MAY 13, 1997
News has been trickling out of the base camps on Mount Everest that between five and seven climbers were killed over the weekend. Last year, a similar disaster left eight climbers dead. Two experienced climbers discuss the danger and the draw of Mount Everest.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The body of a Russian mountaineer was found near the top of Mt. Everest today, and an unknown number of other climbers are missing and presumed dead. One report puts the total at seven. None are thought to be American.
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NOVA's Lost on Everest
This was the prize they were seeking, the 29,028 foot summit of Mt. Everest. Scores of people have died trying to get to the top of Everest, and yet it continues to tempt those climbers willing to risk everything. Tibetans call the Mountain Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the World, giver and taker of life.
Last year it took 12 lives. In May last year, two groups of climbers started out in good weather like this and reached the summit at about 2pm. They were led by two of the world's best-known mountaineers, Scott Fischer of Seattle and New Zealand's Rob Hall. With them were some amateur climbers, paying up to $65,000 for the ascent. After they'd summited, a storm hit with hurricane-force winds and driving, blinding snow. Eight died that day and night, including both Fischer and Hall. It was the worst single loss of life that's ever occurred on the mountain.
A similar blizzard with winds up to 125 miles an hour caught the climbers on Everest this past weekend. Nepal's tourist ministry says eight teams are still on the mountain, waiting out the storm in base camps.
Now, here to talk with us about Mt. Everest and its perils are Ed Webster, who has participated in three expeditions on the mountain, and who came within three hundred feet of reaching the summit in 1988, and Galen Rowell, photojournalist and writer, who led an American expedition trying to scale the west ridge of Everest in 1983.
Mr. Rowell, what happens in these terrible storms? How do people die?
GALEN ROWELL, Mountain Climber, Photojournalist: (Berkeley, CA) I think that they die not only from cold and exposure but from lack of judgment. The description that the very first British climbers gave in the 20's of how they felt up there--like sick men walking in a dream--hasn't been better yet. You just have this feeling that everything's a little hazy but you're doing fine and actually your judgment is severely impaired.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why? Because of the oxygen depravation?
GALEN ROWELL: Because you're suffering from hypoxia, a lack of oxygen, and your brain just doesn't function as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you just make mistakes and this terrible storm hits and you don't do what you should do?
GALEN ROWELL: You make mistakes, and you're not really aware that you're making them. And that's one reason that we can't apply living room logic to the behavior of some people apart? You can't sort of go back and say, well, if I would have done such and such because you probably wouldn't have.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Webster, you having had three expeditions--you almost made it to the top--what was it like? What was it like when you were very high?
ED WEBSTER, Mountain Climber: (Denver) It was like walking on the moon. That's my biggest recollection. You felt completely divorced from the rest of civilization. You were completely on your own, completely self-reliant, but you are witnessing some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and that's why people go there repeatedly.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Describe it.
ED WEBSTER: There's a purity of nature and of the mountains that you experience in the Himalaya that is beyond comparison. It's just something that I had dreamt about doing since I was a young boy and something I knew I wanted to take that risk and get up to those extreme altitudes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were you caught in storms like the ones that killed the climbers last year and that apparently has killed people over the last few days?
ED WEBSTER: No, we were very lucky we weren't. If we had been caught in a similar storm to the storm that trapped these most recent climbers, I think that we would have also perished, but we were very fortunate that the weather stayed good, and we were able to slowly make our descent off the mountain.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Galen Rowell, some of it is luck, isn't it? I mean, you can have very able people caught in a storm and they die, even though they knew all the risks and were well prepared?
GALEN ROWELL: That's certainly true, but fitness and experience sort of help you against luck. It's just as chance favors the prepared mind, those things give you the edge, and they allow you to get out of harm's way more--more efficiently because you've been there before, you've anticipated something, and you're able to know better.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Eb Webster, you lost eight fingertips and three toes from frostbite on that 1988 trip, and I have to ask you: With these kinds of dangers and the risks, why do you do it? What motivates you? I know part of it was the--the beauty that you were seeking and the fact that you wanted to see all that. What else motivates you?
