The lure, and the cruelty, of Mount Everest

The death of Shriya Shah-Klorfine reminds us that mountains aren’t there to be conquered
Barbara Amiel
Mountains aren’t there to be conquered
Utmost Adventure Trekking Pvt. Ltd/CP

We know so little about Shriya Shah-Klorfine, the 33-year-old Torontonian who reached the summit of Mount Everest, 29,035 feet, only to die on descent. She may have had mountaineering in her DNA, having been born in Nepal and having studied at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. She saw the peak of Everest from a helicopter when she was nine years old and vowed to climb this, the highest mountain in the world. But we all make brave vows at nine: sometimes parents repeat them anecdotally to friends with admiration. We listen and come to believe it a valuable thing to do when in fact this is not really part of us.

All we can know of Ms. Shah-Klorfine, who came to Canada after marrying Canadian jazz and event pianist Bruce Klorfine, is that she possessed great beauty and great courage but not necessarily much moxie or common sense. What drove her to sign up with a Nepal-based expedition company and pay a low-end $36,000 (plus equipment and travel costs) to attempt a feat that claims so many lives? The quality of these trips varies considerably, with the pricey ones hitting six figures. More expensive trips guarantee you extra oxygen and aid, crucial if the timeline through the mountain’s “death zone” is tight. Ms. Shah-Klorfine was at the very end of that timeline with Sherpas begging her in vain to descend, given mountain and weather conditions. So much riding on that climb, her home remortgaged, and two years of daily 19-km runs around Mississauga wearing 20-kg packs. Ms. Shah-Klorfine was hoping to be, as her Twitter page states, “the first South Asian woman from Canada” raising the Canadian flag at the top of Mount Everest.

Great mountains are pitiless—as they should be. Otherwise they are a Disney theme park. High up is a world of magnificent solitude, of spectrums of darkness, shafts of light and inexplicable beauty that, like those ancient sirens of the sea, lures humans onto their rocks and death. Climbing mountains is a useless occupation as it should be. Mountains are not there to aid human beings but to confront them. Like others, I have stood at their base and felt that peculiar ache, a painful tug to surrender in their presence.

This is all very lyrical but not quite how to describe the southeast ascent to Everest, which is the route Shah-Klorfine took. That’s the easy side, relatively speaking, as if climbing up 29,000-plus feet of ice and rock can be shucked off as easy. Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay used the same route on their epochal climb, the first successful ascent, in 1953. But by the 1980s, that was known derisively to experienced Sherpas as the “yak route.” The aesthetics of high-standard mountaineering, wrote a climber in Mountain Chronicles, “are such that a proposed route is only felt to be worthwhile if there is considerable uncertainty as to its outcome.” Death on the southeast side is more likely to be caused by a jam of climbers en route to the peak, trapping those already there, waiting their turn to descend. Death may come from insufficient oxygen to sustain either the wait or the descent. Now it is the north face and west ridge that tempt those who, like great motorcycle racers or fighter pilots, must be slightly bonkers to court such danger. The fatality rates on these dangerous routes are grim, with more dying than summiting.

Of all the sports that human beings undertake, mountaineering is the purest challenge in that it rarely produces glory or commercial value unless you are the company arranging the trips. Ride a bike in a European race or become a downhill skier if it’s recognition you want. Otherwise you can fall back on “firsts,” and Everest has been host to some doozies: there’s the first Jew on Everest, Mr. Geoff Tabin from Chicago in 1988; the first cancer survivor; the youngest female; the youngest Lebanese; not to mention the poker-playing Benegas brothers attempting to play the highest poker game on Earth. Everything but the first person carrying an egg in a spoon. My money goes to American feminist Fanny Bullock Workman, daughter of a Republican governor of Massachusetts. She didn’t climb Everest but in 1906, she and her husband, 12 years her senior, climbed Pinnacle Peak in the Himalayas, 22,736 feet, and later explored the famous glaciers of the Karakoram: probably the first professional female mountaineer achieving this in her fifties wearing voluminous skirts and hobnailed boots.

Reaching five miles above the surface of the Earth, Mount Everest sits among ranges that are unfathomable, unknowable structures of glacier and rock, eternally snow-capped. Some try to metaphorically level these structures by calling them the “highest junkyard in the world,” referring to the detritus that climbers leave behind, empty oxygen tanks and abandoned tents flapping in the winds, frozen bodies strewn over the mountain. But it is pointless. The Himalayas, thrown up 50 million years ago when India crashed into the Eurasian plate, are still growing higher and answer to no human caveat. Whichever side of them one climbs demands every element of one’s physicality in order to glimpse, perhaps, something ineffable. “We may be visitors on these mountains,” said British naturalist David Attenborough in his BBC series Planet Earth, but not conquerors. Shah-Klorfine joins a select group who went and did not return, no less precious for their failure, human sacrifices to the implacable wonder of our world, the great Himalayan mountains.