. The empty tent, the boot, the glue, David’s presence, the astonishing circumstance of being most of the way up Everest with a broken boot—I had dreamt all this before. That is why, I thought, out of all the dozens of items in my repair kit I’d left behind at various camps due to weight, I had kept packing that half-tube of glue.
‘I reckon I might be able to fix this,’ I said to David. ‘I just have to think a bit. I’ve done something like it before.’
‘Stephan is going down. He’s not feeling well.’
‘Can he go on his own?’
‘No. He says he feels unsteady walking.’ We both knew this suggested the possibility of HACE, high altitude cerebral oedema, where the brain swells at altitude. We had already had a dramatic rescue of a Sherpa with HACE from ABC on this expedition. I had been up through the night monitoring his mental state and administering O2 (oxygen) and steroids. HACE can be rapidly fatal; Stephan would have to be accompanied and monitored. Descent of 1000 metres or so into thicker air was usually spectacularly curative of the condition, so Stephan had to be escorted down immediately. I was a doctor and an assistant leader on this trip, so, since ‘for me, the expedition was over’, I was an obvious candidate for the role.
My boots were old. I had thought hard about replacing them for this trip, but 8000m boots cost $1400 and I had already bought a new state-of-the-art down suit and some other gear. Boots are rather important—duh! But that down suit was so fluffy and sexy.
David loitered in the doorway. He was dubious about the likelihood of a functional repair. If he took Stephan down he would lose his chance to summit, which was a big deal, although he had stood on the top five times before. I read the instructions on the tube of glue. On the tube was a picture of a lizard, a gecko, that can walk up walls. Appropriate.
XX8000m boots designed for heights of 8000 metres are to brogues as Bentleys are to bikes. Mine weigh 1.5 kilograms each and comprise an inner and outer boot where a rubber rand continues up onto an integrated gaiter that reaches my knee. I unfolded my belay knife, which was new (I could afford that!), and set about drilling/hacking a hole through the rubber side of the boot just above the last.
I made four ragged holes, two per side, then fetched some three-millimetre cord and, using the small, flathead screwdriver on my Swiss Army knife, forced it through the holes, in and out, so that I could use it to lash the sole tight up against the upper while the glue set. There was no drying time recorded on the tube. Would it dry at all in –15 degrees?
‘Are you thinking I should take Stephan down, David?’
‘Well, are you going up or down?’
‘I reckon this will work. Will you get one of the Sherpas to take him down?’
‘No, without Stephan there can be one Sherpa for each climber. That works well. I also think an English speaker should be with him to better monitor his mental state. If you don’t go, I will. Can you guarantee it will work?’
I contemplated descending. I have backed off many mountains, sometimes after an agony of indecision. This cautiousness, sometimes containing an element of fear or self-doubt, has led to my ‘bagging’ fewer summits than some (like you ever own one!), but has also contributed to my continued existence. I tested how making the decision to turn around just then would feel: it felt completely wrong, at odds with the very meaning of my being here. I don’t mean that the meaning was contained in the summit, but that trusting my repair was respecting the part of myself that kept packing the damn glue. I was clear: ‘I’m feeling good, the weather’s okay. I’m going up.’
I squeezed glue all over the undersurface of the upper that would bed the sole and pressed the two parts together, then ratcheted tight the threaded cord and tied it off. Using sports tape, I wrapped other parts of the sole hard against the boot, then sat back in the icy, nylon caul to wait (caul seems the right word as, after all, I was being delivered). The wind slapped and worried at the wall of the tent.
‘I reckon a couple of hours should do it. I’ll head up at about 4 pm. What time do you think we should leave Camp III for the summit?’
‘Nine or ten.’ David would not be there to supervise the Sherpas, but I knew he trusted my mountain experience enough to let me go on alone. That knowledge and the implicit endorsement reinforced my confidence. I also appreciated his selflessness. ‘Okay. That should give me two or three hours to rest and rehydrate at Camp III. I won’t need my sleeping bag for that short a time.’ The tents at Camp III were pitched on a steep rocky slope and were notorious for their discomfort. They functioned more like an extra-large bivvy sac. It didn’t occur to me that if I made it to Camp III for a night after a summit attempt I would be without my sleeping bag, a potential sufferfest, sexy down suit notwithstanding.