ED WEBSTER: I've been a mountaineer all my life, so it actually seemed very natural to go to Mt. Everest. It was something I had dreamt about, again, since I was quite young, and I just--I wanted to know what it was like to be on the world's highest mountain and to tread those extreme heights. It's a difficult thing to convey to non-climbers, but it's just something that's an extraordinary feeling personally. You get such an incredible reward personally out of being at those high altitudes that it's worth taking that risk.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why didn't you make it those last 300 feet? What happened?
ED WEBSTER: We were doing our climb without bottled oxygen. Most climbers use bottled oxygen. Ninety percent of the climbers that do--that climb Everest these days use bottled oxygen. And in our case we were not using bottled oxygen. I made it to about 28,750 feet just with my own lung power, and I began to hallucinate and also I passed out twice, and it was after that that I decided it was time to head down; that it was too dangerous to continue. And I definitely made the right decision.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why had you decided to try to do it without oxygen?
ED WEBSTER: We decided to do it without oxygen for esthetic reasons and also for practical reasons. Oxygen bottles weigh roughly fifteen to twenty pounds. They're very heavy to carry, and we'd made our ascent with only four people, without the usual Sherpa climbers to assist us, so we had to cut down on weight somewhere, and we decided to try it in this very pure, lightweight style.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Galen Rowell, what motivates you to take these terrible risks?
GALEN ROWELL: Beauty certainly is a great part and just the feeling of being able to move through the wilderness in extreme conditions under your own power, and that's one reason that after being on Everest twice and not going to the summit I kind of decided I didn't want to climb Everest anymore, and I felt that I could have experiences that were more valid for me personally on lower mountains, mountains that might be technically harder but not up there in that thin air where you'd have to carry oxygen.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are too many people going now, Mr. Rowell? There have been a series of critiques over the last year that actually what happened last year, the guides that died were killed because they were taking amateurs, and they had to protect them?
GALEN ROWELL: Well, there's some truth in that. I don't think too many people are going. I think that the lure of Everest is stronger than ever and that some books that have been written about it by people were guided have made a lot of people think, hey, I can do that too; and if I save up the money, I can hire a guide and go to the top of Everest. And on a good day, they can do it, and they can get back safely. On a bad day they may die and their guide, who is brought down to their common denominator, may die too.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Webster, do you agree with that?
ED WEBSTER: Yes, I do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It does cost, what, $65,000 to do it, right, so not everybody can do it?
ED WEBSTER: Yes. It's roughly $65,000 a client is the going rate these days.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think it's a mistake that amateurs are being allowed to go, people that aren't really up to the task?
ED WEBSTER: I would differ in saying that I don't think you can characterize these clients as being amateurs. They may not have the same experience, obviously, as their guides, but they are groomed carefully before they're accepted onto an Everest expedition. In general, this is so. In general, the guiding industry has a lot of integrity into who it will allow onto a team and allow certainly to try the summit. You do have to prove yourself to be capable.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So is there any problem, in your view, with the number of people that are going now?
ED WEBSTER: Yes. I think that there are too many people. I was--read recently that there are up to 500 people at Everest base camp. When I was there 11 years ago there were about 80. So the numbers have multiplied dramatically, and I do think it would be a good idea to limit the access to the mountain, not let quite so many people go to base camp and try the climb.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And how about you, Mr. Rowell, do you have any solution for this problem? What do you think should be done?
GALEN ROWELL: No. I would agree with Ed, but I would hope that the solution can come from the climbers, themselves, and climbers have been amateurs pretty much all along. The professional thing of guiding, especially for Americans, is relatively new, especially in the Himalayas. Exactly 20 years ago this month I led the first commercial expedition to a 7,000 meter peak, to a peak that high in the world, and the idea of climbing Everest as a guided descent never entered our minds. It was just too far out there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It was too difficult, you mean, and it wasn't the kind of thing you'd want to take anybody on that wasn't as--as seasoned as you?
GALEN ROWELL: Exactly.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us.