The Call of the Void
George Everest didn’t want the mountain to be named after him. He was given the honour to mark his work as surveyor-general in colonial India but, as he pointed out, he had never laid eyes on the mountain, Indians struggled to pronounce his name, and it could not be easily transliterated into Devanagari. Had anyone bothered to ask around, they’d have found two names for the mountain already in use: Chomolungma (‘Holy Mother’) in Tibetan and Sagarmāthā (‘the Head in the Great Blue Sky’) in Nepali. If they really wanted to rename it after someone, what about the Bengali mathematician who calculated its height, Radhanath Sikdar? If you’re a great white man you risk having your name slapped on a great white mountain even when you’ve never seen it, someone else did the work, and it already has a name (or two). The punch line is that everyone now bungles his name; he pronounced it ‘Eve-rest’.
George Mallory, who was part of the first British reconnaissance expedition to Everest a hundred years ago, and disappeared on its north-east ridge three years later, famously said he wanted to climb it ‘because it’s there.’ I want to climb it because I know I shouldn’t. It’s something like ‘l’appel du vide’ – a fear not of heights, but of jumping. I worry that one day I’ll give in to this anxious romance. That I would die doing so I take as a given. Thankfully it’s prohibitively expensive.
It costs upward of £50,000 to try to reach the summit of Everest, and the mortality rate is about the same as for Covid-19: around 1 per cent. Two hundred desiccated corpses stipple the slopes, serving as way-markers and warnings. Many were victims of the thin air. Low oxygen levels in the bloodstream cause cells to leak fluid into the lungs and brain. What starts as ‘Khumbu cough’, with its pink, foamy sputum and rib-breaking convulsions, can progress to a drowning sensation and eventual death. Fluid on the brain impairs decision-making in a place where a wrong step can mean falling hundreds of metres to your death. Retinal haemorrhage can strike without warning, causing instant blindness, which can mean being left to die.
Regardless of its dubious etymology, ‘Everest’ – a hyperbolic adverb raised to the superlative degree – is a fitting appellation for an extreme, lawless world in which ordinary moral conduct is suspended. Above eight thousand metres, acclimatisation is impossible. (The highest human settlements are at five thousand metres.) Everest stands at 8849 metres, which means climbers are effectively dying in a queue and must get to the summit and back before they succumb. If the person ahead of you keels over or goes blind, it isn’t unusual to step over them and carry on. Should someone else’s oxygen canister jam or explode, you wouldn’t be the only one keeping quiet about your spare. Climbers pause for a rest beside the body of ‘Green Boots’, thought to be Tsewang Paljor, who died in a blizzard in 1996. All this is normal on the ‘roof of the world’.
Edmund Hillary warned against the commercialisation of Everest: ‘The people just want to get to the top. They don't give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress … On my expedition there was no way you would have left a man under a rock to die.’ The data confirm his suspicion: those on commercial trips are twice as likely to carry on after the death of a team member as those who are part of non-commercial expeditions.
Bottled oxygen helps with the breathlessness, though its use has long been controversial. It may increase accidents and fatalities by offering a false sense of security to inexperienced or insufficiently acclimatised hopefuls. It costs around £300 a can, and most climbers need seven of them to get up and down. Given the cost and scarcity, oxygen theft is a growing problem in climbers’ camps. Used canisters are also a major contributor to the waste crisis on the mountain, along with the twelve thousand kilos of human shit that accumulates every year.
May is the most popular month to aim for the summit because there’s a narrow window of good weather before the summer monsoon blows in off the Bay of Bengal. This year the risks are greater; the pandemic has reached Everest. Spotting the signs early is tricky because acute mountain sickness presents almost identically to Covid-19. Fatigue and shortness of breath are to be expected. Blood oxygen saturation dwindles, and dry, low-pressure air causes coughing. Altitude also dulls your senses of taste and smell. There seem to be have been around thirty cases so far at base camp, but the Nepali government has kept the mountain open and issued a record number of climbing permits to make up for the closure last year.
Nepal is now reporting around nine thousand new cases of Covid-19 a day, and only 7 per cent of the population has received a vaccine dose. The health system is weak, with just 0.7 doctors to every thousand people (in India the number is 0.9), and only six hundred ventilators. (Like India, Nepal has a brain drain of health workers to the UK, which has 2.8 doctors per 1000 people. It’s one of Britain’s great neocolonial extractions.) As a mountainous, landlocked country, it relies on imports through India for its medical supplies, but India has now halted vaccination and oxygen exports in an attempt to stem its own crisis. Aid is being airlifted in from China.
An oxygen crisis is unfolding. While mountaineers who’ve paid their way to recreational breathlessness are up in the clouds chugging on oxygen canisters, tended to by Sherpa guides who can’t afford to stop working, people are fighting for their lives down at ground level. This is more than just symbolism; 3500 bottles of oxygen are on the mountain right now, and Nepal’s hospitals are 25,000 cylinders short. The Nepal Mountaineering Association is urging climbers to bring empty vessels down with them so they can be refilled and used for Covid-19 patients.