Disaster divas

Dead climber 2Whether it's an approaching Category Five hurricane, escalating tensions in the Middle East or, as in today's case, an impending disaster-in-the-making on Mt. Everest, the media beast ALWAYS hopes for the worst.

Morning talk show hosts were positively salivating about the deaths of four climbers this week on Everest as well as the very real possibility that, because of a limited weather window, some 200 climbers would be putting their lives on the line to reach the fabled summit this weekend.

Puzzled TV hosts asked mountaineering experts why people climb, why Everest is so important and why so many were, as one put it, 'literally lined up cheek-to-jowl' on a lengthy queue awaiting their turn at the summit.

I climb, so I know the answers to those questions. Climbing is a surreal physical, mental, emotional and spiritual experience. But, trying to explain why 200 people would risk their lives to a non-climber is akin to explaining the physics involved in making a curve ball curve. One needs to experience it in order to understand it.

I've been to the tops of the highest mountains in Africa and Europe. I've also reached the summits of many Colorado peaks as well as those in the White and Smoky Mountains. But, I've never pushed myself beyond my limits or purposely placed my climbing partner, Chris 'Repman, Jr.' Cody or me, in jeopardy. And, there's the rub.

As famed climber Ed Viesturs wrote in 'No Shortcuts to the Top,' mountaineering accidents happen for one of four reasons:

– Natural causes, such as an avalanche or a climber disappearing into a crevasse.
– Inexperienced climbers getting lost and dying of hypothermia.
– Gung-ho climbers who, having paid thousands of dollars for the opportunity of reaching a famous summit, order their guide to take them there.
– A guide who, wishing to please his well-heeled clients, takes risks he or she would never have taken in ordinary circumstances (brilliantly depicted, btw, in Jon Krakauer's 'Into Thin Air').

I'll never forget a recent experience on Mt. Cotapaxi in the Andes. Having failed to summit another 20,000 ft. mountain a few days earlier, our team was bound and determined to summit Cotapaxi. But, almost as soon as we departed high camp at 17,000 feet, we were hit by a raging blizzard. Battling white out conditions for hours on end, we dropped out and returned to high camp, one-by-one. But, egged on by two maniacal team members, Chris joined them and the guide for a final, frantic push to the summit.

I waited at high camp as other climbers from other teams returned. Each one said the conditions near the summit were among the worst they'd ever encountered. My anxiety grew with each passing hour. When one climber returned, spat out blood and collapsed, I went into full panic mode. I was convinced the worst had happened.

Shortly thereafter, though, I heard Chris's oh-so-familiar laugh as he strode back into camp. I think I gave him the longest hug in Cody family history.

I worry about the climbers on Everest. And, I hope they do what Chris did on Mt. Cotapaxi; turn around before it's too late. Mt. Everest can wait; life is too precious. Besides, who wants to see the disaster divas serve up yet another dish of death and dying?

I can just imagine the breaking news item now: an oh-so-serious anchor interrupts regular programming, furrows his brow and gravely announces, “Mountain madness as hundreds die on Everest! Film at 11!”

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