INTO THIN AIR
How Tourists Are Loving Mount Everest to Death
When I arrived in Nepal for a trek to Everest base camp, I discovered a trail that’s more crowded than ever.
The second strangest part of this whole trip has been the dreams.
I’m not sure what’s causing them—the altitude, lack of oxygen or the medicine I’m taking to help me deal with the altitude and lack of oxygen. At any rate, every night has been a Lewis Carol-esque fever hallucination, one after another. Poisonous snakes with the face of a Disney villain make an appearance, as does my middle-school math classroom, except all of the students are chicken carcasses. In one dream, I am on a date with a man who tells me he is part yeti, and I know in the world of the dream that because of this, I will sleep with him. I wake up before we consummate our relationship.
The strangest thing, even stranger than my newfound yetisexuality, is how many other people are walking the same path I’m walking, at the same time. One would think the path to Mount Everest—even the “easy” one—would be lonely. It’s hard to get to. It’s rarely comfortable. It’s not very relaxing. One can only eat so many fried noodles and dal bhat before they’ve about had enough. But as of two weeks ago, the trail was more like city snaking along a dusty ribbon.
The popularity of Mount Everest—as both a trekking and mountaineering destination—bodes well for Nepal. In recent decades, the country has risen from the third most impoverished in the world to the 28th, thanks to an influx of largely mountain-related tourism. And interest in ambling through this part of the Himalayas keeps growing. Sherpas who have been working the trail for decades say this is the busiest year they’ve seen. Numbers back them up; companies that sell pre-packaged treks for groups of tourists have registered record seasons.
Additionally, record number of deeper-pocketed mountaineers have applied for and received permits to attempt an Everest summit this year. Because the Nepali government doesn’t cap how many permits are issued, all of the good summiting days during the one-month window when getting to the top is possible will likely see mountainside traffic jams. Whether the weather will favor them remains to be seen. Everest is notoriously temperamental.
The mountain locals call Chomolungma has helped drive an impressive turnaround for a country that just two years ago faced tragedy. On April 25, 2015, a magnitude 7.8 quake hit 48 miles northwest of Kathmandu. The shockwaves emanated outward, collapsing buildings on the unstable clay soil of the capital before making their way toward the Khumbu. There, they caused an avalanche that killed 21 people at Mount Everest Base Camp.
The quake and its six months of aftershocks killed 9,000 people in the country of 3 million. Entire villages in the popular trekking region of Langtang were swept away in landslides. Medieval temples in Bhaktapur were shaken to piles of brick. Some of the grander structures in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square still look as though they’re being held together with toothpicks and masking tape.
Seismologists say the shaking of April 25, 2015 caused Everest to shrink a meter, but as far as I know, nobody has made their way up the mountain with measuring tape to double check. For the most part, the Khumbu Himalayas, home to three of the world’s top 10 highest peaks, still rise silently in the same form they’ve been for as long as people have been able to get there, jagged white teeth at the end of an icy throat of a valley.
I came here on vacation, but because I’m a writer, as long as things are interesting I’m never really on vacation. Over the last two weeks, I walked from the small mountain town of Lukla to Mount Everest Base Camp, then I turned around and did the whole thing backwards over the course of 12 days. I had thought the experience—spartan accommodations, bitter cold, a physical challenge and beautiful views—would be a clarifying and calming experience, a way to get close to something as wicked as Everest without actually risking my life. Judging by the crowds, my idea could not have been less novel.
The main trekking trail is also the region’s supply route. The more trekkers head toward the mountain, the more supplies remote mountain villages need to feed them, warm them, hydrate them. Thus, tourists share the trail with teams of mules strapped with jugs of kerosene that slosh in a manner that makes it look as though the animals are strutting up steep gravel rises. Yaks and oxen lumber along the path as well, pleasant bells tied around their necks. Guides lead their groups like flashy drum majors in North Face, smiling as they tell their exhausted clients to Jam-Jam! Porters carrying tourists’ luggage, bags of rice, empty bottles, woven baskets covered with canvas and teeming with mystery, making their way up the mountain with thick white straps across their foreheads. Local children carry freshly butchered meat in knotted grocery bags, en route to tea house kitchens. Random fluffy dogs, hoping for a free morsel from gullible tourists, weave in and out of the traffic. The trail is asses (butts)-to-elbows-to-asses (livestock).
At every tea house along the way to base camp, shed backpacks stand in lines against the wall, elaborate with padding and straps like children’s car seats. Elderly foreigners from India, China, the U.S., the UK hang out in the common dining rooms, massaging their temples and complaining about the cold or the altitude. Young trekkers roll their eyes at the terrible wifi connections (It costs 600 rupees, or about $6 U.S. dollars, for 200mb of internet). Porters and guides play aggressive games of Dhumbal (a locally popular card game) at tables of their own, seemingly impervious to the cold as they stroll outdoors barefoot in Adidas shower slides.
