Mountaineering is supposed to provide the experience of a lifetime, a noble exercise alone or with a guide and a few climbing partners in a sort of perfect harmony with nature. The beauty of the mountain, the silence of high altitude and the sounds of the glaciers filled with life are all what mountain climbers dream of when they choose a specific peak to ascend. One would therefore imagine that going all the way to Nepal or Tibet to climb the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest, would provide such an experience. Unfortunately, this is not so. We have all seen the pictures of climbers having to wait at 28,000 feet in a human traffic jam, a sort of conga line meandering through vertiginous terrain especially near the summit on the final crest before the Hillary Step. A far cry from the solitude of mountain climbing! Yet every year more and more people attempt to summit this mystical and revered mountain culminating in record crowds during the 2019 season…that is until the coronavirus struck!
This year indeed looks very different. Mt. Everest has been closed to climbers due to the global pandemic. In China, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA), which is the organization responsible for issuing climbing and travel permits across the Tibetan Plateau announced that there would be no one allowed to climb Mt. Everest from the north side of the mountain. Nepal followed suit and also decided to cancel any and all spring climbing expeditions.
While it is understandable that many of the would-be Everest climbers were disappointed by such decisions, one cannot help but wonder whether joining one of the many expeditions to summit Everest is even worth it. Can it still truly be called “mountaineering” or has this exercise become a circus that defies comprehension and ridicules the very notion of “mountaineering”? There is no question that strength and endurance are still required if one is to summit the 29,000 -foot mountain but given the massive amount of people that typically on any given year flocks to the area transforming the peaceful and tranquil mountain into a small city equipped with kitchens, bathrooms, internet connectivity and massive amounts of trash staining this incredible site, it begs the question whether such an adventure is desirable; not the nature and wilderness excursion anyone had in mind. Better off choosing an unknown destination in the middle of Siberia!
One thing is certain; this year was different from all other years because for the first time –probably- since Hillary and Norgay first summited Mt Everest, the three Chinese expeditions that made it to the roof of the world had the place entirely to themselves! No lines or queuing required! In fact, only 49 people reached the summit this year as compared to almost 900 one year ago. Perhaps the coronavirus crisis is telling the world something about humanity’s relationship with nature. Mt. Everest may simply be the “canary in the mine” in reflecting man’s desires to accomplish things simply because they can, a sort of trophy hunt. In that sense, what happened this year on the slopes of Mt. Everest may be emblematic of changes that are clearly necessary to preserve our planet; from reducing carbon foot print and air pollution to respecting mountains and the wild. In that sense, COVID-19 may have been a necessary evil that forced a reset of our priorities.