Dear Ueli,

You know what this is about. It’s what everything has been about for – how long has it been – ever? I mean the little dust-up on Everest. Let me reassure you, I am writing as a great admirer and friendly correspondent. You are living the dream, and showing all us amateur climbers how to do it. We are all limited by what we think is possible, and you have made a career of crushing the limits. So I am not a critic, but I do have a concern.

I’m not so worried about the actual events on the Lhotse face. I don’t know shit about Sherpas or their culture, but I am a field observer of human psychology, as a hobby and in my job, and here is how it looks. It appears that the Sherpa crew on the face was pissed because you guys passed them and may have knocked a bit of ice down. As climbers, we know how frustrating it can be to have a stronger team pass us. We accept it as part of the game, though. It’s the same with ice fall; even the best climber is going to knock a little ice down, no matter how careful he or she is trying to be. However, the reaction you got didn’t come from climbers, did it? It came from technicians trying to get a job done.

I’ve tasted that flavor of hostile indignation before. The first time was from a Chicago cop. I used to run a route that took me past a housing project. Rain or shine, I did that run for a year and a half, until the cop stopped me. He didn’t yell or throw rocks at me, but he made it clear that I was not to run the route past the project anymore. Unpleasant legal consequences would follow, he implied, if I did not comply. Before my encounter with the cop in Chicago, I had the naïve idea that laws and cops were there to keep the peace and let the citizens get on with their business. Afterwards, I understood that laws and cops were there to prevent trouble for cops and the legal system. Seems like the situation is the same with the fixed lines on Everest and the people associated with them.

These people – the functionaries of the Big Expeditions to the Classic Routes on the Big Mountains – have a different view of risk than climbers. A climber’s view of risk is like a card player’s. He pushes the chips to the middle of the table and then does his best to get them back. These other people do their best not to have to play the game. Who can blame them? They have a job to do.

Which brings me to my concern. What do you want with mountaineering anyway? We all know that mountaineering is for those who can’t do anything else. Hell, in fifteen years or so, I know I’ll be trading in my tools for a piolet and begging my kids to drag me up some god-forsaken volcano (assuming I live that long). Of course, on Everest you were after the West Ridge, which is not a mountaineer’s route. No doubt you were motivated in part by the tale of the route’s first ascent. I have heard Tom Hornbein talk about the original climb. Even back then, he and Willie Unsoeld had to fight the mountaineering expedition mentality to get to their climb. That mentality is institutionalized now in the environs of all the prominent peaks, high and low. Did you hope to escape it in this day and age on the most prominent peak of them all?

I know you have a job to do too, and you are beholden to the weasels in marketing because of it. However, you shouldn’t feel compelled to stoop to mountaineering. You must realize that the weasels in marketing would rather not have you around. They would prefer an endless parade of reality TV celebrities coming off the summit of the world’s highest. Those wankers come much cheaper and are easier to liquidate. The climbing community would recognize the significance of a West Ridge ascent, but the rest of the world would see only the summit of Everest, and they would be glad that you had finally got there, after all your preliminary fiddling in the Alps.

You ratify the popular perception by adding an Everest summit to your resume, and in the process, you increase the value of wanker stock. To us climbers, you represent the consummate talent and discipline required to push the chips to the middle and reliably pull them back. To the summit industry, you represent recklessness bordering on assholery, by playing your game in their workspace. Even worse, when their stock goes up, yours goes down. As the notoriety of the high summit grows, lending credence to the wankers’ claim (explicit or implicit) that the high summit is the Grand Prize of climbing, the significance of soloing the North Face of the Eiger in a few hours, shrinks.

Don’t get me wrong, an artist like you should do what moves him without listening to anybody else, especially a duffer like me, and if you are moved to go back to climb the West Ridge of Everest, you should. Furthermore, you have nothing to be sorry for regarding the fight with the rope-techs on the Lhotse face. I’ve read all the anti-imperialist narrative and social justice analysis regurgitated in response to this incident. Sherpas attacking a bitchy client is a revolution. Sherpas attacking an independent team of climbers is just a good, old-fashioned turf war. So, I think there’s nothing to stop you from going back in principle, but please consider before you do: Is it good for business?

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One thought on “Dear Ueli,

  1. Borut Kantušer says:

    Thanks Keith for the edition. I was hardly aware of the whole story, so it was an occasion to catch up with the core of mountain business, and climbing. Sad – but not surprising, in fact.
    I also liked the bit on volcano climbing. On my part, maybe even speleology.

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