One week on from Nepal’s massive earthquake, the situation remains grim: the thousands dead or injured; the homeless children, numbering in the millions, all in need. The quake couldn’t have come at a worse time, we’re told—as the seasons are changing, the danger of landslides and monsoons only makes the chances of getting to victims even harder, if not impossible.
As of Thursday, 200 climbers have been rescued from Mount Everest, while 18 died. Three helicopters rotated back and forth, shuttling stranded climbers back down to base camp. One announcer called it “a rescue effort unprecedented in the sport’s history.”
Each helicopter could only take two or three climbers on each flight, so they ran basically non-stop. No doubt, this is a heroic effort. But what of the efforts across Nepal? How many helicopters are able to be dispatched for the victims not on the mountain?
We know that Nepal has very few resources for disaster relief; in fact, its total economy generates only about $20 billion a year, which is painfully close to the (estimated) $5 billion dollar reconstruction that will be needed. By comparison, The United States economy generates about 17 thousand billion dollars a year, so you can imagine the magnitude of the effort required.
The demand for helicopters to fly relief missions across Nepal, according to air charter services, should outweigh the demand for dangerous rescue missions on Everest. Nepal’s army purportedly has one big helicopter in its arsenal and it is carrying out search and rescue missions with nearly all of the Nepalese military. As a result of the lack of infrastructure, the Ministry of Home Affairs is provisioning privately owned helicopters to run rescue missions. One on Everest and one for the rest on Nepal…sure, seems fair.
Other privately-owned helicopters are likely banking on their rich patrons on the mountain to pay them, whereas they would be unsure of being reimbursed for other humanitarian efforts elsewhere. Perhaps even more alarming are the U.S. Special Forces that are reportedly spending untold amounts to rescue U.S. citizens like Della Hofman, Eric Jean, and Corey Ascolani, who were on Everest for a 10-day hiking trip. We are meant to feel very relieved that they are back on U.S. soil. Good thing they are out of there… the helicopter, too:
“We were just so grateful when we heard the helicopter come. The U.S. military was able to come get us out,” Hofman said. “We were particularly grateful because there were, at this point, there were 22 of us left, all different nationalities. The three of us who were Americans but in addition a bunch of other people. And when they came, they took us but they promised they would go back and get everyone. And so within four trips all of us were out.”
As of Friday, there are now 20 helicopters flying around Nepal undergoing rescue missions, a mix of private and government aircraft. While the number increased steadily since the first few days, there still remains a “dilemma” according to senior rescue official in the capital, Kathmandu. Somehow, there is a debate about whether to send limited help to remote villages—which have no other means of efficient transport or communication—or to send pilots to Everest.
Every year, people flock to Everest for the thrill of conquering the world’s most iconic mountain, or even of just sneaking a peek at base camp, which is already 17,000 feet in elevation. And every year, critics complain that Everest mainly attracts unqualified thrill-seekers who only require four underpaid sherpas to bring them to the summit. This year, for better or worse, the amateurs who were searching for a death-defying adventure were ultimately presented with exactly that. Like sitting down for your Epcot Center ‘Spaceship Earth’ ride only to find yourself actually surrounded by Neanderthals.
As I read about the heroic effort of saving the $100,000 clients stranded on Everest, I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that we’d seen this before—the poor getting ignored while the rich get saved.
We might remember, or choose to forget, that in the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake on 12 January 2010, that the Caribbean island seemed like a pretty chaotic place. It was hard to imagine anyone would oppose the U.S. military stepping in; we imagined that the Haitian government was lucky to be located so close to such an immense relief lifeline.
The U.S. commanders quickly began doing what they do best: controlling the situation. And so, the day after the earthquake struck, the most important step was to secure an area that was reported (by whom?) to be awash in unruly mobs. Once America took control of Haitian airspace, the only planes that were allowed in and out were chosen by the military.
As the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Then, despite reports from Port-au-Prince that emphasized remarkable levels of humility and solidarity on the streets, the large numbers of soldiers that were “needed” on the ground flooded into the small nation, as The New York Times reported, “so that the United States could land troops and equipment, and lift Americans and other foreigners to safety.” The de facto takeover of the only usable airport in Haiti resulted in the relentless diversion of humanitarian aid to allow for “more important” supplies to be delivered.
The priorities were painfully obvious in that case: First, make sure that any Americans were ok. Second, ensure that the island was secure. Third, consider helping out the local population. Maybe 1 and 2 should have been reversed.
And now our Nepal déjà vu. How many resources do we need to invest in the rescue of mountaineers who are “stranded” on the world’s most notorious mountain? I want to know that the rules of humanitarian aid will never be corrupted. That they will be a universal, equal and unbiased practice; never politicized, never monetized—and yet here we are.
As a climber, albeit one who stays much closer to the ground, I can’t help noticing the strange obsession that other people have with this particular mountain. Yes, it is the biggest, but what else? It’s dirty, filled with people, and not particularly difficult beyond the challenges that the altitude and insecure weather present. I’ve heard people refer to it as the Everest hike, distinguishing it from more technically and physically demanding ascents. Many former guides believe that the mountain should be restored to what it was for Sir Edmund Hillary, that is, removing the ladders, the ropes and camps that make it so accessible to novice alpinists.
To be sure, the route that many climbers were stranded on, the Southeast ridge, has been demonstrated as a notoriously dangerous route in the past few years. Its distinguishing feature, the Khumbu Icefall, has been known to collapse without warning. However, because that’s where many of the fixed lines are set up, it remains popular. This is where the problem lies, in my opinion. There is an economy of Mount Everest in a way that there isn’t for any other mountain. And its popularity obscures its danger.
It is one thing to get trapped in your house because of an earthquake and have Special Forces come to the rescue; it is another for them to come rescue you when you embark on a vacation to a deadly mountain. I don’t expect that when I go out into the wild that I will be rescued if I make a mistake, and neither should any other clear-headed climber.
Everest isn’t someplace you end up because you were forced there. It is a destination, an attraction. Isn’t that the appeal? To experience someplace awe-inspiringly wild? Well, unfortunately, this time, the mountain fought back, and I think it would be no injustice that instead of those helicopters being diverted to save climbers, that they should be dispatched to help those who didn’t just spend $100k to be somewhere dangerous in the first place.