The lure, and the cruelty, of Mount Everest

The death of Shriya Shah-Klorfine reminds us that mountains aren’t there to be conquered

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.


The lure, and the cruelty, of Mount Everest

  1. This tragedy need not have happened. The trekking company should have explained to their clients from day one, that if they ever felt that the climb did not look to be going well due to whatever reason, that they would turn back immediately. That would include the whole group or even just one climber. I’ve read that a guide felt that Shiryia was struggling and the lineups and weather was also problematic that day. Instead of asking her to turn around, the guide should have said, “we are going back” and if necessary physically forced her to head back down.

  2. The type of training this woman did sounded like something you do to get ready for the Walk to End Breast Cancer. I agree, she did not possess much in the way of common sense. This is freaking EVEREST. People are not meant to live at that altitude and as one climber said, one little error and you can go from life to death very quickly.

  3. Of course its a sad story and my thoughts are with the people and their families who lost their lives on Everest this year. But its a freaking circus now out there. Many of these tourist climbers shouldn’t even be there in the first place. Being pushed and pulled up by 3 to 4 Sherpa’s and taking oxygen like drinking water from as low as base camp is NOT mountaineering. People should have more respect for Chomolungma, The Mother Goddes of the Earth. There should be a limit on who can/can’t go. But of course there is so much money involved that the Nepali Government and the trekking agencies take these bookings at all costs.

    It is like entering in the Hawaii Ironman and then being pushed and pulled by 3 people just to reach the finish line. You need to set a minimum time just to be allowed to enter the Ironman of Hawaii, there should be something similar in the mountains.

    I feel sorry for those ‘New Everest Summiteers’.

  4. This is a much more well-rounded article than some that have come before. The focus in some other articles has been on the woman being brave (rather than reckless) and on her being Canadian and what she was trying to do for her chosen country, even though she didn’t choose to live here, but married a Canadian and then moved here, becoming a Canadian. She didn’t do what she did because she wanted to do it for Canada. It had far more to do with the land of her birth.

    • She chose to live here and become a Canadian citizen. You could better argue that someone born here did not choose to be Canadian. Your argument is ridiculous.

      • What I’m saying is, if the man she had met and fallen in love with on the cruise ship had come from the US, then that’s the country she would have adopted, and the one she was representing in the Everest climb, though I don’t know if that would have been important to the US or to Canada or have her do that. She didn’t think things through and consciously make a decision to emmigrate to Canada, by herself, from her homeland. So, she arrived here by chance and then took out citizenship. Whether one is a 5th generation Canadian or a newly-arrived immigrant should make a difference to how being Canadian is perceived. In Maclean’s ‘Defining Canadian Moments’, readers tell about when being Canadian really sunk in, for them. For those born here, having taken their first breath here, the experience is different than those coming from other countries – or from those who have left and returned, eg Michael Ignatieff, Conrad Black, and me. http://moments.macleans.ca/moments/just-knowing-i-am-canadian/ .

        • huh? your logic makes no sense. people who are born in Canada (like I was) obviously don’t have a choice in where they’re born – they became Canadian just by chance… There’s even more chance involved in being born in Canada than Shriya just happening to meet and marry a Canadian.

          • When I wrote about the subject of choice, it is within the context of talk that she “adopted” Canada, eg see http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/05/29/canadian-climber-shriya-shah-klorfines-body-removed-from-mount-everest-by-helicopter/ and other articles and comments. Several use the term “adopt” as though she did research, made plans and chose Canada. she didn’t. She met a man from Canada and married him and moved to wherever he came from, in this case, Canada.

            It is just a misuse of the term “adopt” in these articles, giving off the impression that she came here as a single woman because she loved the idea of being a Canadian.

            You can look at the terms ‘adopt’ and ‘choice’ and even the term ‘Canadian’ in their most minute form. As someone commented, being Canadian means one has passed the test – ttp://news.nationalpost.com/2012/05/30/shriya-shah-klorfines-body-to-be-repatriated-to-canada-after-removal-from-mount-everest/#Comments .

