The sad news from Manaslu yesterday has dredged up a slew of articles from the mainstream media who seem to only cover mountaineering when a tragic event like this occurs. Of course, when you have an accident like this one in which numerous people die, it is going to make the news across the globe. Those articles don’t bother me much as we’re all still trying to sort through what exactly happened. The stories that do cause me to shake my head however, are commentary pieces that remind us how dangerous climbing is and paint a distorted image of mountaineering amongst the general public who have little understanding of the sport, or the men and women who pursue it.
Take this story from CNN for example. It seems to have been written simply to beat the “Everest is too crowded” drum one more time. The article essentially begins by saying that overcrowding on Manaslu helped to exasperate the tragedy there, despite the fact that the vast majority of teams weren’t in Camp 3 when the avalanche occurred. The writer than uses some quotes from Outside’s Grayson Schaffer to back up her perspective, although she does follow up by saying that the former head of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Ang Tscherting Sherpa, claims that the avalanche was not in any way related to the number of people on the mountain. With those opening paragraphs out of the way, we launch into a report on the deadly spring season on Everest during which ten people died earlier this year. Never mind that those deaths have nothing in common with the events on Manaslu, other than the fact that they both took place on Himalayan peaks.
First, lets address overcrowding on Manaslu. Yes, it is a busy season on the mountain, which is the eight tallest in the world. That is due in part to the fact that the borders of Tibet remain closed, forcing teams that had planned on scaling Cho Oyu or Shisha Pangma to relocate elsewhere. Many chose Manaslu because it is similar in difficulty level and located completely within Nepal, making it logistically easier to pull-off. By most accounts, as many as 231 climbers were on the mountain this fall, which is more than usual but hardly makes it overcrowded.
But even if there were twice as many people on Manaslu it would still have absolutely no connection to a freak avalanche destroying Camp 3 and killing numerous people there. You simply can’t predict with any level of accuracy when an avalanche like this one will occur and every one of those climbers knew that before they ever started. You could make a case that the death toll could have been much higher had more people been in C3 at the time, and thankfully that wasn’t the case either. From everything I can tell, there was not an unusually high number of people at 7000 meters when the accident occurred.
Which leads us to the author bringing up Everest again for whatever reason. Any mention of Everest can make an article link-bait, which is to say draw in readers simply by the subject matter, but as I mentioned above, the deaths on the world’s tallest mountain this past spring are not related in any way to those that occurred on Manaslu yesterday. Furthermore, many people in the mainstream press simply latch on to that death tool number and run with it, decrying the dangerous nature of mountaineering without really understanding what they are talking about. Yes, ten people lost their lives on Everest this year and those deaths are always tragic. But nearly 500 people successfully reached the summit as well. That means that less than 2% of climbers on Everest died. That’s a pretty high success rate actually.
Is overcrowding a problem on Everest? Yes, it is an issue. But more so from an environmental standpoint than anything else. The various camps used on the climb, particularly Base Camp, can become polluted and littered with waste due to the large number of climbers staying there each season. But fortunately there are now rules in place that require the teams to clean up after themselves and pack out everything they bring with them. That will hopefully alleviate those issues in the years to come, making the mountain a cleaner place in general.
We’ve all seen the photos of the massive traffic jams that take place on Everest when summit day approaches and those traffic jams certainly hinder the experience. The route up Everest can indeed become a packed highway running to the top, particularly along the South Col route on the Nepal side of the mountain. Those high numbers of people do potentially lend themselves to disaster, but so far there are few incidences in which the large number of people have directly resulted in deaths. Bad decisions by the climbers and guides, or climbers that just plain shouldn’t be there in the first place, make for far more dangerous situations in my opinion.
Move away from Everest and overcrowding on Himalayan peaks is hardly an issue at all. It is mainly due to the fact that a lot of people want to add the world’s tallest mountain to their resume which draws them there, even if they lack experience. They’ll keep coming as long as the mountain is there or until someone imposes some restrictions on how many can climb in a given year. Considering the importance of the peak to the economies of Tibet and Nepal, that hardly seems likely to happen.
It also isn’t all that likely that the mainstream press will ever stop sounding the alarm bells over climbing in the Himalaya, or just about anywhere else for that matter. It draws in readers and viewers and gets the public talking. They aren’t likely to ever understand why climbers do the things they do, or why they are drawn to the high places of the Earth, despite knowing that there are risks to going there.
When these accidents occur they remind us that life is fragile and that it can be snuffed out in the blink of an eye. But they also remind us that those who have lost their lives were doing so in the pursuit of the things they love most and in the environments that they cherish. That says a lot about who they are and why they were there in the first place.
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