There’s always a fireplace in the middle of a tea-house dining room, and around the fireplace stand miserable-looking tourists wearing 17 layers of smelly technical clothing, their faces portraits of regret. Others, making the best of things, chatter loudly at tables that ring the periphery. It’s not clear what any of the complainers expected, booking a trek in the Khumbu. It never really gets that warm here. The trail is never easy.
But human nature is not all that mysterious. Everybody wants to believe that they’re noteworthy enough to evade misery. Everybody wants to try it, just to see what will happen. After the temporarily miserable people are back in their warm living rooms and fast wifi, they will post photos to Facebook or Instagram or Tinder and claim that this was a great experience. And it will have been. It’s a wonderful thing to have done; it’s not always an enjoyable thing to be doing. Everest, as a vacation destination, is a masochist’s dream.
I set out on April 17 with a group of 14, including two guides and a half-dozen porters. Of the 14 tourists, almost all fell ill at some point or another. It was the sort of trek where a person can arrive to breakfast and announce to the group that they’ve got “the hardest working butthole in Sagarmatha National Park” and get no askance looks. A nice man from London spent the last half of the trek green with a nasty stomach bug, smiling weakly through what must have been agony. An Aussie engineer shivered at a Tengboche table as the rest of the party sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to her over a high-altitude brownie. A normally hearty Yorkshire man in his late 50’s spent days plodding behind the group, unable to eat anything but plain rice. An elite rower who turned 19 on the trek had to pause on the way up Kala Pattar to vomit. A young Danish couple was evacuated from Gorekshep by helicopter after the woman, miserable at the altitude, spent days being carted from village to village on horseback. I was seized by a nasty 48-hour stomach bug.
And then there was the fluctuating temperatures and the respiratory ailments that come with never being warm. By the end of the trek, I knew everybody’s coughs by heart, deep rumbling Rottweiler coughs that rattled all of the juices of the torso. I was more of a sniffler. We were all walking biological weapons.
The trail would test even individuals in great shape. At least three of our group had completed marathons; one woman had finished a half Iron Man. One woman trained by trekking every weekend. Another was the sort of person who could bound up mountains like he was on springs; at least, until he came down with something. Nobody is above the arbitrary cruelty of unfamiliar bacteria.
Base Camp itself is 17,600 feet above sea level. It’s higher up than all but the five highest peaks in North America. It takes a conservative seven days (including acclimatization) to even get to Base Camp, and then a good 4-5 or more days to hoof it back to the airport at Lukla. Each of the days of hiking subjects trekkers to gluteus-murdering uphill stretches and knee-pulverizing downhill stretches. And the most difficult bits are done in much lower oxygen than what most vacationers are used to. The temperature, even indoors, is often freezing, and by the midpoint of the whole ordeal, everybody smells like the inside of a hat. After a certain point, nobody really showers. It’s too cold.
Base Camp itself is a little bit terrible, a godforsaken strip of shit, litter, and gravel-covered glacier. While it boasts the brand name of a world wonder, it’s a tent city, a grim, silent Burning Man where everything is frozen and nothing is art. It is a place by and for insane people and the people they hire to enable their insanity. Here, climbers and their respective staffs set up camp during the precious few weeks it’s possible for a human being to set foot on the tallest point on earth. Bright yellow tents tremble in the wind.
Where do they poop? I ask nobody in particular. Nobody offers me an answer.
When we arrive at Base Camp, all of the hopeful summiters have already left. They will spend almost a month acclimating to the altitudes at camps one, two, and three, before schlepping all the way back to base camp for a final push to the top. They paid between $50,000 and $80,000 U.S. dollars apiece to do this. On the day we visit, it’s overcast and spitting icy half-snow. As we leave Base Camp, the guide leading the group, a 21-year-old Sherpa named Lapka, stops me short to point at something moving on the mountain. It was an avalanche. The next day, we’d find out that two sherpas were injured in the accident.
You can’t see Mount Everest from Mount Everest Base Camp. You can barely see it on the path toward the mountain; it’s usually covered in clouds. Even when unshrouded, because of the way the mountain is situated, it looks shorter than its neighbor Lhotse from the Nepal side, like Everest has just seen somebody at a party it hoped wouldn’t show up and is sort of hiding behind its prettier friend.
