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What about all the climbing traffic on Everest these days?
Well I've been sort of fairly outspoken on this. I think, A, that too many people have been permitted to go on the mountain at one time and, B, that there's too much rubbish being left on the mountain. The commercialized trips and the overcrowding were what caused the tragedy [in 1996, when eight died on Everest after summiting late and getting caught in an afternoon storm the incident chronicled in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, among other books]. It was inevitable. I've been forecasting a disaster of that nature for some time. And it will happen again. You see, with so many climbers on the mountain, climbers are practically queuing up for the difficult parts. What happens then, quite a few don't get to the top till three or later in the afternoon. And then, like in this instance, the late weather comes sweeping in.
Are the leaders of these guided expeditions sufficiently talented?
They're usually pretty competent. But the climbers are certainly not as competent. I met one of Hall's groups. [New Zealander Rob Hall, a commercial guide, died in the '96 storm at 28,700 feet, along with a client, the American Doug Hansen.] One of Hall's clients told me that he'd never been on a mountain. But he had paid his $65,000 or whatever and felt he was going to be taken to the top and back safely for that money.
You could tell he was a poor climber?
He told us he wasn't a good climber.
What did Hall say when you asked him about taking such a guy up?
Rob Hall was a firm believer in the fact that he could get them up and down safely.
Did this thinking get Hall killed?
Well, I'm sure if he had been on Everest with a serious expedition, he'd have got himself off.
What was your reaction when you first learned of the tragedy?
While I expected it, I was obviously shaken. We actually heard a man dying on the mountain, talking to his wife as he was dying. [Hall had been patched through from just below the summit, and a tape recording of the conversation was made.] This was very dramatic, very sad stuff. My own personal feeling I would have preferred to die peacefully alone, and let the world find out about it later.
You say you expect it to happen again. Can anything be done to prevent such occurrences in the future?
Well, I certainly put some responsibility [for the tragedy] on the Nepalese government. I think they should allow only two or three expeditions a year. But I'll bet you they don't do it. To them, the money's too important. They have said they would reduce the number of expeditions, and increase the cost to go on the mountain. Now, I don't agree with the vast sum, because it makes it becomes essentially only a sport for the wealthy or the extremely well-sponsored. On the other hand I do agree with the cutting down of expeditions but I'll bet you they don't do it. When I was there [in 2002], there were 15 expeditions at base camp on the Nepal side, 15 in Tibet. I believe that's just ridiculous.
Has the nature of mountaineering itself changed and, if so, does this add to the danger, too?
There has been an erosion of mountaineering values. It used to be a team effort. Nowadays, it's much too everybody-for-himself. Tenzing and I got to the top together, it wasn't first one, then the other. Now it's every man for himself. Not much you can do about it. That's the way people are these days.
With a traffic jam on top of the mountain, can these climbers get the same kind of joy out of summiting that once was available that was available to you?
I don't think they do get the same type joy. I think we were the lucky ones really. We had to do everything, we had to establish the route, we had to carry the gear up, we had to pioneer upper parts of the mountain. So we were really, in many ways the fortunate ones. I mean, those sorts of challenges simply don't exist anymore.
You were born at the right time for what you wanted to do.
We were born at the right time.
Do you still go walking?
Almost every day. June's a keen walker, and we have a route here in Auckland that we do. And we have two cabins, one near the shore and one in the bush. I love to go walking there. I still love to go out. My health is excellent I'm not quite as lively as I used to be, but I'm still very active. I travel often and do lots of lecturing. I'm sort of a guest of honor at many of these events.
Such as the ones [in 2003] for the 50th anniversary of the climb. Are you looking forward to all of those.
I'm looking forward to seeing my many friends in all those places, and I think it's nice that people feel Everest was important. I expected there to be interest in it, but my involvement is geared to making certain the Sherpas are kept in people's minds. That's how I'd like to be remembered, you see: not for Everest, but for the work I did and the cooperation I had with my Sherpa friends.
Postscript: Sir Edmund is survived by his widow, Lady June, and two of his children, Peter and Sarah.