High Crimes | A Book Review
Organization of Story5
I am an armchair mountaineer. I love reading about mountaineering and the crazy people who do it, but I have no desire whatsoever to actually participate in climbing into the death zone, where at 24,000 feet above sea level, your brain starts basically eating itself. This feeling of mine was fully solidified in reading Michael Kodas’s journalistic and Into Thin Air-esque book, High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed.
In 1996, Jon Krakauer (easily one of my fave authors, btw) chronicled one of Everest’s deadliest climbing seasons. Amidst a brutal storm, 15 climbers lost their lives that year. Ten years late, and boy has the mountain changed. Nearly 600 people summit Everest per year in the climbing months of April and May. Folks pay up to $65,000 to basically be led up the mountain by a team of guides and sherpas. That’s obviously a lot of money. And where there is opportunity for revenue, you inevitably find some not-so-great characters emerge.
High Crimes details one climber’s particular experience with Everest, while coupling in other tragic stories of greed and mayhem atop the highest point in the world. Theft of supplies is an all-too-common occurrence, which at over 20,000 feet in the sky, will often mean life and death. There are suppliers that use materials that aren’t anywhere near up to code. There are guides who make false claims about having bagged the summit, perhaps the most important qualification in a guide. Greed has overrun basecamps, and of course, that has led a deluge of crime (hence the title).
The truly sad part is that these crimes that happen 8,000 meters above the rest of us don’t really get punished. The Nepalese and Chinese governments (not to bash them) will do basically whatever they can to keep that growing stream of income. Every climber pays for permits, and that money goes to the government. It contributes to the overall welfare of the nation, especially in the case of Nepal, but also comes with some dangerous side effects.
There’s something about Everest that keeps people from thinking clearly. Oh, I know what it is, the lack of oxygen. Makes sense, huh? I remember one climber, with no legs mind you (he was a double amputee from just above the knee), saying, “This is a lot harder than I thought it would be.” While reading that, I thought, “Really? Because to me, climbing Everest with no legs is about the hardest and most grueling self-punishment I can imagine.” He ended up being the first man with no legs to summit, but in the process, ended up having to have a few more inches from each leg amputated. Is it really worth it?
Numerous Everest legends have remarked in the last few years how the mountain has changed. How it’s no longer about sport, but about money and pride. People don’t respect the mountain like they used to. So what’s the solution?
The author doesn’t actually give one. When I think about it, in situations like these it doesn’t seem that a reasonable solution really exists. The Nepal government could stop issuing climbing permits, but then they’d lose the bulk of their economy. They could put a cap on permits per year, although that’s not likely, because then revenue goes down. Ultimately, as is often the case, something terrible will have to happen before people change. The hubris that exists amidst Everest will have to be crumbled. It’s unfortunate, but also a sad reality. Deaths on Everest seem like they are going up every year, and my hope is that at some point, people will realize the danger that comes with it. I’m not, however, overly optimistic about those chances.
It saddens to me to see one of the Earth’s proudest treasures be reduced to something that people merely look to mark off their checklist. Let us look at the world around us and be marveled once more, and let us take time to wallow in the shadow of mountains and not succumb to the temptations of conquering what is so precious.