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Gilbert: Everest Disaster

The sound of a massive avalanche of snow – the feel of it - is terrifying. And unforgettable. I keep thinking of the recent avalanche on Mt. Everest that killed sixteen Sherpas who were preparing the way through the Khumbu Icefall for the guided climbers who were to attempt the mountain in the coming weeks. It’s the worst disaster in the mountain’s history.

Unlike the westerners who paid thousands of dollars to be guided up Everest, those Sherpas were not recreational climbers. I’m sure they enjoyed some of their work, and took pride in it, but they were there to earn a living. It’s been calculated that their job is ten times more dangerous than the most dangerous profession in the United States, commercial fishing.

I think of others who have died on that same glacier, including the very first, twenty-seven-year-old Jake Breitenbach, a Dartmouth graduate and a member of the expedition that put the first Americans atop Everest back in 1963. He was killed by a collapsing wall of ice.

I think of the gargantuan avalanche off Mount Huascarán in the Peruvian Andes that in 1970 buried two towns and killed their 25,000 inhabitants.

I think of the two Americans who ran the Peruvian national park there. I met them in 1976 when I was leading a Dartmouth mountaineering expedition just a few miles north of Huascaran. I was going to join them on a climb after the Dartmouth expedition was over. But when we got back, I learned that they had headed out ten days earlier with two other climbers, and had been killed in a snow avalanche.

Wade Davis’s masterful book "Into the Silence, The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest", explains how, after World War I, the Brits who attempted to climb Everest on three separate expeditions in the early ‘twenties hoped to accomplish something noble and important, something healing after the devastation and death of the war, an achievement that would be “a symbol of national redemption and hope.” I think few climbers today would argue that climbing Everest, even for the first time, is of transcendent importance, except perhaps in some very personal sense. I don’t think it can be considered heroic either because climbers put themselves in the dangerous circumstances voluntarily. An extremely difficult ascent can be an inspiring human achievement, but it can hardly be said to further a compelling social cause. The famous French mountaineer Lionel Terray might agree: the title of his 1961 memoir is "Conquistadors of the Useless."

In mountaineering risk can be reduced, but not entirely eliminated. There’s weather, for example, and gravity. Things high up, like mountain rock, ice, and snow, have potential energy; they will come down, perhaps descending as slowly as geological time, or with precipitous speed. When they do, people sometimes die. And there’s nothing mountaineers or Sherpas can do about it. After all, gravity is, well, the law.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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