It now appears that eleven climbers perished Sunday on K2, the world’s second highest mountain. K2 is steeper and rockier than Everest and more prone to changeable weather. That makes it, in climbing circles, the mountaineer’s mountain. But I fear that this is about to change. In 1996, a number of climbers lost their lives on Everest, an event made famous by Jon Krackauer in his book Into Thin Air. Krackauer’s book was fiercely critical, not only of the actions of fellow climbers, but of a new selfish ethos that pervaded the culture of Everest. Yet new accounts of the Everest industry, by Michael Kodas (High Crimes) and Nick Heil (Dark Summit), show that the mounting body count on Everest has done nothing to slow the march of “clients” pouring into Base Camp. Indeed, the number has increased.
Arctic exploration exhibits a similar phenomenon. When 37 men died on two failed expeditions to the North Pole in the 1880s, it unleashed a torrent of criticism about North Pole expeditions, their motives and methods. Nevertheless, attempts to reach the North Pole increased over the following two decades.
Let’s face it, death imbues value on extreme accomplishment. Many climbers speak of an inner force driving them up the mountain (and I admit, I am not immune to this sort of thing either). But the reality is that there are many motivations for heading above tree line, that mortal danger and “bagging” mountains have a certain social cachet. In scaling K2, which has now once again asserted itself as one of the most dangerous of summits, the climber-who-sees-mountains-as-trophies accomplishes something of greater symbolic heft than an ascent of Everest.
Given this precedent, news of these deaths on K2 won’t deter new climbers but spur them on. Maybe the experienced high-altitude climbers, the Ed Viesturs of the world, will be able to deter the weekend adventurers. But I doubt it.
So here are my depressing predictions: 1) attempts to summit K2 will double by 2010 and 2) these ranks of climbers will have less experience in high-altitude climbing on average than they do now.
I hope I’m wrong.