82. High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed - Michael Kodas

Monday, October 06, 2008
The world's tallest mountain has long held a fascination for thrill seekers. However, unlike the earliest attempts by the likes of George Mallory and Edmund Hillary, Everest has lost much of it's romantic allure for many climbers. If you think everyone goes to Everest to climb, think again. Today, the achievement of reaching the summit is secondary to many. For a large number of folks who journey to the top of the world, the lure is money, fame and personal gain.

Michael Kodas, a journalist, visited Mount Everest in 2004 along his wife (a fellow journalist) and a number of other climbers hoping to reach the top and to report on their journey for his newspaper. The story that emerged however was not one of personal achievement. What he came away with was a tale of stolen equipment, extortion, death threats, inexperienced guides, and a dark side to Everest that the public rarely hears of. If it was merely his word, you might think that it was not a real life situation but rather the plotline of the latest thriller. Unfortunately it happens more often than one would think (or hope).

High Crimes gives the reader a close up look at the dark side of the world's most famous mountain as it chronicles Kodas and his team's preparations for their Everest expedition and its complete disintegration which began the moment they set foot in the Himalayas. The biggest of their problems was not the lack of oygen or the weather which can turn in a matter of minutes. For Kodas and his team, the biggest obstacle for a successful climb was their guide, George Dijmarescu. Saddled with extreme mood swings, a thirst for fame and fortune, and a lack of interest in the success, or the safety, of the people he was supposed to be guiding, it's not surprising that many of the expedition's members didn't reach the top or turned back for base camp before getting into serious trouble. Kodas and another team member at one point compared their time on Everest to a bizarre version of Survivor. As things continued to avalanche....Lord of the Flies. Kodas's team was fortunate that their guide's actions didn't result in the death of one of their members. Not everyone on Everest that year though was as lucky.

Kodas also lays out the tragic story of Dr. Nils Antezana, a 69 year old climber who was left to die on the other side of the mountain at the same time as Kodas's team was trying to keep themselves together long enough to make a summit attempt. The two men had never met but the similarities between the two expeditions was eerily similar, right down to their inexperienced, selfish guide who cared nothing for his client other than the money which would help him get to the top himself. Both Kodas's and Antezana's guides lied about their credentials, their climbing experience and their pasts. Kodas came home in one piece; Antezana did not.

While reading about the two expeditions, Kodas also gives the reader a glimpse at how the atmosphere on the mountain has changed (and I don't mean the air quality). Prostitution, extortion, theft, physical violence and a lack of concern for fellow climbers are the norm these days. Life saving food, stove fuel and oxygen tanks routinely "go missing", forcing many climbers to go without, to pay exorbitant prices to replace them (if even possible) or, more likely, to head back down the mountain and abandon their dreams of summiting. The world's tallest mountain is also the world's least regulated. Just about anyone can climb the mountain or more appropriately buy a permit to climb. There is no security unless you bring your own and there is essentially no law other than "anything goes".

Throughout the book (and central to both Kodas's and Antezana's stories), the reader is presented with one of the worst aspects of mountain climbing, not necessarily specific to Everest but certainly the place that gets the most press: the abandonment of climbers to weak/tired/injured to carry on under their own steam.

Sir Edmund Hillary summed it up best when he said "'I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mt. Everest has become rather horrifying...People just want to get to the top. They don't give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress, and it doesn't impress me at aall that they leave someone lying under a rock to die'" (p. 6).

While there are certainly examples of folks who have given up their own dreams to stop and aid a fellow climber (including the rescue of Lincoln Hall), it's far from being the norm. Having travelled so far, spending enormous sums of money, and presumably months of training, it's difficult for many to give it all up; especially for someone they don't know who might be just taking a much needed break. The number of people required to mount a successful rescue is often 10 - 15 people per climber in order to be able to safely carry the injured/incapacitated climber down the mountain, across crevasses, etc. Most of the climbers in the lower camps are already weak or recovering from their own summit attempts and unable (or unwilling) to help. And then there's the issue of oxygen. Due to theft and malfunctioning equipment, many teams have barely enough oxygen for themselves with little or none to spare. Oxygen is the most important commodity on the mountain and is quite literally the difference between living and dying.

High Crimes is an intriguing look at the dark side of a sport many of us don't see and I highly recommend it. My only complaint is the back and forth narrative, switching between the two stories which are each peppered with numerous flashbacks and background information. At times I found it difficult to remember where I was in the timeline, and which story as the two have a number of overlapping characters. However, once you get used to the style, it was great to be able to compare what was happening on both sides of the mountain at the same time. Get your hands on a copy and read it today!


Red said...

Hmm... sounds intriguing.

I might give it a go as soon as I finish Stasiland, which is a fascinating look at life in Eastern Germany during the Wall years. Highly recommended, by the way... if you are looking for another title.

Untreatableonline said...

The best book I have read about Mount Everest is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. This book created quite the controversy when it came out. In the book the author talks about how Everest is becoming too easy with guides basically dragging clients up the mountain for a rich fee

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