As I write this, it's about 1 a.m. in Nepal and, according to National Geographic magazine's iPad app, a group of climbers is camped on the side of Mount Everest, possibly sleeping (though we can't be totally sure), at nearly 21,000 feet. They expect to make a final summit push in early May.
Implications aside for a moment, this knowledge is pretty amazing. Two years ago, for better or worse, a 3G network was installed around the foot of Mount Everest. Which allows intrepid climbers like Conrad Anker, Cory Richards and Mark Jenkins to basically live blog their ascent for the magazine.
It's not the first time an Everest climb has been cataloged in almost real time (and really, you don't need 3G to do it); but Nat Geo says this is the first time that a publisher is giving real-time updates in a tablet app. Some of the dispatches can be found on Geographic's "Field Test" blog. But to see it all — including the map that tracks the climbers — you'll have to get your hands on an iPad.
The few images photographer Richards has filed are breathtaking. And when a Sherpa died on the mountain a few days ago, we knew almost right away. The whole thing is intense and riveting and addicting to follow.
But until recent history, the peak of the Earth's highest mountain was impossibly out of reach except to a very, very select few: those with extensive mountaineering experience, sturdy lungs, and a willingness to risk their lives unequivocally. The first attempt to reach the summit was less than 100 years ago; and the first successful climb was as recent as 1953.
Today, several hundred climbers make the attempt every spring. In Into Thin Air, the book chronicling his fateful 1996 climb, Jon Krakauer laments the spent oxygen tanks that litter the once-pristine mountain (although litter is now regulated) — and the irreversible commercialization of the climb, for those able to afford it (although Jenkins, on this expedition, contends that it "has been an economic miracle for the Sherpa").
On a similar note, an article in the current issue of Outside magazine explains the double-edged sword of increased helicopter rescue missions on Everest: "With 25 helicopters now operating in Nepal, the thwapping of rotors is becoming one of the landscape's most familiar characteristics," Nick Heil writes.
In other words: Though the climb remains a life-and-death risk, trekkers might still have, in the very back of their minds, the comforting thought that a rescue chopper is theoretically just a 3G phone call away. And if you can't even escape the incessant hum of humanity on Mount Everest, where can you?
This is not to diminish the feat, or overlook the skill of Anker, Richards and Jenkins, or trivialize the risk they are taking. Those three alone have a staggering laundry list of accomplishments under their collective belt. Not to mention the reputed climbers that join them, and the Sherpas that carry their weight.
It's just food for thought.
George Mallory was one of the climbers in the very first Everest expeditions. When asked why he wanted to do it, his reply, legend has it, was: "Because it's there." He died in a 1924 attempt.
Some people look at natural wonders and see a challenge. We climb mountains because they are there. We live blog it because we can.
Meanwhile, we also wire cables across virginal landscape just so we can show what we've done, or so we can make a call when we've gotten ourselves into trouble. It raises the age-old question: Who's stopping to think about what we should — or shouldn't — do?
It's something I'd love to talk with the climbers about directly; oddly enough, that possibility isn't too far-fetched.