The best way to actually see Everest from Nepal, apart from shelling out to fly over it or risking life and limb to climb on it, is hiking up a rise called Kala Patthar in the pre-sunrise bitter cold, through the oxygen-starved air, straight up until you are at about 18,000 feet above sea level. Then, if the sky is clear, you can sort of see the mountain starting at about three quarters of the way up, a squat dark triangle looming behind the showy confectionary peaks of Everest’s showier neighbors. I was one of a handful of trekkers in my group to even attempt the trek. Two of us made it to the top.
“It’s not a very pretty mountain, is it?” observed my fellow Kala Pattar summiter, as the morning sun warmed the mountainside. Lhotse gleamed pink, like a show off. We get it, Lhotse.
Trekkers who find themselves needing or wanting to get off the main trail have few options for a quick escape, especially as they get further from Lukla and closer to the turnaround point of Base Camp. Those who take the more challenging and remote Three Passes route are even more cut off. They can try to descend and see if they get better. They can wait out their illness in an unheated plywood lodge. Or they can call a helicopter and be back in balmy Kathmandu in a matter of hours.
And boy, do tourists call helicopters. It doesn’t take many days on the trail to grow accustomed to the chopper’s ubiquity. Dozens buzz past per day, sometimes within minutes of each other. The helipad at Gorakshep was practically a helicopter hive.
“You see more helicopters now than eagles,” quipped Gelu Sherpa, who has been working on the Everest Base Camp trail since 1997. As a guide, he tries to discourage his clients from taking them; he believes most mountain illness can be conquered by heading down in altitude. He thinks many people who use them don’t actually need them, and people who encourage their use are often trying to make a quick buck.
Each helicopter rescue costs around $4,000 USD; that cost is often paid for by travel insurance. As more people take advantage of the helicopter option, the cost of insurance rises.
It’s in some entities’ best interest to encourage trekkers to tap out. Starting in Tengboche (a few days’ walk from Everest), hotels were plastered with signs advertising their ability to set up a helicopter rescue. That’s because, according to Gelu, tea houses get a cut of rescue costs.
It’s also easy to fake altitude sickness (Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS), theoretically. While AMS is a serious affliction that actually kills people at high altitudes every year, there’s no test for it. All a person would have to do is claim they were experiencing its more severe symptoms, and then an insurance-provided flight back to civilization awaits, rather than a multi-day slog.
Unlike Gelu, my experience in the Khumbu region is limited. But like Gelu, I tend to believe that a lot of people will try to whine their way out of something they dislike using the most effective lie at their disposal. I’m not convinced that every person who claims to fall ill enough with altitude sickness that they need a helicopter is actually experiencing cerebral edema, or if they’re just experiencing a strong desire to not be hiking to or from Mount Everest Base Camp anymore.
I shared my theory with a crunchy fellow traveler from the UK while waiting for a tourist visa extension at Kathmandu’s immigration office. I was there for three hours and talking to strangers was the last thing I could think of to do.
“I think a lot of people who say they have altitude sickness are actually just tired of pooping in holes and want to go back to Kathmandu where things are sometimes warm,” I offered.
Oh no, she responded. Altitude sickness is very real. I got it once when I was climbing near Lumbini. I got to the top of the mountain and suddenly it was like the whole world was melting. A man had to help me down.
“I was on acid,” she added. “It was terrible.”
“That sounds like you weren’t really suffering from altitude sickness. You were just… on acid.”
“No,” she responded. “It was definitely the altitude.”
Okay, I said. She focused her eyes on a place beyond the walls of the room.
Along with the Everest region’s surging popularity comes a rapidly approaching reality check for those who love the region, or those who love the money it brings in. The current level of growth the route is experiencing is unsustainable for a part of the world that, despite its famed deadliness, is quite fragile. Trekking traffic can’t continue like this. There isn’t enough land, there isn’t enough trail, there isn’t enough infrastructure. Tributaries that feed Imja River in Dingboche are choked with discarded Coconut Crispies wrappers and plastic water bottles tourists tossed rather than finding garbage cans. In sections of the trail without bathrooms, some particularly formidable rocks become de facto commodes, and human waste and discarded toilet paper pile up on the side most hidden from the trail. Few stretches of the trail are bereft of fresh animal waste. Overuse of trekking poles erode the terrain, dislodging rocks, loosening the gravel, kicking up dust that chokes the other beings that use it.
Many villages along the trail are percussive with the sound of construction of hastily built structures intended to house even more trekkers. That’s not possible everywhere. In the two villages closest to Base Camp, there simply isn’t enough land. Gorakshep, a five-hour round trip to Base Camp and back, is a few small buildings built on a sliver of earth between a glacier and snow-capped mountains. Lobuche, a day’s walk further from Base Camp than Gorakshep, is in a similar pickle: not enough space to build. Both villages are high above the tree line, inhospitable even in good weather. And getting supplies to either place requires a long journey by foot for a mule or yak. Or a pricey helicopter flight.
