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Asia, Tibet, Himalaya, Everest, Exotica

Everest, exotica. Centuries ago European theologians debated the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The modern equivalent might be how many climbers can stand on the summit of Everest. We may soon find out, as the numbers rise dramatically. The authorities in Beijing said last November they would limit the number on the mountain this spring and raise their fees. They raised the fees, all right, by $1,000 per climber, but as to numbers, they allowed hundreds to move up and down throughout the season, even while a very large Chinese team made a trial run to the summit with Olympic-style torches and tested the torches’ performance at 8,850m. Only one climber is known to have been turned away: the mayor of Prague, Pavel Bem, was refused entry into Tibet at the Nepalese border because he displayed a Tibetan flag in front of the Chinese embassy in Prague and met the Dalai Lama several times. So he and his teammates went around to the Nepalese side, and he climbed it successfully from there.

A vast number of men and women did summit Everest this spring: 597 compared to 458 last spring and 305 the spring before that. An experienced leader of commercial expeditions on the north side, Russell Brice, attributes the large number of successes on his side this season— 287 climbers—to the fact that the trail was very fast, which enabled so many climbers to move up and down rapidly, in some cases to descend all the way from summit to advance base camp on the same day, and many unskilled climbers to reach high altitudes and even to succeed. The route was fast because it was stamped down by Brice’s Sherpas when they were fixing the ropes to the top at the end of April; then light snowfall froze the route. When climbers came along after the Sherpas, they moved on top of a thin layer of snow covering the frozen trail.

Among the astonishing total 597 who managed to summit Everest was the newly crowned oldest person, Katsuske Yanagisawa of Japan, who was 71 years and 63 days old when he climbed to the top on 22 May. He dethroned another Japanese, Takao Arayama, who was a mere 70 years, 225 days old last year.

A Briton, David Tait, who intended to make a double traverse with a Sherpa—up the north side, down the south, back up the south side and down the north—found he was too tired after descending the south side and would need a long rest before going back up again; he stopped there. He explained later that in his training for Everest, he had neglected to train for his descent, and his knees felt it. Anyway, his single traverse was “great, fantastic.”

A party of three Filipinas and three Sherpas followed Tait the next day in their own north-south traverse. Now traversers are boasting of being first from their country, just asoccasionally someone is still declared to be the first to the summit of his or her nationality. And in the case of these three women, Janet Belarmino, Carina Dayondon, and Noelle Cristina Wenceslao, they are correctly claiming to be the first females to make the crossing. They are also the first, unluckily, to be charged an extra fee of $3,000 per person for the privilege of making a traverse from the Tibetan side, as per a sudden demand by the authorities in Beijing in mid- April. This was on top of the $11,500 per traversing member they had already paid, in addition the normal payment to their Kathmandu trekking agency for permission to be on the mountain and for other agency services. (No traversing extras were charged for Sherpas.)

Among those who did not reach the summit this spring were an Austrian couple, Wil- fried and Sylvia Studer, who made their 11th attempt without using artificial oxygen, reaching 8,700m together, and declaring they would not come again; a Dutchman, Wim Hof, known as the Iceman, who planned to go without bottled oxygen to 7,250m wearing only shorts, socks and high climbing boots—“climbing in the cold gives a very powerful feeling,” he explained— reached 7,400m before he reported to his teammates that his legs had started to freeze and he turned back. (In Kathmandu he said he was completely satisfied.)

The 2007 season’s death toll of seven was well below spring of 2006’s near-record of 11, and even further below it in terms of percentage of people on the mountain. The body of one of last year’s climbers, David Sharp, whose lonely death drew a large amount of outraged commentary at the time, was moved away from the trail this spring at his family’s request. (The 1996 Indian body known as Greenboots, a macabre landmark when not covered by snow, was not removed; it was underneath the snow this season, and anyway it is so solidly frozen in place that earlier efforts to move it failed.)

Elizabeth Hawley, Honorary Member, AAC, Nepal