Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Tourist Trap

Hurry up and wait.  On May 22, 2019, dozens of people endure the hours-long line to reach the summit of Mount Everest.  Up here, in the so-called Death Zone, climbers are confronted by temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero, high winds, and dangerously low levels of oxygen. 

If you're like Thee Optimist, you do not enjoy waiting in line.  

You may have even found yourself enduring a particularly long line at the grocery store (or wherever), and said something along the lines of:

"If I have to wait here much longer, I'm going to die."

But you probably didn't really mean it.  

Welcome to Mount Everest 2019, whereas of this writing, at least 11 people have died in the past 10 days.  Most of these folks expired while waiting in the logjam to reach the summit, or while waiting to climb down from there.

This is because the place where they are stuck waiting is the so-called Death Zone, near the very top of the mountain.


Dancing with Mr. D.

Just Dying to Get Up There

Mount Everest is the world's tallest mountain.  The summit is a little bit over 29,000 feet above sea level.  

Above 26,000 feet the "Death Zone" begins, which is where the bulk of non-avalanche-related fatalities occur.  The Death Zone is a happy place, where any little thing going wrong can kill you very quickly.

It's cold up there, for one thing, often as cold as 50 degrees below zero.  Skin exposed to temperatures that low will become frostbitten in a few minutes or less.  

Many climbers who successfully climb Everest, and survive the climb down, still come back having lost fingers, toes, and in some cases, noses.  


Beck Weathers lost his nose and both his hands on Everest in 1996.  Here, his badly frostbitten, blackened nose is still hanging in there.  But not for much longer.

It's also windy at the top.  This makes the cold worse, of course.  But it also exacerbates the little problem of how steep the mountain is.  One wrong step can be your last.  And high winds have blown people to their deaths.

Finally, and worst of all, the oxygen available in the Death Zone is about one-third of that available at sea level.  Low oxygen will make you light-headed, exhausted, confused, and then dead, often in just a few moments.  

All of these reasons are why, back before Everest became such a popular holiday destination, people used to schedule their climbs to minimize the amount of time they spent in the Death Zone.

This is also why the vast majority of climbers breathe bottled oxygen on their way to the summit.

The problem?  You, or more likely, your Sherpa porter, can only carry so much on your way to the top of Mount Everest.  And if you run out of oxygen, for example because you got trapped in a bottleneck of your fellow climbers near the top...

Well, then you're in trouble.


Donald Lynn Cash, 55, of Utah.  On May 22, 2019, Cash got stuck in the traffic jam depicted in the photo at the top of this blog post.  He reached the summit, hours later than anticipated, then died a few minutes later.  Sherpas tried to give him more oxygen, but they couldn't revive him.
Littered With Corpses

Mount Everest is famously littered with the bodies of people who died trying to climb it.  At least 300 people have expired on Everest, and at least 150 of those people are still sprawled right where they dropped.  

This is because dead bodies decay very slowly on Everest.  They are effectively frozen.  

And no one brings the bodies down because they are too heavy.  Ever tried to carry the body of a dead person here at sea level?  For example, from your apartment out to the garbage dumpster down the...

Never mind.

High on the mountain, with the lack of oxygen working against you, dead bodies are almost impossible to carry.  Some wealthy people hire teams of Sherpas to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones from Everest, but the work is dangerous and there's no guarantee of success.

So most of the time, the bodies are just left there.

One person who just climbed Everest last week, Ed Dohring of Arizona, says there is now a woman lying dead right at the top.  You have to step over her to get to the flat place where you can take your Everest summit selfie.


"Don't you recognize me?"  Selfie atop Mount Everest.

Ah.  And that's the whole point of this exercise, isn't it?  At one time, climbing Mount Everest was something for mountaineers with immense amounts of experience and know how, to attempt.  

It was an unlocking of human potential, whether or not it was ill-advised.  

But whatever Everest once was, it has become a way for people with an extra $50,000 or $70,000 burning a hole in their pocket to grab the ultimate selfie. 

Professional guides drag you up there.  Sherpas carry your stuff for you, and administer first aid if you get injured or become sick.  All you gotta do is not die on them.  Which, admittedly, is easier said than done.  

And standing around in the Death Zone for hours on end makes it even harder than it used to be. 

All of this reminds me of something Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees, once told a reporter.  The man asked him why he no longer went to Rigazzi's, a popular restaurant in St. Louis, the city of his birth.  

"Nobody goes there anymore," Berra said.  "It's too crowded." 


The dead climber known as "Green Boots."  Green Boots is thought to be Tsewang Paljor, a 28-year-old border policeman from India who died on Everest during the famous "Into Thin Air" blizzard of 1996.  As of 2017, he is still right where he dropped, though a climbing team covered him with stones in 2014. 

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