There is a difference between ‘real’ climbing and the activity on Everest. In real climbing you do all the work yourself. You make all the decisions: when to go on, when to shelter, which route to take. That means monitoring weather and terrain, the time of day, the condition of your body: hydration, warmth and energy levels. Snow conditions and avalanche danger must be assessed, cloud and wind understood, rope handling and the mechanics of protection placement mastered. Doing all these things requires skill and experience, hard won, with many errors and sub-par choices along the way, often resulting in suffering or injury.
What in normal life equates to this, this journey to competence through suffering and joy in such a beautiful but harsh milieu? For me, the intensity of climbing eclipses all other dimensions of life (except having children) permanently. In my reality there is nothing more worthwhile than communing with the inner self, exploring the boundaries of thought and the littoral realm between life and death, thereby the nature of existence. The point of life is to be conscious.
So for me, the point of life is not to be happy or entertained. It is not to be the best I can be. It is to be conscious. Climbing, through its high-stakes intensity, demands and amplifies focus and awareness; it pushes into the background everything except one’s being alive in an intimate dance with space and time.
Increasingly I wonder which is more my home: the mountains or the city, nature or culture. I do know which delivers greater suffering. The suffering on mountains is merely physical, unless you are terrified at the possibility of obliteration, and the physical suffering I have known, the broken bones, the hypothermic bivouacs, and the ‘screaming barfies’ (when blood returns to frozen digits), is but a trifle compared to a broken heart, or to the despair I can feel as I move through the post-apocalyptic cyberscape of phone-zombies that my city has become.
At 4 pm the mend was looking pretty solid, but I knew it may not prove strong enough. Crampons clamped and lashed hard on to the boots and most of the terrain on the North Ridge was rock. With each footstep the rigid crampons were twisted by the uneven contours of the rock and forced the boots to comply, with more than 100 kilos of geared-up climber bearing down on the whole shebang. The forces applied to my Geckoglue mend would be huge.
It is always a major production getting out of a tent in cold, windy conditions at altitude; one exacerbated when you’re older and less agile. My fingers freeze when I remove my gloves for dexterity, so I have to stop proceedings to thaw them for a few minutes in my armpits. Boots, crampons, harness, pack and its waist belt, oxygen mask, glacier glasses, inner gloves, outers. Oops, forgot sunscreen. It’s in my pocket so it doesn’t freeze. Now my glacier glasses are fogging up. I adjust the straps on my O2 mask. Now my beanie is crooked and exposing flesh. Now my ski pole is the wrong length; gloves off to adjust it.
So it goes. It takes freaking ages. Finally I was underway: Camp II (7820m) to Camp III (8250m). It was late afternoon and I was hours behind everyone else; that is, I was climbing on my own, there was no-one else in sight. The route was straightforward: steep in parts, but there was always the fixed rope to grab, and for once it was not a danger due to half a dozen other climbers all hauling on the same anchor simultaneously.
The evening was lovely; not that cold really, –15 degrees or so. As I moved above the wind-thrashed Camp II, the contour of the ridge in relation to the scoop of the North Face changed and I climbed into a zone of quieter air. The sun wooed the western horizon; the sky was redecorated with a watercolour palette of blues and pinks; flotilla fleets of clouds sailed in and out; snow powdered down briefly, just for effect. The Rongbuk Glacier, more than 2000 metres below, spread out languidly towards the Tibetan Plateau. It was peaceful and quiet, luminous and numinous.
My boot repair was holding up. I was breathing two litres of O2 per minute, taking two or three breaths per step, depending on the gradient. Slow breaths, no panting. Inhale, pause a fraction of a second to let the O2 molecules diffuse into the alveoli, exhale. I always thought of sitting in my study when I concentrated on this; I suppose the association was with a place of meditation and calm.
