- High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed
- Hyperion, 368 pp.
Adventure Travel As Ugly As It Gets
Adventure travel—and the many greedy individuals that feed off of those looking to add a bit of zip to their pedestrian lives—is gathering a growing reputation as little more than an aggregation of outdoor pursuits riddled with souls who put ego, personal gratification and glorification, along with the veneration of turning the almighty buck ahead of moral decency, doing the right thing, enjoying the land for its intrinsic value and, as in the situations outlined in Michael Kodas’ High Crimes – The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, preserving human life.
In my home state of Montana rivers are often highways for drift boats and rafts operated by venal guides and outfitters floating sports and seasoned fly fishers who should know better over beleaguered trout that are often hook-scarred and approaching terminal exhaustion during the dog days of summer. Mountain trails are overrun with guided horse caravans that turn paths through formally pristine alpine country into rutted, dusty (or muddy) reeking sewers. Dirt bikes, both motorized and pedaled, threaten the hiker. Remote camps are vandalized and packers ride roughshod over smaller parties at prime locations.
All of this pales in comparison to the obscene madness that has now become the fate of Base Camp at Mount Everest. The 8,000-meter peaks of the Himalayas have become the unfortunate repositories for what is repugnant about human nature with very little innate goodness surviving. Dying climbers pushed aside, ignored and denied medical help while their equipment is stolen, greedy guides unethical to the point of criminal, drugs, alcoholism, prostitution – hell this could just as well be inner city New York or Saigon as 20,000 feet above sea level in what used to be one of the most remote landscapes on earth. Everest has become the poster child for this debauchery.
Kodas details all of this, experienced firsthand on his 2004 expedition, and another trips to the region, that was sponsored and promoted in part by Connecticut’s Hartford Courant newspaper. Much of this insanity also took place in his climbing group and, to my way of reading, Kodas is guilty of much of the behavior that has led up to the mess. He lugs along enough high-tech communications gear to run a third world country so that he can file reports, blogs and photos on a daily, if not hourly basis. So much for the pristine experience of man versus nature.
By the time I was halfway through High Crimes I was disgusted with everyone involved with Everest, even the so-called good guys, who hadn’t done nearly enough to clean up the situation. By the end of the book I was angry. What’s going on at this mountain and many others represents everything that is wrong, that is despicable in not only mountaineering and adventure travel but human behavior overall.
Kodas is a member of the Pulitzer Prize winning staff at the Courant where he’s worked for more than twenty years. He’s also written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek. But I didn’t give this book five stars for his credentials or his workmanlike prose or attention to detail, admirable though this is. The telling of the story of the mayhem and evil in the mountains is what earned five stars. True, there have been other books on Everest’s troubles, some of them damn good like Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and Dark Summit by Nick Heil, but the continual detailing of atrocities on Everest in Kodas’s book had a stronger effect on me.
Here are a few quick examples among the dozens.
Regarding base camp on the Chinese side of Everest:
Expedition doctors were known to treat venereal diseases and brawling injuries as well as altitude sickness. Pony carts hauling tourists back and forth between Base Camp and the Rongbuck Monastery and Everest View Hotel a few miles down the road cruised like shrunken stagecoaches into the camp past Land Cruisers, tour buses, and a yellow metal post office that was well stocked but almost always closed. A woman swung inside one of the carts as it passed into the camp and grabbed the mountain guide by the arm.
“Sleepy, sleepy with me?” she ordered more than asked
And this exemplifying the rampant thievery on Everest:
But his tent had been looted again. Marcin picked through the mess that was left and tried to find his equipment, but it was all gone. His sleeping bag, stove, extra clothes, even his medications had been stolen. And with the sun going down, he had only a few minutes to find replacements before he froze to death.
“Everything that seemed of any value was gone,” Marcin wrote in an open letter to various mountaineering Web sites. “At 8300 meters, during summit push!…No shame, no ethics – only money counts.”
And this heart warming incident:
When he arrived in Camp Two on his own teams’ summit bid, Dave learned that Gustavo had again abandoned a client, and that this one was almost certainly dead…He walked over to Gustavo’s tent.
“I’m sorry,” Dave said. “What are you going to do? What are you going to tell the family?”
Gustavo’s voice was ground down to a ragged whisper. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Then he changed the subject.
“It was so beautiful,” Gustavo said. “It was a perfect day, such a gorgeous day, you wouldn’t believe it…Let me show you the photos.”
As Gustavo took out his digital camera and started scrolling through the photos, Dave just stared blankly at the screen.
”You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” he thought to himself.
The man had just gotten his client killed on Everest and all he wanted to do was show his photos, talk about how pretty it was.
There’s plenty more of this like “green boots,” a long-dead, long-frozen-solid Indian climber from a previous season who earned his name because his footwear that protrudes from a small, icy alcove and is visible to all climbers as they near the summit of Everest.
In the end, High Crimes is a cautionary job of reporting – cautionary in terms of climbing, Everest, adventure travel and the state of much of the human race.
John Holt and his wife, photographer Ginny Holt, are currently finishing up a pair of related books – “Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real-Time” (to be published by AK Press in February 2009) and “Searching For Native Color – Fly Fishing for Cutthroat Trout.” John’s work has appeared in publications that include “Men’s Journal,” “Fly Fisherman,” “Fly Rod and Reel,” “The Angling Report,” “American Angler,” “The Denver Post,” “Audubon,” “Briarpatch,” “counterpunch.org,” “Travel and Leisure,” “Art of Angling Journal,” “E – The Environmental Magazine,” “Field and Stream,” “Outside,” “Rolling Stone,” “Gray’s Sporting Journal” and “American Cowboy.” Chesapeake Bay Bridge