The Most Astonishing Picture I Saw Last Year

That’s not a picture of folks leaving the Green Bay Packers game this past weekend, or of my Chicago-area friends traveling to-and-from work over the past few days.

That’s the Hillary Step.

On Everest.

You heard me. Mount Everest. Highest of heights. One of the most prestigious (and simultaneously most infamous) climbing destinations in the world. And if this picture is any indication, also about as busy as downtown Lander, where I live.

The numbers connected with that image are mind-boggling:

Traffic chokes the Hillary Step on May 19, 2012. Some climbers spent as long as two hours at this 40-foot rock wall below the summit, losing body heat. Even so, 234 people reached the top on this day. Four climbers died.

Both images feature prominently in a mini-site National Geographic posted last June detailing the shocking increase in traffic on the world’s most famous peak: “Everest Maxed Out.” It’s a treasure trove of information: video diaries, Instagram photos, podcasts, historical analysis, and more. Really fascinating stuff, though none of them hit me quite as hard as that first image, which my wife showed me one night as we both sat browsing the InterWebs.

I still can’t really believe it.

It’s not that I didn’t think people were climbing Mount Everest. It’s just that I had no idea THAT MANY PEOPLE were climbing Mount Everest. I’m dumb-founded. (Of course, I’m also not very brave. Or very adventurous. These things might be connected.)

Interestingly, the accompanying feature article (from Mark Jenkins) does not suggest that the summit be closed in the name of safety (or sanity). He does think steps need to be taken to get things under control, but he’s aware of what makes Everest such a powerful draw:

Despite all the problems on the mountain, Everest still stands alone. There will always be people who want to climb the world’s tallest peak, because there’s more to being on Everest than getting hemmed in by crowds or confronted by heaps of trash. The mountain is so high and so indifferent it calls upon every climber, at one time or another, to rise to his or her better self.

There is also beauty on Everest. I’ll never forget the breathtaking view from our perch at Camp III, clouds roiling up the Western Cwm like a slow-motion reverse avalanche. Or the visceral relief of a cup of scalding soup at Camp IV. Or the crunch of my crampons in the crystalline labyrinth of the Khumbu Icefall just above Base Camp. I’ll treasure the memory of climbing with friends on the mountain. I committed my life to them, and they committed their lives to me.

Such moments are the reasons climbers keep coming back to Everest. It’s not simply about reaching the summit but about showing respect for the mountain and enjoying the journey. Now it’s up to us to restore a sense of sanity to the top of the world.

Photos courtesy of National Geographic and Subin Thakuri/Utmost Adventure Trekking (Hillary Step), Andy Bardon (Everest Face), and Kristoffer Erickson (Headlamps at Night)

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • billykangas

    Makes it seem easy… which I’m sure it’s not. but it does make ME want to try it. As an extrovert having all those people there makes it all the more appealing.

    • Joseph Susanka

      Interesting, Billy. Being “almost entirely alone at the top of the world” would have a far greater appeal to me. Different strokes…

      ,,,but I doubt there’s much time for socializing, either way.