I was climbing in my rhythm, something that had been hard to find on a trip where there were usually other climbers ahead and behind. I felt strong, and blessed. Having the glue seemed miraculous. It made me feel not alone, as if I had a guardian angel. I do not mean that to be seen as supernatural; being in sync with the enormous resources of the unconscious psyche is no trivial matter, and it is natural to personalise this.
As I approached Camp III the cloud blew in thicker, curtained the view and flattened the light. I caught up to a tardy group of about 15 Indian climbers conga-lining up a fixed rope, moving slowly. There was no way I could climb past them on the rope. They were only 200 metres from the camp, but were going to take a good hour to get there.
I unclipped from the rope and headed off up the face; snow weakly plastered to scree, threaded with downward-sloping slabs of rock. Tilted at about 45 degrees, it proved more treacherous than it had looked, as is usually the case. I would be seduced onto a slightly less steep path but that always ended in a small but difficult vertical step. I slanted away to the left then zigzagged up, feeling a little transgressive for leaving the rope, but aware that on any other mountain there would be no rope and this would have been routine.
It was serious: a slip could have been disastrous, but I was confident of my ability to sense what foot placement would be okay, what needed to be reconsidered. Decades of doing this sort of thing made it all right, but here it would be frowned upon by most, like someone taking off their seatbelt on a rollercoaster.
Camp III was perched high up on the North Face of the mountain on a patchwork of rock, ice and scree. There was a scatter of tents, 40 perhaps, far more than usual due to the compression of everyone into the same one or two summit days.
Most of the tents were just laid diagonally on the slope or draped over half-sized ledges so that the downhill side of the tent dropped away. Attachment points for guy ropes were also scarce, the best ones being remnants of tents from previous years that were frozen into the ground. To discourage tents from embarking on wind-assisted luge runs, they were suspended from ropes sometimes strung from attachment points many metres uphill, so the whole site became a field of low ropes strung half a metre or so off the ground. Reaching the four tents marked with the SummitClimb logo of my team was a tribute to Catherine Zeta-Jones’s laser-beam contortions in that dubious film Entrapment. I was too spent for it to be fun though; it was just a nuisance.
I joined a fellow team member, Axel, in our tent; he was sitting on the uphill shelf with his legs dropping into the lower part of the tent. It was about 7 pm when I arrived. I was heartened by my fast ascent from Camp II. The Sherpas brought in water they had melted from snow or ice. Dreading its E. coli count, given how faecally polluted this slope, the site of Camp III every year, must be, I dropped in a chlorine tablet. We would head for the summit at about 11 pm, so we sat for a few hours trying to force down as many sugar and protein bars as possible, breathing O2 intermittently.
Eventually the Sherpas appeared at the door of the tent with more water, and marching orders. We were booted up and ready. It was a difficult business trying to don crampons in –20 degrees on a steep icy slope in the dark, but eventually I was taking my first steps upwards, behind Ang Dawa, the Sherpa who had been assigned to me. I did not particularly want or need a Sherpa, and was mildly miffed that if we summited I would be expected to pay him $1000 as a tip. Still, it was not the time to fight the flow of things; this was Everest and things were done a certain way here.
As it turned out, he was a good companion. With barely a word spoken, we climbed for the next 15 hours as a team. We climbed by headlamp. Up ahead the beams of other lights perforated the night, tracing the route. A few were far ahead, but most were nearby, strung together in a serrated upward slash through the yellow band, 160 metres of rock that lay between Camp III and the northeast ridge. Within 20 minutes we found ourselves stalled, joining the back of a queue of climbers waiting for some slow person to haul themselves up a difficult section.
So it went for the next few hours. Short periods of progress punctuated by waits on the downhill side of each technical move. Climbers could negotiate these sections efficiently, but most Everest pundits have very little climbing experience and quite a few lacked the repertoire of techniques required to scale vertical steps of rock, especially in crampons by headlamp.
Luckily we were out of the wind and it was not frightfully cold. I turned my O2 down to one litre per minute to save the supply. I would struggle for air in the occasional periods of movement, but then have a holiday from effort at the next bottleneck. It was all pretty straightforward, but I wondered if these delays would accumulate and rob me of the summit. It was a worry, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it: overtaking was impossible in this terrain.
