The Sunday Conversation
6:06 am
Sun June 2, 2013

Mount Everest Climber Warns Of An Overpopulated Mountain

Originally published on Sun June 2, 2013 1:56 pm

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Perhaps no active climber is more closely associated with Mount Everest these days than Conrad Anker. He has reached the highest point on Earth three times, and he discovered the body of George Mallory — the British climber who may or may not have reached Everest's summit before disappearing in 1924.

Anker has also made the preservation of Mount Everest one of his priorities. Today, as the world's highest mountain compels ever-increasing numbers of climbers, it's also accumulating some unwanted weight: Tons and tons of garbage.

"If you're going to Everest for that pristine, I'm-in-the-mountains [experience], it's not the place to go," Anker tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. "Accept the fact that it's going to be a crowded place."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

CONRAD ANKER: You look out and to the north the plains of Tibet are sort of covered in a thin blanket of fog looking down onto it, and then to the south you see going all the way out into India and onto the Indian subcontinent. And so to look on both sides of the Himalayas from the top of the peak is a pretty singular place to be and it's a source of happiness for me.

MARTIN: Mount Everest has loomed large in the life of climber Conrad Anker. He has reached the summit three times. He discovered the body of legendary climber George Mallory, who disappeared on the mountain in 1924, and he's worked hard to help save the ecology of Everest, which has been decimated by decades of refuse left by expeditions, and is overpopulated by way too many climbers. Anker has also experienced tragedy in the Himalayas, losing his great friend, Alex Lowe, to an avalanche as the two were climbing together. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first summiting of Everest. Conrad Anker has helped put together the new book, "The Call of Everest: The History, Science and Future of the World's Tallest Peak." And Conrad Anker is our Sunday Conversation.

ANKER: If you're going to Everest for that pristine, I'm in the mountains, it's not the place to go. Except the fact that it's going to be a crowded place, there's going to be a small village, it's dirty. And, starting with the commercialization probably in the mid-'90s, people with medium-level climbing skills could move up on the mountain and climb it and then being supported by Sherpas. So, it really lowered the technical requirements of the mountain, and henceforth many more people.

MARTIN: You are quoted extensively in an article in the June issue of National Geographic magazine being quite critical of the Nepalese government and how they're running things on Everest. What are they not doing right?

ANKER: Well, if there's probably 35, 40 expeditions up there - they're not regulated. Anyone can go up there. There's no guide certification that you need to do. So, the government, I think, if they were to step in and have a rescue rope-fixing communication group of Sherpa that were there that were dedicated to fixing the rope on the standard route, ensuring the safety and facilitating communication, they would have a safer mountain and a better experience for the people that are going there.

MARTIN: You and your wife kind of took this issue on, trying to improve the conditions for climbers. And as part of that, you set up a school, the Khumbu Climbing Center where Sherpas can kind of sharpen their mountaineering skills. What effect has that had? Have you been able to measure a difference?

ANKER: We've been working with the program now - Jennifer and I - for 10 years and we've had over 700 students graduate. And our goal is to teach climbing in an avocational standpoint. So, if you were to attend a university or a community college how to go Climbing 101, they would teach you sort of the sport of the fun of climbing. So, we want to share that. Because our view is that if you really enjoy climbing and you're passionate about it you'll be a better climber than if you approach it as it's a job and it's work. And if they're really interested in it and they do well at it and as the sport progresses and grows in the country, it's a great way to do that.

MARTIN: We should also note that the center or the school you set up did indirectly arise out of tragedy. Your wife Jenny is the widow of your best friend and fellow mountaineer Alex Lowe. In 1999, he was killed in an avalanche when the two of you were climbing together in the Himalayas. You later married Jenny and you adopted her three kids. Do you think about how profoundly you are connected to this mountain, how it has personally changed your life to such a degree?

ANKER: Oh. This is a great question. Yeah, we were on Shishapon(ph). We did not see this avalanche come down. It just, in an instant, my life changed on the 5th of October 1999. And subsequently, Jenny and I fell in love, we grew in love. And we're happy and we've had a great thing with our family. But the overarching is that I still climb, I still love climbing, I still get out there. And it's a very dangerous profession to be involved in, and especially one where we've seen it as close as it is. So, it is a motivation for us to give something back to the indigenous people. My career is based on Everest and I could not have done it without the assistance of the Nepali people, the Tibetans and particularly the Sherpas. And so I've formed great friendships with them and this is our way to give something back to them in the way that we hope to prevent the amount of accidents that typically befall the Sherpas while they're working on the mountains.

MARTIN: I wonder if you could talk to us about the Everest expedition that you were a part of in which you actually found the body of the legendary climber George Mallory. Mallory disappeared on the mountain in 1924.

ANKER: It was a very remarkable, very humbling moment on the 1st of May 1999 when I came across the frozen and well-preserved body of George Mallory.

MARTIN: I mean, this was a big year for you. This was - mean, did this happen before you were climbing with Alex Lowe or...

ANKER: Yeah. It was May 1, 1999, the discovery of George Mallory, and then it was the 5th of October that the avalanche struck. I was 36 at the time and my whole world came in on me. So, I hope I never have anything as tumultuous as that again.

MARTIN: You wrote that you sat with George Mallory's body for a good 30 minutes before a team came and it was moved. Could you recount whatever it is that you remember from that time?

ANKER: I sat up just to the side of his right arm and looked over him and kind of imagined what his last thoughts might have been. And the position of his body, I tend to think that he might have still had mental functioning. He was not unconscious when he came to rest. So, it looked as if he'd crossed over his leg to sort of minimize the pain of a bad break. But I wanted to pay respect to him because climbing is something that we've always built upon the shoulders of the generation that came before us. And we amass knowledge, we add to it and then we pass it on to the next generation. But he had paved the way, so to say, for the 1953 ascent and then where I was today. So, it was a pretty humbling moment.

MARTIN: Mountaineer Conrad Anker. He helped put together the book "The Call of Everest," and he joined us from Bozeman, Montana. Conrad, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

ANKER: Why, thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.