Is the Everest Allure Dead?
“Great news for aviation and the flying world— bizarre precedent for climbing” —Jack Tackleby Luke Cudney
I just logged onto the Interweb and reserved two seats on the next helicopter flight to the top of Everest. With today's busy schedules, who can be bothered with the standard month-plus walk-up affair, the inevitable altitude and food sicknesses, the pre-trip training, not to mention the risks? Besides, the whole thing is a belated birthday present to my girlfriend, who doesn't know Z-drag from Zima anyway. Once atop the summit, we'll dine at the 4-star Chez Everest and, time permitting, take in the Everest Imax film-I hear it makes you feel like you're actually out there.
Ridiculous? Absurd? In truth, this fly-in scenario is more plausible than many want to admit. On May 14 and 15, 2005, just two weeks prior to the 25th Anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's seminal first ascent, France-based Eurocopter piloted an A3 Helicopter to the summit of Everest. They performed a hover landing each day, touching down for more than two minutes to establish the world record for highest helicopter take off and landing. Albeit an obvious publicity stunt from a company intent on garnering Indian military defense contracts, the mountaineering world did not miss the dichotomous implications.
Jack Tackle, longtime pillar of alpinism and recipient of the American Alpine Club's Underhill Award, offered a pertinent summation of what I believe encompasses most climbers' uncertain thinking in response to the Eurocopter event.
"Great news for aviation and the flying world— bizarre precedent for climbing, especially on Everest and other guided 8,000m peak expeditions from the standpoint of client expectations if there's a problem...."
However, Jack understands all too well that you can't shun the technology completely. "...it's a weird thing, because I am still here in part because of a rescue on Mount Augusta three years ago, [performed] with a Black Hawk, that saved my ass. I'd be dead without that— and yet for 30 years I have professed self-rescue and self-reliance."
But this begs the question, how much technology is too much? In this era of fast-paced, techno-gadget-filled lifestyles, many turn to the mountains for the opportunity for authentic, unadulterated wilderness experience and adventure. We not only recognize the risks involved and the self-sufficiency required, but we also embrace those risks as an opportunity to free ourselves from the safe confines of our hyper-regulated world.
The irony is that ever-improving technology helps us get out there. Gore-Tex® keeps us dry and healthy through rain and snow. We hike faster and farther carrying ultralight backpacking gear. Hardly anyone would be able to summit Everest without oxygen tanks. At the same time, certain applications of technology-like a helicopter trip to Everest-threaten to violate what many consider the sanctity of the outdoors.
So what is acceptable? A massive gray-scale exists, especially for climbers, between "acceptable" application of technology and what many consider the sacrilegious imposition of technology. If one chooses to draw a line, it's usually based on personal ethics.
In this case, technology opened a window of exploration and opportunity, and now further advances could threaten to close that same window. Does this advancement in aviation create more opportunity to push the limits of high-elevation mountaineering, or does it create more risk by transporting ill-prepared charter groups to the region and by dangerously disrupting precarious environmental conditions?
I contacted Sherpa Adventure Gear Team member, Apa Sherpa, holder of the world record for the most summits of Mt Everest. This season, Apa summitted for a 15th time as a member of the Everest Climbing For a Cure Expedition (ECFACE). The ECFACE team was in Base Camp during the Eurocopter flights. Apa and ECFACE Base Camp Manager, Paula Stout, spoke of the controversy and consternation among Everest climbers regarding the claimed helicopter summits. The Nepali Ministry of Tourism never issued Eurocopter a permit to land atop Everest; furthermore, climbers weren't consulted regarding flight plans or Eurocopter's intent.
Such lack of communication could have jeopardized the safety of climbers higher on the mountain. Said Paula, "Do they care so little about climbers to allow helicopters up there?" Paula also reminded us of two previous helicopter crashes near Base Camp. "It is not an easy environment when a crash happens." The wreckage from those crashes still lays undisturbed on site. Apa interjects poignantly, "If a helicopter crashes on the summit, who can clean it up?"
Apa Sherpa expressed greatest concern regarding the noise produced by helicopters flying around the area. Statistically, the biggest threats to climbers are the highly unstable Khumbu Icefall and avalanches on the Lhotse Face; the Sherpa firmly believe that any loud noises in either area increase risk. Many feel a loud, vibrating helicopter flying overhead would heighten the danger.
Aside from potential for rescue, we must consider another use of this technology. A commercial helicopter charter to Everest could threaten a region whose major economy is tourism. By flying over instead of passing through small villages, tourism dollars and the accompanying cultural exchange between visiting climbers and the local Sherpa community could be lost-possibly devastating the Sherpas' way of life.
Ultimately, it is up to us, the climbers and adventurers, to decide the outcome of this brewing controversy. There are many more issues to consider than those raised here. Everest mountaineering culture could be at a major turning point. We, as consumers of the adventure lifestyle, hold final say of the direction taken. We execute our power through our actions and through the transmission of our dollars. Our actions have lasting effects on the planet, because the style in which we do something— from the gear we buy, to how we travel through a region— has a much longer-term effect than we may realize. Each footprint eventually creates a path; if more people choose an express ride to the summit, the path through the valley becomes overgrown and lost.