            For people who are born here, Canada is their country. They have no other to consider, not like Michel Jean, for instance, whose priority seemed to have been Haiti, even when she held a Canadian govt post. If you, murt, don’t feel very Canadian, what kind of citizen exactly, do you see your self as being? Yes, you got here by chance, unless your parents practiced family planning, but being born here means that you became integrated from birth into Canada’s customs. You don’t feel like running off to another country and doing whatever it is they do, do you, to prove you’re one of them?

  5. There is quite a bit that doesn’t seem sinceren about this venture, such as the idea that this was a childhood dream of Shriya’s and so is even more meaningful. I agree with Barbara Amiel that that means little or nothing. It is only in retrospect that such talk is remembered.
    It is also said that she remortgaged her home to finance this trip. Another article, by Kelly McParland in the National Post, states that “She mortgaged her home and ran up a big debt to pay for the trek.” I question whether she actually went into debt over this. And I wonder if it really had been her house or was it her husband’s and put in her name. It is the family home, isn’t it? Or is it a second home.
    So before the fundraising gets started, and her multitude of supporters begin efforts to collect donations to pay her expenses off, I think the idea that she lost a lot of her own money through this needs to be questioned. She was asking for sponsors on her website, and that is still running, though her husband’s own business website has disappeared.
    The tone of the articles have changed over the last while, so now her lack of readiness is recognized, as well the problems of so many feeling the need to climb Everest or engage in other actitivities equally as pointless, when there are so many other worthwhile ways for people to contribute to society, or prove themselves. So rather than continue with this attention, and possibly donations, because that’s the way her friends and supporters may see themselves as doing something useful (support someone who remortgaged her home to climb Everest?), I would like to see it end, now. Many people run up debts trying to accomplish something useful, but don’t get the kind of help wealthy people get. So if she has debts, and she still owns the house, her estate can pay for her debts. And that’s fair, considering how other people in this world are treated.

    • Sam, you seem so obsessed with this one issue. This is a lot of energy focused on this one person. You could use your energy on more productive items for yourself or the entire planet. Focus on the present as this is where all your power is contained. This is where we create the future. We cannot change the past. The time and energy you spend on all the little intricate details (much of it made up, as you don’t even know the facts) could be better spent on improving your own life, thereby improving the entire planet and mankind.

  6. I listened to a couple of interviews w/ friends of hers, talking about how determined she was, how much she accomplished, etc. What she really accomplished was suicide – what a waste of a life.

  7. It’s just getting silly. Compared to the kind of enterprise it was after the first world war, chronicled excellently in Wade Davis’ “Into the Silence” – when it was more like a Moon shot – it’s something of a joke to hike four miles to have to queue up like you were at an especially popular nightclub So many rich idiots, so little going on in their privileged, pampered lives. It’s becoming something of a joke: to be the first four year old to make the summit. The first man to do it backwards. The first man to carry his wife on his back. The first woman to breastfeed . . . Especially when you can fly to the summit in a helicopter quite easily. This compares to “running” a marathon. Anyone can “run” a marathon if you give them enough time. With enough sherpas and oxygen and high tech equipment anyone can “climb” this mountain. When they carve steps into the rocks and ramps for wheelchairs it’ll become a summer vacation hot spot complete with tee shirt I CLIMBED EVEREST.

  8. “Not necessarily much moxie”?

  9. When confronted by the blank page, some writers with nothing useful to contribute, will have both the moxie and the common sense to leave it unconquered.

  10. Had Shriya decided to train by climbing the steps of the CN Tower with a 40 lb backpack and a mask that limited her breathing, she might have, after a couple of hundred steps, said, “Hey, this climbing stuff is too much like work. I think I’ll go back to hunger strikes at Queen’s Park!”

  11. Not much moxie? She made it to the summit of Everest. On her first attempt! Her mistake, and in hindsight poor judgement, was to spend too much time, too late in the day, at the Death Zone elevations. There were too many climbers on the mountain that day, and the backup at the Hillary Step caused many of them to spend more time than was wise at these dangerous elevations. Four people died on the mountain that day. She pursued her dream, and paid the price. I am not going to sit in judgement. RIP

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