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Climber and mountain guide Melissa Arnot in Nepal; Photograph by Jon Mancuso

Everest: Now and Then, Again and Again

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Mount Everest; Photograph by Jon Mancuso

Climber and mountain guide Melissa Arnot has summited Everest five times. She is attempting two more summits in the 2014 season. She and Dave Morton co-founded The Juniper Fund.

Everest is a beautiful and sacred place. Anyone would be hard pressed to disagree with that sentiment. Each season an international community pops up with a singular goal—to climb the world’s tallest mountain. And even with all the differences between them, this one commonality unites everyone. It is a shared language. The culture of the mountain is at times interesting, occasionally predictable, and always filled with the tension and anticipation of what is coming, whether in a few months or a few days.

When I was 16 years old, I got a tattoo on my shoulder. I tried to think of the only constant in my life, so I chose a symbol for change. It’s a dance in life to accept that change is always present, regardless of if you’re ready or not. I try to master the steps each day, but, like most people, there are certain changes that I resist fiercely. Change seems to come in two ways–either the violent upward tectonic creation of the mountains or the gentle persistent roar of the river carving the stone. Either way, change shapes us as it shapes the land.

I’ve spent every spring on Everest for the last six years, trying to climb and learn as much as I can about this place and its challenges. It’s a moving target, as the mountain and surrounding culture continues to evolve. Change has happened–some has been subtle and some  severe, but it keeps happening.

Partly, my awareness of those changes has become more finely tuned. In 2008, my first season of climbing on Everest, I didn’t notice all the intricacies of the local politics. It didn’t occur to me that there were unwritten rules that everyone was expected to know. I didn’t understand that the weather forecast depends partly on the forecaster and equally on who your friends in camp are. Everyone holds their cards close to their chest and the stakes are high—the highest, you might say.

As news comes out about the mountain, it’s almost always veiled in drama, highlighting the most negative parts of the community and place. Recently, the press has been inundated with stories about continuing efforts to clean up the garbage, control the crowds, and regulate behavior.

My email inbox is filled with people wanting to know my opinion on all of these aspects that are tangential to the actual climb. It’s hard for me to make bold statements about what should and shouldn’t be, especially in this place. I suppose I’m more interested in being an active part of making this a better place, rather then just being a spectator of the issues.

There’s clearly a very real attraction to all the speculation about what a mess Everest is. I hear it every day. Everest is so out of control. A circus. A tourist attraction. Anyone can pay to be carried to the top. No real climbers go there. It is a trash dump.

Maybe some of that is true, depending on which direction you look from, but much of it isn’t. Many people making opinions on the state of Everest have never been, or they visited only once and returned with big mouths and a misplaced sense of entitlement to make judgements.

No one should have the right to be in this beautiful place, only to return and say no one else can come back. Can you really make a solid assessment of a place you have only experienced once or never been close to? I guess I take it personally since it is where I work, and I’m working to be a positive part of it and tell some of the stories of beauty that are born here.

One thing is certain: Our ability to witness the transformations to this place, in real time, is changing. Information travels so fast now that you can practically see the snow falling before it even leaves the clouds. The motivations of people haven’t changed, but their ability to tell you about it has.

Wing suits, camera crews, people with disabilities, national teams, athletes, amateurs, oldest or youngest, firsts and lasts. It’s all there. If you look closely you will see that all of these people have more commonalities than differences. Their stories are yet to be told even though the cameras are rolling and the Internet observers are waiting. Nothing is certain, nothing is obvious.

Regardless of the proposed feat, whether it’s sleeping on the summit, climbing with a disability, or making a speed ascent, I’ll always be equally impressed by the climber who is simply pushing uphill, making his or her way step by step at a summit attempt, even without much fanfare. To me, what is more important than doing some sensational stunt is the stories we tell and the way we behave.

The ideas aren’t complicated, nor are they uniquely mine. Be respectful. To each other, to this place. To your peers and the people you don’t know. Be honest about what you do. Mountain climbing is an intensely personal affair. If you aren’t doing it for yourself and what it gives you, then your toil is likely to be futile.

Admit your motivations. There’s nothing wrong with doing it to see if you can, to make a living, to attempt something that you didn’t think you could or to promote yourself and pad your ego. But be honest about that. The joy and the challenge, that’s yours to keep.

It’s only the start of the season. Change is rumbling underneath my feet as they walk closer to the work of climbing. I know this season will bring some changes. Will they be gentle like water dripping a hole in the land? Will they be the deep gorge or a glacier carved valley? I cannot predict that. But I know the stories will be told, and I will be here, trying to accept the changes again.