The Everest Circus

Anyone with even a vague interest in the media would have noticed that our very own Sir Ranulph Fiennes climbed Everest in May, finally, after three attempts in four years. This news is just the tip of the Everest Circus iceberg. I heard about Ran’s achievement on May 20th on the early BBC TV news (he didn’t make it on Channel 4). Background video of him huffing and puffing through the icefall with a journalist, who was puffing even harder, was interlaced with still images from the summit. The footage was accompanied by Ran’s taped crackly voice that was beamed from the top a few hours earlier in the freezing dawn of the Himalaya. Moving stuff.

My eyes welled up as Fiennes’ story was recounted. I have a good idea what he’s experienced, and suffered, in his persistence to add Everest to a long list of fantastic achievements. I reached the summit from the Tibetan north ridge route in 2004 and earn part of my living telling the story of that climb to varied audiences. I still get very emotional when I relive the pain of the eight week experience – and it’s mostly pain – and the single day of absolute pure joy of summit day. Video clips from the summit and back at camp one help me vividly recall and convey this experience. But I don’t really need these visual prompts because the experience is so deeply engrained in my psyche, even though the details are incomplete due to the hypoxic haze I was in most of the time, with a blood oxygen saturation level of just 64% (close to 100% at sea level is normal).

Five years on I still haven’t figured out what triggers this emotional meltdown. Maybe it has something to do with beating the odds against succeeding when most thought I would drop out having failed to acclimatise. Maybe deep down I’m thinking “I’ve done it. What’s left to do in life on such a scale?” Had this experience taken me to the edge of my psychological envelope? So many maybes. Everest was a high school ambition and I have never come so close to failing to achieve something that I so desperately wanted to.

In the days that followed Fiennes’ ascent there were many more due to kind weather and ever increasingly sophisticated logistics and equipment. One web report stated there were 500 people on the Nepalese side of the mountain poised to ascend. Correspondingly, the number of blogs of climbers on Everest now is mind boggling. Go to Russell Brice’s site and the team list. Most of his climbers have blogs. They are plainly eager to make their hopes, dreams and fears – and perhaps successes – accessible to the outside world. Yet few of them are really effective in conveying what it’s all about. I understand that now.

During Fiennes’s summit week it was reported that Sherpa Apa climbed Everest for the 19th time, 200 had summited already and three people died, including sadly a Chamonix friend, German Frank Ziebarth, who reached the top from Tibet without oxygen and sat down and died on the descent. These numbers sound plausible but I know not to believe everything I read on the net about Everest, especially on personal blogs. One news website describes this traffic as a “tsunami” though surely an avalanche would have been a better metaphor? Do we read into this that Everest is now easy? If the number of people doing Ironman triathlons trebled would that automatically make this punishing event any easier?

For me Everest was hard. Very, very hard. It still is for those that try. Just because people are queuing 10 or 20 deep to climb the Hillary Step on summit day doesn’t make it any easier. Remember, it took Fiennes three goes. 

Discovery Channel, Imax and other media have glorified and ‘gory’-fide Everest and brought it into people’s homes. But all the huffing and puffing cannot easily convey the allure of mountain climbing and the magnetism of Everest in particular. With like-minded climbers I don’t need to explain the emotional legacy of my Everest experience, even if I could articulate it. Perhaps it’s the sheer depth and scale of adventures like Everest that must remain the domain of great poets to analyse. I accept this because I won’t be going back to Everest to figure it out. Mark Twain said “I did it, partly because I enjoyed it but mostly because I will never have to do it again”.

Rest in peace Frank.

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