So season 3 of “Everest Beyond the Limit” is finally here, and thanks to the Discovery Channel, we got a triple dose of it Sunday night.
I’m a bit confused by this, and am also curious about the lack promotion of the show. But that’s all inside baseball. The three episodes were interesting. There were some changes this season compared to the previous two (SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the shows yet).
For starters, we don’t see a lot of Russell Brice. Brice was the central figure in the past two seasons. He’s the owner of Himex, the guide company that featured in earlier seasons. A grizzled veteran of high altitude mountaineering, his bluntness was often the source of drama in past episodes. He makes a couple short appearances in the first episode, but most of the filming in the first three episodes focuses on IMG, a friendly competitor in the mountain guide business.
Another major difference: the location. Same mountain, but from the south side. Previous seasons took us to the north side of Mount Everest, the Tibet side. This is where Brice and a number of other companies did their work. That came to a screeching halt in 2008, as the Chinese government — fearing pro-Tibet demonstrations — effectively shut down the north side of Everest during the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The Chinese also wanted the north side to themselves so a team of Chinese climbers would have unhindered access to the summit in a bid to take the Olympic torch to the top.
The south route — the Nepal side — is the most popular, and is the same route used during the mountain’s first ascent half a century ago. It was cool to see filming of this classic route and its many famous places (love the Hillary Step footage).
Now we have that out of the way, I saw some interesting things in the three episodes I saw last night. I won’t break it down by episode. I’ll just stick to the highpoints. Here goes:
Mountain climbing on Everest is far different than mountain climbing anywhere else. No duh, you say. But hang on a minute. Let’s take a look at a few facts. First, look at how no teams ascended the peak until the Sherpas had set fixed ropes and ladders. On just about any other mountain, this doesn’t happen. People set their own protection as they go. Once the ropes were in place, look at the way people climb. They kick-stepped into the snow and ice, but the only other “skill” they were required to have was how to use an ascender device to help them go up while still tethered to the fixed lines. Attached to the backpacks, but conspicuously unused: ice axes. Everyone had one, no one was using it (except during a rescue of a fella who had become too weak and injured to go down under his own power).
Ice axe usage is standard for climbing on snow and ice. The axe helps you ascend and descend, either as a sharp walking aide or, on steeper slopes, as a way to create holds. In the event of a slip or fall, the ice axe will act as a brake, with a climber leaning onto the axe while its sharp prong digs into the snow (called “self arresting”). The ice axe can set a belay that could save your life. But when climbing on fixed ropes, it seemingly becomes an emergency-only tool that is otherwise dead weight strapped to the back of your pack.
Obviously, most mountaineering adventures don’t require supplemental oxygen. Some people turn their noses at the use of oxygen tanks; I don’t judge. But you certainly don’t need gas if you’re ascending Mount Rainier or hiking up Pikes Peak.
I’m sure I could go on endlessly here. But the point is made. Everest has become a place where two things happen — serious mountaineers to do their thing, and then the rest are being led up the hill. By “the rest,” I pretty much mean the bulk of the people on the mountain, people who pony up big bucks to be guided to the top.
Is this really mountaineering? Some will say no. I say yes, but it’s just different from what the rest of us do.
There is an obsession with “firsts” on Everest. This game was easy back in the day. First to summit. First American/Russian/Chinese to summit. First woman. First winter ascent. And so on. But it’s getting a lot more strange these days.
In the show, we had the oldest American (aged 66) to reach the top. OK, nothing too weird about that. But then we had David Tait, a moneyed man who wanted to become the first to ever ascend the mountain with the Sherpas who were setting the fixed ropes. I’m sure this will look good on a bio, but who really cares? Technically speaking, didn’t Edmund Hillary do that in 1953, when he topped the mountain with Sherpa Tensing Norgay? This was Tait’s third trip to the top, and he was looking for a new personal best. My suggestion: Since you’ve done Everest already, pick another peak. Everest, by all accounts, is tough. But from what I’ve heard, there are harder ascents to be had in the Himalayas. Uber-climber Ed Viesturs said K2 is the “holy grail” of mountaineering. I’d rather have that under my belt than some obscure and somewhat dubious “first.”
John Golden should have stayed home. This had the look of an inspiring story: A former football player who suffered a devastating knee injury that threatened to sideline him from anything athletic ever again. He gets his knee rebuilt, then has an idea: Show people that folks with major injuries don’t have to be relegated to the couch, and prove this by climbing Everest.
I like that spirit, something inspiring. But it sure appeared his body wasn’t up to the task.
Perhaps it was the magic of TV editing, but it looked like his knee was giving out constantly. If you’re knee is popping out of joint, should you really be mountaineering?
Later in the episode, he fell and appeared to either break or bruise his ribs. This forced him off the mountain.
If his legs were more sturdy, would this fall and subsequent injury have happened? It just seems as though the weakness of such a critical part of his anatomy should have precluded his summit bid way before he got into the climb. IMG did the right thing by pulling the plug on his bid.
Whew! That’s a lot of stuff. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the program.