Krakauer notes that Everest has always been a haven for “kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality.” In 1947, for instance, a Canadian engineer enlisted the help of two Sherpas, Ang Dawa and Tenzing Norgay, to climb Everest. Norgay, who would ultimately become the first person to climb Everest (along with Edmund Hillary), was only a teenager at the time, but already an experienced mountaineer. Norgay, Dawa, and the engineer climbed 22,000 feet before turning back. Other would-be visionaries tried to climb Everest in the 1930s and 40s, and some died in the attempt. Recently, plenty of “kooks” have climbed Everest, all of whom have had tens of thousands of dollars to spend.
By now, it’s pretty clear that you have to be at least a little crazy to climb Mount Everest. The mortality rate for climbers is so high that successful climbers must be willing to take major risks and sometimes endanger their own lives. While Krakauer argues that the monetization of Everest climbing has created some serious problems, he also makes it clear that Everest climbing has always been dangerous—the challenges of climbing have always been a part of the appeal.
At Camp One, Krakauer meets some members of Scott Fischer’s team, including Klev Schoening, a former Olympic skier, and his uncle, Pete Schoening, the first person to climb Hidden Peak, a famous mountain in Pakistan. Pete joined Fischer’s team, not because he needed a guide, but because he didn’t want to have to wait years for his permit to come through. Nobody on Hall’s team has remotely the same mountaineering abilities as Pete Schoening. Still, the team is fairly competent compared with other teams at Base Camp.
It’s a mark of the increased commercialization of Everest that even the great Pete Schoening, one of the most famous modern mountaineers, has to work through a guided expedition instead of climbing Everest solo. Guided expeditions have become considerably more convenient than solo climbing, because there’s much less bureaucracy involved for the client.
One of the least competent teams on the mountain is the Taiwanese team. A few months before, the Taiwanese team tried to climb Mount McKinley in preparation for Everest. However, half the team had to be rescued by the National Park Service due to a storm, and one of the climbers died. The leader of the Taiwanese team, a man named Makalu Gau, made it to the summit, and when he was climbing down, he cried, “Victory!”, seemingly ignoring the death of his teammate. Many of the other teams fear that the Taiwanese will suffer another disaster, which would require the other teams to save their lives.
Echoing the overall theme of the chapter, Krakauer characterizes Makalu Gau as a somewhat intimidating, even mentally unstable mountain climber. He seems so single-minded in his pursuit of success on Mount McKinley that he ignores the tragedy affecting his team. And yet on the current expedition to Everest, it is Hall’s team, not Gau’s, that suffers a fatal disaster.
There are several other underqualified teams at Base Camp, including a team of South Africans—the first people from their country to be granted permission to climb Everest. The leader of the South African team, Ian Woodall, had assembled three lead climbers: Andy de Klerk, Andy Hackland, and Edmund February. Edmund February, a half-African man who was named after Edmund Hillary, was thrilled at the chance to climb Everest. Leading up to the climb, however, several of the other members of the South African team, including February, resigned out of disgust with Woodall, who is, by many accounts, “a complete asshole.” Woodall claimed to be an experienced climber, despite the fact that he was involved in only two Himalayan expeditions, and both failed. He also liked to tell stories about his military service, despite the fact that he only served as a pay clerk. February told reporters that Woodall had ruined the South African expedition, using the “dreams of an entire nation” for his own “selfish purposes.”
As we’ve seen in the previous chapter, mountaineering is often tied up in nationalism and patriotism—thus, in the 1950s, Sir Edmund Hillary became a poster-child for the entire British Commonwealth. Similarly, the South African expedition to the summit of Everest is billed as a great moment for the country of South Africa itself. However, Ian Woodall has seemingly poisoned the expedition by manipulating his teammates and using the mission as a self-promotion vehicle. Woodall (not unlike Hall and Fischer) has a flare for self-promotion, but he is far less honest in his publicity maneuvers than the other guides; he lies about his military records and his mountaineering achievements.
After the resignation of Edmund February, Ian Woodall had to reconfigure the team. Previously, he’d recruited a backup climber, a black woman named Deshun Deysel, who had almost no climbing experience. After the first “wave” of resignations, Woodall claimed that he was considering giving Deysel an opportunity to climb all the way to the summit. He claimed that, by the time the team reached Base Camp, he’d make a decision about whether or not Deysel would climb to the summit. However, it was leaked that Woodall hadn’t even arranged a climbing permit for Deysel, meaning that Woodall never had any intention of bringing Deysel to the summit. Some journalists suggested that Deysel’s only purpose for Woodall was to serve as a “token black woman,” even though she wouldn’t be allowed to climb to the summit. As his popularity plummeted, Woodall prevented his teammates from listening to reports of his own corruption. He even tried to stop an English journalist from receiving help at a South African base camp, even though the journalist was cold and exhausted.
Woodall cruelly allows Deshun Deysel to believe that she has a chance of ascending to the summit of Mount Everest, when, in fact, Woodall has no intention of bringing her, and never did. However, the fact that Woodall would include a “token” black climber reinforces the nationalistic nature of the South African expedition, and of professional mountain climbing in general. After the end of the apartheid system in South Africa in the mid-1990s, the South African government, led by President Nelson Mandela, wanted to assemble a diverse, multicultural team that attested to the diversity and equality of South African society in general. While Woodall took some measures to make his climbing team racially diverse, he largely abandoned Mandela’s vision, and used the expedition to promote himself, not South Africa.
The South Africans and the Taiwanese are frequent topics of discussion for Hall’s team. Hall suspects that “something bad” will happen that year, what with the large number of incompetent teams climbing Everest.
This chapter is important because it exposes one of the basic problems with commercialized Everest tours—there are too many different groups trying to ascend at the same time.