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May 2, 2013 at 6:06 AM

Fisticuffs on Mount Everest — not in Jim Whittaker’s day

Photo by Diane Roberts

Photo by Diane Roberts

The Associated Press story about the rumble on Mount Everest between three foreign climbers and a group for Sherpa guides put me in mind of how much Jim Whitaker says the experience has changed over the years.

According to one account, earlier this week, Sherpa guides were fixing ropes and digging a path above Camp 2. They asked three climbers to wait until they were finished. The climbers ignored them and some ice reportedly fell on the Sherpas. Later, the three climbers were confronted by a group of Sherpas and fisticuffs ensued. Later a truce was reached.

But the AP story notes that “Hundreds of climbers from 32 expeditions and their Sherpa guides and helpers are at the base camp waiting for the window of good weather in May to make their way to the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) summit.”

Fifty years ago Wednesday, Whittaker was the first American to summit at Mount Everest. He got to throw out the first pitch at the Mariner game on Sunday in celebration of the occasion.

In his Feb. 23 guest column in The Times, Whittaker worried that commercialization and the infrastructure that has sprung up to accommodate summiting hopefuls had also put more people in jeopardy. He compares the difference between his climb and the too-high death toll of 12 on Mount Everest last year from preventable conditions:

“In 1963, our expedition hired 32 Sherpas and 909 porters to help us carry 27 tons of equipment over a 185-mile trek from Katmandu to Everest Base Camp. As we progressed up the mountain, we entered a high-altitude wilderness composed of snow, rock and ice. For more than a month, we painstakingly laid bridges across cavernous crevasses, ladders up ice walls and installed fixed ropes. Our team was comprised of the strongest young men in the American mountaineering community: Many of us were professional mountain guides and ski patrollers who had years of high altitude, cold-weather climbing experience under our belts.

Today, the trek to Everest Base Camp has been reduced to a 45-minute airplane ride and a 40-mile hike. There are guesthouses with meals, beds and beer along the way — luxuries that we could only have dreamed of in 1963. There is also a plethora of guide services that promise the experience of a lifetime for a handsome fee. While some of the more respected and long-standing guide services will turn away inexperienced clients, there are a growing number of low-budget companies that have few prerequisites. As a result, the relative inexperience of those climbing the mountain has considerably increased.”

He goes on to talk about his son’s experience climbing Everest:

“In May 2012, my son, Leif Whittaker, sponsored by Eddie Bauer (the same company that supplied our down clothing and sleeping bags in 1963), reached the summit of Mount Everest for his second time. During the ascent, Leif was forced to wait for more than an hour just below the summit at 28,700 feet, while more than 100 climbers descended the fixed rope. Leif recalled that some were exhausted to the point of stumbling dangerously down the route.

Sadly, the 2012 season was the second-most-deadly year in the history of the mountain. Everest claimed 10 people, and if not for nearly perfect weather the day of Leif’s summit bid, the death toll could easily have been much worse. Causes of death were largely avoidable: exhaustion, altitude sickness, climbing too slowly, and the failure to recognize personal limits and turn around. Lack of climbing experience at high altitude in cold weather increases the likelihood of such problems.

For more about Jim Whittaker, see Times writer Ron Judd’s Pacific magazine feature and an archived online chat  etween the two.

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