One Sherpa working the Everest region surmises that by next year’s high season of April and May 2018, there will not be enough beds to handle the number of tourists who need to sleep in either location. For people who are able to afford to book through a large tour company, this won’t be a problem; blocks of rooms are reserved by those companies long in advance, ensuring that their clients always have a place to sleep. But solitary backpackers or those who hire local guides on the spot in Kathmandu or Lukla may find themselves arriving, exhausted, to an outpost 5100 meters above sea level only to be forced to turn around, if the Sherpa’s prognostication comes to pass.
Everest certainly isn’t in danger of losing its draw. One night of the trek, we gathered in a tea house dining room to watch a low-budget adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s blockbuster book Into Thin Air. It was one of the worst movies I’d ever seen, all masculine screaming and melodrama complete with Chinese subtitles, but it did remind me of a Q&A I attended with the author a few years ago, back in the more hospitable climate of a publishing house board room in New York City. Somebody asked Mr. Krakauer whether Into Thin Air dissuaded people from mountaineering. He laughed and said that a year after his firsthand account of an Everest disaster that killed eight was published, mountaineering instructors he knew called to thank him for the boost in business. After watching the film, the members of my trekking party seemed to be in agreement that they’d rather spend $50,000 to slowly saw their own legs off than go any further up the mountain than Base Camp, as though what they were doing was the sensible thing to do, as though mountaineers were the crazy ones.
When we returned, I had drinks with a fellow trekker in the garden outside of the hotel where I was staying in Kathmandu. He had returned from the same trek the day before me, but with better weather and less intra-group illness. “Don’t you want to climb it?” he asked, eyes gleaming with the slightly crazed look of somebody who wanted to summit. “Don’t you kind of want it now?”
No. I did not and do not. It was beautiful and I loved it; I’ll never visit again.
Everest is dangerous. Even a trekker can feel this on approach. I could feel it in the wind that careens through the valley like a runaway train. You don’t have to visit to know it’s dangerous. As of last count, 282 people have died trying to summit. Other mountaineers die preparing to summit Everest on practice mountains nearby. On Sunday, famed Swiss climber Ulei Steck, one of the greatest contemporary mountaineers, was alone on the snowy face of a nearby mountain when he fell and died. He was practicing a new technique for summitting Everest. Most of the headlines mentioned Mount Everest anyway, probably because it’s a much more fascinating place to die than some other mountain that isn’t the tallest.
Most books and movies about Everest skim over the part where the oxygen-starved and hubris-drunk climbers make their way from Kathmandu to Base Camp. That’s understandable. The dangers that face summitters are much more stark than the ones facing the people who just want to see it. In my trekking party, nobody’s face froze in a pain-grimace as they perished in a blizzard, although we did get caught in a heavy downpour of fat, wet snow. Nobody went crazy from a lack of oxygen, although we did feel like garbage for days. But after the trek, it seemed miraculous to me that more people don’t hurt themselves doing it. It seems crazy that so many people do it at all.
I did it because I wanted to feel like I’d accomplished something difficult, on the other side of the world. I wanted to see something none of my ancestors had ever seen. I wanted to know what it feels like to breathe air that’s only 10 percent oxygen. I wanted to do it with people whom I’d never have met otherwise. I wanted to get away with it. I didn’t want to be part of a problem, but now I can see that perhaps I was. Perhaps I am. Perhaps my reasons were the same as the thousands of others with the same idea. Nothing makes a person feel more alive than doing something dangerous-to-stupid and not suffering any consequences. The possibility of this is what drives kleptomaniacs, philanderers, bungee jumpers, embezzlers, stand-up comedians.
Two days after I returned to Kathmandu and took the longest, hottest shower of my life, I set out west for another part of the Himalayas, a 10-day trek through the Annapurna range, a route that will take me through Thorong La, one of the highest mountain passes in the world. A local Nepali guide and I will walk for nine hours, up a kilometer in elevation. We are counting on my Everest acclimatization to get me up without disaster. I am sleeping at 4,0000 meters. I am taking altitude sickness medication just in case.
The dreams are back, but now they repeat themselves nightly. In them, I awaken in a tea house in Gorakshep, smelling kerosene gas and yak dung. I set out walking alone, without a coat. It’s freezing when I arrive at Base Camp, but the tents are gone, replaced with graffitied warehouses. The glacier groans beneath the weight of the buildings.
“NOT THE MOUNTAIN,” says a sign at its entrance. I drop my pack on the dirty gravel and turn around.