I am just leaving Washington DC after spending three days here for the National Geographic “Call of Everest” event. I presented to a sold out crowd on Monday night along with Mark Jenkins, Conrad Anker, and Alton Byers. We each spoke on very different topics. Mark discussed the history of climbing on the mountain and the onset and impacts of commercial guiding in the 90s. I discussed my personal experiences with climbing Everest, what it meant to me, and my opinion on its significance to my generation and those of the future. Conrad spoke on the Sherpa culture, emphasizing their desire to maintain and improve education systems in the Khumbu Valley, their role in Himalayan climbing, and how organizations such as his Khumbu Climbing Center are trying to raise the safety standards among high altitude Nepali workers in the region. Alton is a naturalist who has researched the environmental impacts of climate change and globalization on the world’s highest civilizations. His presentation was an honest look into how the Khumbu Valley has changed, for better and worse. In all of our presentations, the problems associated with Everest and Khumbu region in general were addressed, as well as what is already being done to help and possible solutions to further remedy those issues in order to preserve and protect that fragile and beautiful place for the future.
It was a well-received presentation, and the feedback we heard was that it was constructive, powerful, and well-rounded; all compliments I was so pleased to hear in light of the recent events on the mountain and all the negativity that has been generated both within the climbing community and outside of it. In all honesty, I was seriously dreading the last few days talking about Everest. I read all of the opinion pieces and articles on the Internet, looked at the comments, some of which are horribly insulting and disrespectful, and felt truly sad and even a little ashamed. Many of those posts were written by members of my own community, and it hurt to see how passionately negative they were about something I was proud of achieving. Or was I? This past week prior to speaking at National Geographic I couldn’t tell you how I felt about any of it.
I was so bummed that I called Adrian to vent. Ironically, he happened to be resting Camp 2 on Everest at the time. He’s a mountain guide and has been guiding in the Himalaya for 17 years, and the last 5 seasons on Everest. I told him I was confused about how I really felt and that I wasn’t sure how I was going to talk about it. “Why so upset Em??? Just tell your story. For the most part, It’s an amazing thing. I truly believe that.” I understood his perspective. Guiding people in the mountains and sharing his passion for climbing and adventure is something he loves and believes in, but it left me thinking: what do I believe in? And why?
I was given the opportunity to go to Mt. Everest because I got lucky and was invited to join a sponsored expedition. I had been to Nepal before to teach at the Khumbu Climbing Center and would have jumped at any opportunity to go back, for any reason. I was infatuated by the country and the overwhelming beauty of the Himalaya. I wanted to return to experience it more fully, in whatever capacity that may be. It didn’t have to be Everest, but it just happened to be, and that’s how I got there. I had no idea what to expect. Some might say I didn’t belong there, that I didn’t have any experience and am an example of exactly what’s wrong with Everest. I don’t really think I was, because I am a climber and I do know how to use climbing equipment and move efficiently on steep icy inclines which ranks me pretty high on the qualification ladder compared to some people who are there (not all). Just like everyone else though, I suffered immensely, battled some of my toughest mental demons, learned alot about myself and others; and, as happens on those types of personal journeys of struggle and success/failure, I came out of it a different person. I was more confident, independent, less guarded and more willing to be myself around others. I held my head a little higher.
This part of my life that meant so much to me personally is constantly at the center of criticism and scrutiny: the environmental impacts, commercialism, Sherpa vs Western culture, purity and freedom of mountaineering, etc. I am NOT the most informed person on the ins and outs of Everest (and I’m sure most of those professing their opinions so aggressively aren’t either), but I do know that it’s not all that it seems from the outside. I have several close friends (and a boyfriend) who work both on Mt Everest and in the Khumbu each year and all of whom care deeply about the place and the culture. There are proactive efforts in place to help clean up the mountain, educate Nepali climbers in safer climbing practices (like the KCC), and raise the standards on the mountain for both climbers and guides. Like any sort of change or shift, especially one that involves government involvement, it’s an extremely slow process; but certain individuals and organizations are asking the right questions and seeking out solutions in a constructive manner.
As far as the purity of mountaineering goes, well, those ethical debates are so circuitous I have trouble keeping it all straight. Climbing with oxygen is not as badass as without, using fixed lines is easier than without, etc. So mad props if you go no O’s alpine style without support. I think that’s rad and deserves an incredible amount of respect. Everest too crowded for you? Not a serene or isolated enough experience? I get that, but that’s the reality of that place. I guess you just have to find another mountain to climb. I don’t consider myself a mountaineer or alpine climber; I climbed Everest with oxygen, fixed lines, and sherpa support, and I had a pretty rad time doing it, despite the crowded nature and distinctive “scene” that is present there. I’m psyched I got to do it that way and I don’t really see what the big deal is if we’re all just honest about it.
So what do I believe? I believe that Everest is far from perfect, and obviously there is a multitude of complex problems that need to be addressed and dealt with. But it’s not all bad either. I can’t express how grateful I am to have been able to experience the uniqueness of the ice fall despite all its danger, to have the memory of looking down on the Western Cwn from camp 3 on the Lhotse Face as the sun set, to climb with the same Sherpa who I taught how to rockclimb at the KCC the year before and marvel at their speed and strength on the mountain at such high altitudes, and to have formed lasting bonds with my teammates. There were moments up there when I was at my very best, and moments when I acted at my very worst; but each extreme was valuable in that it felt honest, as if all the superfluous outer layers of myself had been stripped away to reveal exactly who I am.
Now Everest is a place that will always feel important to me. In all honesty though, my personal transformation didn’t have much to do with the mountain itself. I probably could have had a similar experience on a different mountain, or even an alternative activity all together, but for me it happened to be Everest. A common saying is “it wasn’t about the summit”. I think that most of the time experiencing the most meaningful moments in life isn’t rooted in the tangible acts that we engage in to find them. They’re just the vehicles we use to figure out how to experience that process of struggle and personal exploration that results in some kind of (hopefully) positive growth. It’s counterintuitive, but I think it’s why we humans explore in the first place – in order understand ourselves better.
My presentation on Monday night highlighted some of these ideas I’ve just explained. I tried to get the message across that Everest is a great and worthy challenge and it means many things to a wide variety of people. The problems there are complicated and dynamic, and I hope those of us who care enough can work together in order to protect it for the future.
National Geographic also created a book, “The Call of Everest: The History, Science, and Future of the World’s Tallest Peak” that I was honored to be a contributer in, and Mark Jenkins has written an article about last year’s expedition that will be in the next NG issue on May 15. Look out for those things if you would like to know more.