Everest's social climbers horrify mountain purists

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2007, 12:00am

Every year the crowds flocking to climb Mount Everest grow, creating an annual jamboree that appals many mountaineers.

'That mountain turned into a circus long ago and it's getting worse,' said leading Basque climber Juan Oiarzabal. Every year climbers steal tents and oxygen bottles from other climbers. Manuel Pizaro's crampons - boot spikes - were stolen, but he made it to the summit on a borrowed pair.

This year more than 50 expeditions are established at the two base camps on the Tibetan and Nepalese sides of the mountain, with hundreds of climbers hoping to follow the 450 people who made it to the top last year.

So far this year, one Sherpa and two South Koreans have died while trying to ascend the mountain, while a 62-year-old Japanese climber died while descending from the summit.

A 'weather window' has opened up in the past few days, allowing climbers to push for the summit, although it will take time for the details to be logged and confirmed. On the northern side alone, as many as 200 people may have reached the top during the current 'summit wave'.

Among this year's hopefuls are Norwegian Cato Pedersen, 48, who could be the first man with no arms to conquer the mountain, and Canadian Phil Michael, 36, a heart patient with a robotic aortic valve. He is staying in close contact with his cardiologist throughout the expedition.

Others are even more unusual. Dutchman Wim Hof, 47, who calls himself 'the Iceman', plans to climb without trousers.

At least one climber at the base camp offers a warning of the risk he is running. 'There's a Malaysian here whose fingers froze last year, and they are still hanging off,' said Dan Mazur, the American leader of the SummitClimb expedition.

Experienced climbers reserve their greatest sense of alarm for amateurs who are often seen as rich tourists trying to buy their way to the summit. One team arrived this year with no experience of wearing crampons, the boot-spikes that allow mountaineers to climb on ice.

'They should not be allowed out on a Sunday afternoon walk, much less on Everest,' grumbled one base- camp resident, adding in reference to another climber: 'The question is not whether he kills himself but whether he kills other people.'

Since Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first conquered Mount Everest in 1953, about 2,000 climbers have scaled the mountain and 206 have died on its unpredictable slopes.

David Tait, a London hedge fund manager who climbed Everest in 2005 and is back this year, insists no one has the right to say there are too many people on the mountain.

'Everybody is looking for a challenge,' he says. 'Technology makes the mountain more accessible, and personal wealth means more people can afford to do it.

'But the climb has not got any easier. In fact, the crowds make it more dangerous.'

Mr Tait, whose trip raised GBP100,000 (HK$1.54 million) for charity, has reached the summit once this year but abandoned a plan to climb from China to Nepal and back again over the summit.

On the Chinese side, the Chinese Olympic torch rehearsal team placed 17 climbers on the summit this month, witnesses reported, although there has not yet been any official announcement.