The night wore on. I had no sense of time. The occasional headlamps were like stars, a kind of topo (a diagram sketching in the features of a climb) of the route, forming a cluster of greater density at the first step, the first of three small cliffs that slowed the path to the top.
The northeast ridge in profile traces a gentle pitch, but it is knife-edged and steep-sided, the Kangshung Face to the left and the North Face to the right. The route sidles across this latter face, sometimes on a decent path but often across fractured shelves of down-sloping rock, uneven and narrow. There is a fixed rope to clip into, good to haul on when the path is steep, but no aid to balance on traverse. It is very exposed.
Exposure is a central concept in climbing. According to Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest mountaineers, there are three ingredients essential to real climbing: difficulty, danger and exposure. Exposure might be described as a function of the percentage of your field of view that is occupied by air rather than land.
The summit ridge of Everest was exposed: the North Face dropped precipitously 2300 metres to the glacier below. But Messner was talking about more than this. He was talking about how far ‘out there’ you were, how much you would have to rely on yourself. In this sense exposure is increased by being alone; by the number of hours or days away from the nearest road, the nearest town, the nearest hospital, one’s home; by the vulnerability of the position to weather or objective danger. It is diminished by the possibility of rescue, by lines of communication. Mobile phones and PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) have transformed climbing in this respect—perhaps a more apt word would be ‘contaminated’.
Everest, despite the crowds, still has a fair degree of exposure. The Chinese have banned helicopters, and the ruggedness of the terrain and the fact that it involves a traverse preclude any chance of an incapacitated person being easily helped or lowered down. It really is a death zone. If something went wrong, you died. This, despite the climber numbers, brought a kind of solitude. There are lots of tales about climbers walking past the dying; told as a demonstration of climber callousness. While I am sure that I would at least stop to check on a stricken climber, I can see how having to leave them may be just a reality of the situation.
Despite the numbers, we were anonymous. My awareness was narrowed to the small pool of weak light cast on the rock ahead by my headlamp. Everyone was dressed in bulky down suits, with hoods cowling faces covered with balaclavas, O2 masks and glacier glasses or ski goggles. The wind howled and needled to numbness the exposed centimetres on my face, the sound of my breathing and the clicks of the O2 apparatus’s valves filled my ears. I could not recognise anyone else, and not readily communicate.
Ang Dawa and I moved on up in our parallel cocoons, often passing other climbers. This was mostly done with consideration and politeness. I would have to unclip from the fixed rope and hold on to the body of the ‘passee’ for balance as I worked my way around their downhill side. There was a kind of intimacy to it, a moment of mutual acknowledgement. They would hold the line out towards me so that I could clip in again as soon as I could reach it. And on we’d go.
We reached the notorious second step. This 25-metre vertical rock feature presents a blank wall in its upper part, surmounted by a ladder put in place by the Chinese in 1970. It has a fearsome reputation. The ladder is vertical, held in place by old ropes, so it rocks and twists as you grapple with it. Towards the top it is hard up against the rock so that you can’t get more than the front points of your crampons on a rung—an insecure purchase—and the bulky down suit makes it hard to see your feet. Worse, it stops short a metre or so from the top. This was not too bad going up, but proved difficult in reverse. I was properly scared then. To drive the point home, there is an old corpse frozen in a grotesque inversion on the slopes below, like an airman who had landed head first, boots to the sky.
We waited in line for half an hour below the second step. Shielded by the step from the wind, we did not get too cold. Above it, we hustled along on easier ground. We stopped to plug in a new oxygen cylinder and to take a drink.
Take a drink: sounds easy. First, I remove my outer mitts, leaving the inners in place, then I find that my jacket zip is locked in a lump of ice formed by the condensation dripping from my O2 mask. I struggle with it, mitts under my arm—I mustn’t let the wind blow them away; that would be bad. Finally I release the zip enough to stuff my mitts inside my jacket, in my armpits, so they retain a bit of warmth and will not have to be rewarmed at the expense of my hands when I put them back on. By now my fingers are frozen so I jam them in my axillae too to thaw a bit; I wait a minute or two. Next I wrestle a water bottle from one of the pockets inside my jacket. I raise it to my mouth but realise my O2 mask is still on. I am reluctant to remove it because I have just spent the last couple of hours adjusting the straps so that it fits properly and doesn’t fog up my glacier glasses. I pull back my hood, slip down the strap and drop the mask, then raise the water bottle to my lips. It all takes a good while. One might not be bothered, but dehydration could be fatal.
