A decade after Jon Krakauer's best seller "Into Thin Air" chronicled how crass commercialism was breeding tragedy on the world's tallest peak, little seems to have changed. And if we're to believe Michael Kodas, author of the new "High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed," things may actually be getting worse.
It's no longer just unscrupulous guides charging $65,000 to lead inexperienced, macho clients to the summit. Now, Kodas informs, an uncontrolled criminal element has assailed the mountain Tibetans reverently call Chomolungma, the Goddess mother of the World. Prostitution, narcotics, physical assault, extortion and theft of indispensable oxygen tanks; if its not the brutal wind and minus 30 degree Fahrenheit temperatures at the top of the world that gets you, hundreds of your fellow conniving climbers will.
Everything about the Washington, D.C., physician's 2004 climb seemed ill-conceived, from his choice of a dishonest and reckless guide widely denounced by the Everest community to the mere hubris of attempting the 29,035-foot peak at the advanced age of 69, with a limited climbing resume.
But none of those sins compare to the callous indifference shown by his guide, Gustavo Lisi, and the dozens of climbers who filed past the delirious Antezana on their descent through the oxygen-starved "Death Zone," leaving the good doctor to fall into a frigid coma with little more than an encouraging pat on the back.
Kodas interweaves this dramatic tale with the gripping account of his own struggle with summit fever.
The villain this time is Romanian-born George Dijmarescu, a psychopath bully in the hastily organized Connecticut Everest Expedition in which both partook. Tragedy is avoided, but only barely, Kodas writes, as Dijmarescu knocks unconscious his sherpa wife, cuts backdoor deals to steal valuable sponsorship money and generally preys on his teammates.
Kodas' absorbing description of the narrow moral compass governing human interaction at the top of the world is bound to shock both armchair adventurers and seasoned mountaineers. But in his journalist's zest for self-criticism and balance, he may have missed an opportunity to indict this despicable behavior even further.
For example, he laments the Chinese government's recent decision to pave a road up to its base camp on the Tibetan side of the mountain, a move that will surely speed the arrival of more climbers and modern amenities, but shies away from offering any solutions.
Maybe he should have listened more closely to Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man on Everest, whose half-century of building schools for Himalayan children is referenced throughout the book as an example lost on today's generation of thrill-seeking climbers.
On the 50th anniversary of his pioneering 1953 ascent, Hillary, who died last month, suggested that climbing on Everest should be temporarily banned, to give the mountain a much-needed rest and clean up the heaps of garbage that have earned base camp the nickname "the world's highest landfill." As Kodas' account makes clear, drastic action is needed urgently if more deaths, there have been 59 since the 1996 disaster chronicled by Krakauer, and environmental havoc are to be avoided.
By JOSHUA GOODMAN