Mount Everest bites back. Lessons from Himalayan mountain disasters

18 June 2024, Tuesday

The challenge to climb the world’s highest mountain has become a popular sport. You are not required to be in an elite class of mountaineers to reach the summit. Tourists can get there too, with the paid help of locals. The world was reminded earlier this year that Everest should not be treated like a play park for the rich after 16 lives were claimed in one go. This week, more than 30 lives were lost after snow storms triggered monster avalanches in Nepal. South African human brand specialist Rob Opie has a deep interest in the wonders of Everest and how it has helped shape our understanding of human greatness. He takes a look at tragic events on Everest and the message behind it all. He argues that today’s quest for ‘recreational tourism’ is about man misreading the mountain. See the latest details about search efforts, below his opinion piece. Jackie Cameron

By Rob Opie   

Having made it my purpose in life to explore human greatness and share this esoteric knowledge with those who want to know, nothing fascinates me more than Everest. This week, and in April, the mountains did some talking – sending out a very clear message of ‘take responsibility’, to those that now regard it as the ‘playground of the rich’.

Did Everest send out a ‘human like’ message to re-examine the exploitation of the mountain and the legendary sherpas by the Nepalese authorities?

Everest stands 8 848m tall and those who climb to its summit enter what is commonly known as ‘the death zone’ above 8 000m. It’s a zone where ‘helicopters do not fly’; as it is here that the air is too thin for rescue missions. It’s a zone where it is all about man versus mountain – and taking full responsibility.

 ‘You could die in each climb and that meant you were responsible for yourself. We were real mountaineers: careful, aware and even afraid. By climbing mountains we were not learning how big we were. We were finding out how breakable, how weak and how full of FEAR we are. You can only get this if you expose yourself to high danger. I have always said that a mountain without danger is not a mountain. 

                                                                                     Reinhold Messner

The greatest Himalayan climbers all know that nobody ever bullies Everest. Yet, over the last few years the romantic passion for expedition and adventure captured by the great climbers has been replaced by recreational tourism and the commercialisation of the mountain.

The rich are putting others at risk. In April 16 sherpas gave of their lives while helping to map routes to the summit for those who should not be on the mountain. This week, most of the victims were reportedly tourists.

Everest is about taking responsibility for oneself. Man versus mountain. Modern day climbers make liberal use of bottled oxygen and prophylactic steroids and other climbing resources, and it’s the sherpas who have to place all these resources at high altitude.

‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest? If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle of life itself is upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.  

                                                                                            George Mallory 

Here is the key to why modern society, with all of its commercialisation imperatives, is a case of mis-reading the mountain. Reality sets in, lives are lost, and only then are questions asked. Those that are on this mountain should take responsibility for themselves, and not outsource the real risks to the sherpas who carry provisions and  map ‘easier routes ‘ up the mountain to enable ‘the egotistical rich’ to conquer the world’s tallest mountain – those that should never be on the mountain in the first place.

Sadly, the costs are no longer in dollars, but in lives. Timing schedules requiring sherpas to take unnecessary high risks amount to the mountain being bullied.

The great climbers always bided their time and watched the weather, and always knew when to begin the ascent. Today, getting to the Everest summit has become ‘too easy’ thanks to the sherpas who minimise exposure times of lesser-prepared climbers. It has come at great cost, as the mountain will always bite back.

It is time to restore respect for the mountain. Being guided by sherpas to some extent, and most definitely having sherpa porters, is ethically fraught. It outsources the risk to those that are not compensated adequately for placing provisions and ladders on the mountain for those that cannot do the job themselves.

Reaching the summit of Everest has sadly lost most of its meaning and lives are being lost because of this commercialisation. In some way this smacks of our very own gold mining industry, where accidents happen when one drills in a place where one should not normally be operating – too deep or too high is dangerous.

As the Himalayan sherpas now down tools demanding better remuneration and insurance more in line with risk, many houses are missing family members. Has the real message from the mountain been heard?  Further commercialisation will result in more deaths and family devastation, as nobody can ever bully Everest!

The Nepalese authorities have some tough calls to make going forward. Everest – the mountain that tests true human greatness – has clearly spoken.


Edmund Hillary said: ‘It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves’