Although that meadow high on the edge of the Kangshung glacier is doubtless still much as we left it, the Everest scene has since moved on relentlessly. As I work on this chapter (Everest spring season of 2013) reports are clogging my Facebook feed about a group of Sherpas who attacked three climbers who they believed had endangered them by crossing over the fixed line the Sherpas were placing on the Lhotse face. 

This time last year my Facebook feed was clogged with a photo being compulsively shared that showed some 150 climbers in an endless queue on the Lhotse face, climbing nose to backpack, like an endless line of processionary caterpillars.

I continue to give lectures that tell the story of the infamous 1996 season on the south side of Everest and audiences still comment on the terrible queues on the knife-edge summit ridge and the bottle-necking on the Hillary Step that popular culture now says caused the disaster on 10 May of that year. The irony is that on that day there were some thirty climbers on the ridge. On 23 May 2010, the summit of Mount Everest was reached by 169 climbers – more summits in a single day than in the first thirty years following the 1953 first ascent. 

On 25 May 1996 I became the 835th person to ever climb Everest. Now the record for the number of individual ascents in a single year is 633 in 2007.

Jon Krakauer’s book of the 1996 disaster, Into Thin Air, was probably thought of by him as a cautionary tale of the problems of commercial guiding on Everest. In fact it marked the beginning of a new era characterised by an explosion of guided expeditions and a tidal wave of popular interest.  By the end of the 2010 climbing season there had been 5,104 ascents to the summit by about 3,142 individuals, with 77% of these ascents being accomplished since 2000.  (Figures come from Eberhard Jurgalski of Right now there are 39 teams on Everest, comprising 415 non-Nepalese climbers and some 625 Sherpas and staff (according to the blog of Alan Arnette

The popular perception of the world’s highest mountain is now one of endless queues formed of wealthy but inexperienced punters being marched up the mountain by disgruntled Sherpas for the enrichment of commercial guiding companies. While it may or may not be true of the south col route during the spring season, it is an image that is profoundly unfair to the mountain as a whole.

There are currently fifteen different routes up the mountain, climbers don’t need to join the queues. New routes are still being climbed on Everest, the most recent was opened in 2009 by a Korean team. The Fantasy ridge remains unfinished and no route has yet been attempted on the wide wall of mountain between the Fantasy ridge and the American route. There is no team on the east side of Everest this year.

Challenge in its purest form remains possible on the world’s highest mountain. The Kangshung face in particular offers all the difficulty, danger and isolation that any climber could wish for. Nearly a century after George Mallory wrote of “the great Eastern Face of Mount Everest” that  “other men, less wise, might attempt this way if they would, but emphatically, it was not for us”. We still wait for men and women, perhaps better trained, perhaps less cautious, to take on the remaining challenges of the Kangshung face. 

It’s just that it won’t be me. In the decade that has passed since the Kangshung face attempt, I really have managed to hold to the promise of No More Everest. There are too many fascinating new challenges in the world, both big and small, to keep retreading the same old ground. Nevertheless, I can now look back over nearly two decades intertwined with Everest and acknowledge that the peak changed me in ways that will reverberate through the rest of my life. 

It gave me the confidence to abandon a half-hearted future in academia and embark on a riskier but far more rewarding route of being self-employed. It gave me the profile to start a wonderful career as an inspirational speaker on the international corporate speaking circuit, a journey that so far has taken to me to 43 countries on six continents, with more to come. It led to my leaving South Africa to find a wider climbing community and easier access to the mountains of the world from a base in the Pyrenees mountains in southern Europe. It led to my marriage, which was a fascinating journey, even though it eventually ended in divorce. 

It helped me understand that failure is survivable, that success is great fun and that in the end it is the many steps of the journey that really matter, what you learn in taking each one of them and where they lead you to. Each summit reached simply opens up a new view of further mountains to explore. The journey goes on for a lifetime. 

Nevertheless, the gifts gained and knowledge earned from the slopes of Mount Everest mean that I will always have a soft spot for the world’s highest mountain. 

La Massana, April 2013


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