Climbing Mount Everest used to be a rare achievement guided by a love of nature. Today, it’s often just about the selfie. On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explored how the popularity of scaling the world’s most iconic summit has spawned an entire commercial industry — leading to myriad physical dangers and devaluing a once-historic achievement through vanity.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first known people to summit Mount Everest in 1953 — a seemingly impossible act. But since then, taking the climb has become a popular challenge for both experienced and inexperienced mountaineers. For the first 35 years after Hillary, there were only 260 ascents. Through 2018, there have been 9,159 total.
That vast leap dates back to the 1990s via the expedition industry, with guides and sherpas aiding customers on their Everest journey. And that booming business has caused a number of problems — from a depressing amount of garbage on the mountain to overcrowding at the peak, as people try to take their majestic photos in a space the size of two ping-pong tables. “Climbing Mount Everest has somehow gone from being a rare feat of extraordinary skill to something that looks like the line at Trader Joe’s,” Oliver cracked.
The irony is that climbing Everest on a commercial expedition — while still a clear challenge with obvious physical demands — isn’t quite as humblebrag-worthy. As Oliver detailed, many of these businesses offer expensive “luxury expeditions” (including perks like heated tents and dining tables), and the sherpas usually face integral tasks like carrying supplies, setting up tents and securing passage through dangerous areas like the Khumbu Icefall, a “notoriously deadly area littered with gigantic blocks of ice that can fall at any moment.”
“For many climbers, Everest is not unlike Simon and Garfunkel,” Oliver said. “There is someone along for the ride to the top and there’s someone pulling all the weight. And I’m not saying who’s who, and neither is Art Garfunkel, unless Paul Simon writes it for him.”
Sherpas, in facing one of the most dangerous jobs on Earth, are frequently exploited in their work. And without their sacrifice, the number of successful climbs would be significantly smaller. “It really puts their customers’ achievements in a slightly different context,” Oliver said. “If your friend ran a marathon but only because someone else ran a thousand miles back and forth, bringing them Gatorade and carrying a dining table, you might not cheer so hard at the fucking finish line.”
On a technical level, Mount Everest is not the Number One most difficult mountain to climb. Nonetheless, the host said, “inexperience can still be deadly — especially as you reach the peak.” Climbers can experience a condition called “summit fever”: rushing to reach the peak without prioritizing the energy needed for descent. In addition, the area above 26,000 feet — known as “the death zone” — only has 30 percent of the oxygen at sea level; in this dangerous region, the location of numerous deaths, the brain starts to swell due to hypoxia.
The risks are clear, yet Everest remains overcrowded: An American recently became the 11th person to die on the mountain since March. Given those dangers, inexperienced climbers shouldn’t be permitted, but that’s not always the case. As Oliver noted, on the more challenging Tibetan side, the government has strict limitations on who and how many can climb. But on the slightly easier Nepal side, there are no limits on climbing permits; you just have to pay an $11,000 fee and provide a doctor’s note deeming yourself “physically fit.”
Two-thirds of Everest climbers trek up the Nepal side, leading to a lot of inexperienced climbers on the mountain. In 2018, a Nepalese tourism told Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel that roughly half of those permitted to climb were not qualified to do so. Since Nepal relies heavily on tourism revenue, it seems unclear that the system will change. But Oliver recommended some clear starting points: reducing permits to prevent overcrowding, spacing out expeditions and placing strict limits of the number of companies allowed to operate.
To aid those who’d love to climb Everest from the comfort of their living rooms, Last Week Tonight unveiled their new joke Photoshop company, Adventures Indoors Luxepeditions, “the world leader in getting people to the summit of Mount Everest without ever actually going there.” By visiting thetopofmounteverest.com, users can insert a photo of themselves onto the heads of Everest climbers — a safe way to fake the achievement while staying the hell out of the way.
“Climbing Mount Everest has become an industry with blood on its hands, but no one can deny it’s one of the most striking photos you can have of yourself,” Oliver joked. “So please join me in embarking upon the Mount Everest of Instagram-able moments. Why do it? Because it’s there.”