Monday, September 17, 2012

Laramie writer aims to ‘reveal some truths’

From the Laramie Boomerang:  Laramie writer aims to ‘reveal some truths’

As Laramie resident and National Geographic field staff writer Mark Jenkins made his summit push during a recent trip to Mt. Everest, he climbed over several dead bodies, frozen in the snow along the well-trodden path to the top.

But the dead bodies didn’t slow Jenkins down as much as the live ones did — hundreds of people strung out along fixed lines in a seemingly endless stretch to the summit.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Everest, Jenkins encountered a mountain that’s more crowded than ever, with most climbers paying tens of thousands of dollars to a guide to take them to the highest point in the world.

“I think that I have some reservations, certainly some questions, about the style in which Everest is being climbed today,” Jenkins said.

He’ll give a slideshow and presentation about his expedition at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Wyoming Education Auditorium.

“My hope is … to give a realistic portrait of what Everest is in 2012, and to dispel some of the myths and to reveal some of the truths of what it’s like to climb the highest mountain in the world,” he said.

Jenkins was part of the Everest Education Expedition, a recreation of a 1963 climbing season in which Jim Whittaker, together with Sherpa Nawang Gombu, became the first American to reach the summit. It was the fourth successful attempt of Everest. A few weeks later, four more Americans reached the top, with two of them forging a new route up the West Ridge.

While the 2012 West Ridge attempt was called off because of dangerous conditions, the group was successful in ascending the now-standard South Col route.

Jenkins, a writer-in-residence for UW’s creative writing program, first attempted Everest in 1986, when he was a UW graduate student studying geography. He didn’t make the top then, turned around by avalanches.

These days, despite the existence of a dozen or so established routes, almost everyone climbs up either the North Col or the South Col using supplemental oxygen and hiring a guide who in turn hires Sherpas to carry the gear, pitch the tents, cook the meals and escort climbers along the route.

The use of guides on any big peak isn’t unusual these days, but it doesn’t mitigate the inherent risk of climbing a 29,000-foot mountain.

 “When you’re at eight-thousand meters, can a guide actually save your life? The answer is no. If you make critical mistakes, no one can save you,” Jenkins said.

Those mistakes usually involve miscalculations on the part of the climber related to their own chances of making the top and getting back down safely.

“One of the myths is that the mountain is killing all these people, where in fact it’s mostly hubris. They’re killing themselves,” he said.

For Jenkins, mountaineering isn’t just about reaching the summit. It’s about challenging oneself, developing the necessary skills through years of training, working with a team and making decisions under life-or-death pressure.

“Style matters. Style is substance, and how you climb is as important as what you climb, or if you reach the summit,” Jenkins said. “If it’s just about the summit, eventually we’ll have a chopper that can go right to the top and drop you off, if that’s all you need,” he said.

Jenkins’ magazine article will be published next May or June in National Geographic magazine. He’s also writing a chapter for a book about Everest, and the blog posts he wrote during the expedition will be compiled into an e-book.

Next year, he’ll present his slideshow at each of Wyoming’s community colleges.


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