About this time, perhaps 4 am, a blizzard swept through. It came in on the prevailing wind from the north-west and soon had us rimed with ice. It was unpleasant but I didn’t think it blew with conviction. We passed other groups who were spooked by it; some were turning around and heading down.
Just up ahead was the less intimidating third step, then the steep snow triangle that was near the summit. The blizzard had moved on, the sky was lightening. It dawned on me that we were going strong and fast and were going to make it. Incredulity and joy started a slow build in my chest. We were closing on the summit.
After the snow triangle the route took an unlikely traverse on ten-centimetre foot placements 30 metres from the top of the 2300-metre North Face: an evocative set of numbers! There were several climbers on each stretch of fixed rope, teetering their way across. There were too many to expect that an anchor would hold if one fell and pulled the others off balance. It was dangerous; I just steeled my nerves and hoped.
I was having trouble with my right eye. It was sore and watering. I had to keep closing it, which made it harder to climb. It had been damaged by the cold dry wind getting in under my glacier glasses, which didn’t quite seal because I have a big nose. Imagine missing a step, tripping and dying on Everest because I have a big nose. Hah!
The last stretch to the summit was an undulating ridge of snow, a graceful, sinusoidal realisation of the beautiful perfection of mathematics. It was elegantly corniced to the left, great curls of ice-cream scooping down over the Kangshung Face. The wind launched a plume of snow off the ridge in that direction, the airborne crystals refracting the sun’s rays, casting halos and admitting beams in horizontally from the east that lit the scene like the stage in a rock concert.
Ahead I could see what resembled a cocktail party on the top; perhaps 15 climbers milling around and sitting down, holding flags, fumbling with cameras; clothes flapping and stances bracing against the wind. I moved through the dream, slowly: step, three breaths, step, three breaths …
I thought back to the early days of my climbing career, when I had stopped short of the summit on the Nepalese side. Now, 31 years later, I was completing the journey. Sobs welled up; it was such a potent place to be. You know how some places feel redolent with ancient power, how they humble you and make you pass quietly and softly? This was one of them: a nexus of numinosity, an arc de triomphe of ley lines. Time both passed and stood still, then crystallised. I stood, or floated, on a singularity, the summit of Chomolungma, the Mother Goddess.
In Nepal this mountain is called Sagarmatha, in Tibet Chomolungma; each name conjuring a female deity. Such inaccessible, inhospitable places are the abode of the gods in most pre-modern cultures. It would be sanctimonious to say they were onto something. That is obvious, if only by comparison to our Western culture, which is so clearly ‘off ’, missing something. Do we go to the mountains to try to connect, while the locals didn’t need to climb as they were already connected? For us, it is by stepping outside the daily realm, skirting the edge of our viability, stripping away accoutrements and embracing solitude, that is, diving off the pontoon of ego and into the oceanic psyche, that we access the deeper nature of things.
Might we then recast the place of Everest in the climbing world? It is not what it once was seen to be: a mountain to be ‘conquered’ through assault by determined men. Might Everest become again what it once was for those dwelling by it: a god, that is, a repository of meaning and a means for connection to the nature of things and, by extension, to oneself.
No, it ain’t proper mountaineering. There are a million other mountains where those seeking this can go. Everest has in the past been co-opted by a culture obsessed with domination, the engine of its evolution for thousands of years. But now, as a microcosm of the internal contradictions and noxious consequences of this play out in a discernible fashion, it is a locus where we may re-evaluate this paradigm. Here on her, just as in every national park, every reef and desert, every corner of the ocean and remnant of forest, we struggle with ourselves to move into a greater awareness of our proper place in the world.
James Strohfeldt is an assistant surgeon, Jungian psychotherapist and mountain guide. He lives in Melbourne.