By any objective measure, 2013 has not been a vintage year for Mount Everest.
An ugly fight between three Western climbers and a group of Sherpas got things off to an unpleasant start in April, and an avalanche of negative press coverage followed, including a high-profile National Geographic feature replete with hellish descriptions of “the mess at the top of the world”: huge mounds of rubbish and human excrement at some of the camps; dangerous bottlenecks on the approach to the summit; corpses left to rot on the way down.
But are things on Everest really as bad as we’ve been led to believe? On 29 May, there were celebrations at the foot of the mountain – and all over the world – to mark the 60th anniversary of Hillary and Tenzing’s historic first ascent on the same day in 1953, and this climbing season more than 600 people were able to follow in their footsteps and enjoy the view from the highest point on the planet. There were some remarkable firsts, too, notably Mexican climber David Liano’s “double summit” of the mountain, which saw him ascending from both the Nepal and Tibet sides, and English climber Kenton Cool’s completion of the so-called Everest Trilogy, which saw him summit Everest and its two neighbours, Lhotse and Nuptse, in just five days.
To anyone relying on newspapers and TV for information, then, 2013 may have seemed like an “annus horribilis” for Everest, but what did it feel like to the people actually living and working on the mountain?
Later this month, two leading Everest mountaineers will visit Edinburgh to talk about the history and future of the world’s highest peak. Lakpa Rita Sherpa of Nepal has climbed Everest 17 times and is the first Sherpa to climb the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. Kenton Cool meanwhile, has summited Everest 11 times, achieving a string of firsts in the process, including becoming the first European to summit ten times and the first non-Asian to summit twice in one week.
Cool believes that this year, as in previous years, the media have made things on the mountain seem a lot worse than they really are.
Of the flare-up between Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, Jonathan Griffin and a group of Sherpas who felt they had been disrespected, he says “the reaction seems to have been far greater than the incident.”
“Everest this year should have been a celebration,” he continues, “and it was a celebration – there was lots of good stuff going on. But for the first time in years, climbing made the front page of the Sun – and it made it for all the wrong reasons. It’s such a shame.”
As for the National Geographic’s story about the way Everest has become “an icon for everything that is wrong with climbing” Cool almost seems to take it personally, as if the story was an attack on a close friend.
“Everest isn’t some sort of hell on Earth,” he says, “it’s a sensational place. I’ve been to base camps all over the world and considering the number of people going to [Everest] base camp it’s exquisitely clean. Yes, there’s mess at 8,000m at Camp IV, at the South Col, but let’s keep things in context – that’s seen by a handful of climbers each year, and it’s a mess that’s created by climbers. There is a general view these days that everything should be taken off the mountain, which I wholly concur with, but taken where? At the moment human matter is being removed from the mountain and taken to Gorak Shep, which is the nearest village, and it’s polluting the water supply. So it’s great to be holier than thou about keeping the mountain clean and tidy, but what about everybody else?”
One National Geographic reader may have summed up the feelings of many when he wrote a letter to the magazine’s editor, saying “I often fantasised about climbing Mount Everest... [but] after reading your article I will take that dream off my bucket list.” I ask Cool what he would say to anyone feeling similarly disillusioned.
“Follow your dreams,” he says, “and don’t let silly, biased journalism put you off.”
• Everest Uncovered with Kenton Cool and Lakpa Rita Sherpa, George Square Theatre, Edinburgh, 22 October, 7:30pm, tickets £10, visit www.sherpaadventuregear.co.uk