It should be noted that I have never climbed Mount Everest. I have, however, been to the Grand Canyon.
In 2019, where a million views on a youtube video is hardly impressive, it is hard to imagine an image can go viral, much less become iconic.
In late May, an image of Mount Everest has managed to go absolutely viral and is well on its way to becoming an iconic image. An enormous line stretches across the narrow edges before the peak of the mountain. Reports say that the wait to stand on top of the world is hours long. Climbers have collapsed while waiting in the line. Several dead bodies are frozen in the icy path. Eleven climbers have lost their lives during this season.
This past Friday, I was at a friend’s graduation party when this photo was first shown to me. While sitting at a card table with a few ex-seniors, we tried to suss out for ourselves what should be done about this problem. Debates have popped up all over the place about climbing the mountain. Did Nepal issue too many permits? Who is responsible for vetting possible climbers? Do we live in a world where everything can be bought, including a trip to the highest peak on Earth, even if a guide has to drag you the entire way? Are people dying because of overcrowding? Because of physically unfit climbers? Because of unlucky weather? Because they wanted the coolest selfie on their friends instagram streams?
The selfie argument has popped up a surprising amount of times in the discussion. In fact, the selfie argument has also popped up in discussion about the Grand Canyon this year. Deaths have been higher than usual. At least one of these visitors was reported to have fallen to their death while taking a selfie.
Whether through personal discussions or comments on new articles, many people have taken to criticizing the cause of these deaths. I was surprised to hear a favorite podcast of mine, called “My Favorite Murder”, discuss some of the bodies on Everest. The hosts commented frequently that nobody at a cocktail party will care if you climbed Mount Everest and they stressed how illogical the pursuit is. One article pointed out that most people wouldn’t even cross the street to meet somebody who climbed Everest.
As the discussions of Everest and the Grand Canyon have reached common ground, they have started to make me squirm. Earlier this year, I went to the Grand Canyon for the first, and likely last, time.
Where I live, its very common for people to take big trips for their “senior spring break”. With a time frame of early March, I settled on a trip to Arizona. I figured it would be decently warm, and I’d never seen the southwestern area before.
My dad happily agreed to the trip, and we booked our flights. I’d consider myself and my dad moderately experienced hikers, my dad far more so. We planned to spend three days at the canyon, then one at Zion National Park, then another at Prescott National Forest. The trip would finish with a visit to the University of Arizona to see their planetary science department.
On our drive to the canyon, we were slightly shocked to see snow in Flagstaff. As an ignorant midwesterner, I had pictured Arizona as one mass desert. The weather only worsened as we got closer to the Grand Canyon. The visibility was so poor that we couldn’t see the cars driving on the other side of the road.
During the last leg of our journey, in the thick skies of the third photo above, we saw lightning touchdown within about a half mile of our car.
Our rented Nissan Rogue did an admirable job getting us to the Yavapai lodge despite its difficulty going above thirty miles an hour on inclines.
We woke up to inches of snow on the ground.
I had enough sense to watch the weather before we left, so I knew it would be cold at the canyon. I packed snow pants and my mom’s good winter coat, along with many, many layers. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the snow.
We made the best of the day and rode the bus in the morning, then attempted some hiking.
We certainly weren’t the only people at the park, but we were some of the few on the paths. Still, I didn’t expected the number of people we saw. We still ran into some 20+ people on the trails. We also ran into 50+ elk.
I did not know that elk lived at the Grand Canyon, so imagine my shock when I turned to look at the canyon and made eye contact with one.
The paths were both paved and slushy. I am no stranger to ice on blacktop, as I spent many years walking to school through a park in Ohio winters.
As we made our way through the rim trail, we suddenly found ourselves on an unpaved section. This wouldn’t be an issue for us decently experienced hikers, if not for the sheet of ice covering the trail. This section was not as flat as the trail had previously been.
We slowly made our way across the .7 mile section. My footing slipped and I slid an inch forward on a decline.
“Don’t fall.” My dad warned. “If you slip here, there’s nothing I can do to help you.” he understated.
Despite my earnest commitment to not fall, several minutes later, at the bottom of a decline, I felt a rush of motion and felt my butt hit the ice. My palms slammed on the ground behind me.
My dad was reserved as he asked if I was alright, and we continued on. Before the trail was over, we saw footprints leading away from the rim trail, up a small hill and into the snowy forest. We decided to follow the wisdom of those who came before us and bail.
We continued on with the rest of our day.
Over an early dinner, my dad took advantage of a pause in our conversation.
“I gotta be honest. When you fell today, I was scared.”
The next day was my eighteenth birthday, which I celebrated over another early dinner and with a phone call to my brother, who had been in treatment for addiction for three full months. I couldn’t help but think that I very well could have been dead in the canyon and not speaking to my brother for the first time in months, and speaking to a sober version for the first time in years.
The week after our trip, three people died at the Grand Canyon.
When people talk about Everest and the silly pursuit of the summit, I don’t think its silly at all.
I read the short obituaries that the New York Times posted for each of the eleven climbers on Everest. They weren’t foolish people taking selfies, many were experienced climbers, some had even summited before.
These aren’t people who went for a photo op or bragging rights. I think very few of the climbers of Everest are. The people who climb do it because they have a sentimental attachment to the goal. They have a parent who summited, a childhood fascination, a life to live after tragedy. Many people have gone for the same reason I went to the Grand Canyon.
Because they thought they would be fine.
They would sleep in altitude simulating tents. They would climb other mountains. They would buy the right equipment. They would go with trusted guides. Maybe they’d even gone before.
Five million people go to the Grand Canyon every year. Twelve of them won’t leave alive.
Many people go to Everest with the best of intentions. Still, they are human. They go into cardiac arrest. Weather turns bad. Avalanches fall. They slip.
The problems with crowds and inexperience on Everest are real. I believe Nepal issued too many permits, and that the narrow window to summit trapped all these people together. Still, I don’t blame those who have died. They weren’t millennial caricatures falling after daredevil stunts. They are real individuals who suffered a possible fate, made more likely by the government of Nepal, and the weather, and sometimes, by other climbers.
The mountain is deadly and overcrowded.
When I declared I’d never go back to the Grand Canyon, it was not after my brush with death, but after our final day there, when the weather was clear and the park became crowded. I preferred to slip without strangers watching.