“I don’t know anything about mountaineering!” laughs first-time climber Bagyashree, as her expedition leader shows her how to use an oxygen mask. Like a beehive with no queen, Everest Base Camp has become a sprawling, haphazard community of individuals, all competing for space to make their own push to the summit. “Boy has it changed. There used to be only one expedition per season, now there’s dozens…and hundreds of climbers”, reflects Dr Peter Hackett, a leading figure in high-altitude medicine and Everest veteran.
Despite the inherent dangers of the mountain, commercial expeditions come here every year, with customers paying up to $100,000 for the privilege. Over 3,000 people have summated Everest 1953. Yet 250 people have also died on the mountain. Between the tents in Base Camp, gruesome body parts surface through the ice in various stages of decomposition. “The death rate has been remarkably stable. It’s still higher than most people would accept for a holiday…”Hackett says with a wry smile.
It’s an eclectic bunch taking the risk, from 16-year-old Arjun wanting to be the youngest Indian to summit Everest, to Nelson, who wants to be the first Colombian with a prosthetic leg to reach the top. But for every noble story of personal achievement, there are warnings to be heeded. “Climate change is a real issue. The mountain is melting and becoming more and more dangerous”. Unofficial clean-up operations desperately attempt to clamp down on the piles of tin cans, bottles, ropes, gas canisters, tent poles and discarded clothing that blot an otherwise majestic landscape. “We’re so sad, because this is our God”, sighs Chuna, a local Nepali expedition guide.
And despite the changes, the mountain remains a force to be reckoned with. As the season draws to a close, its latest visitors have certainly been shown who’s boss. “You can commercialize the crap out of it, but the mountain doesn’t care who you are…you got to be humble in the mountains.”
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