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The Crowding of K2 - an opinion.

Over the last month, my social media feed has been swamped with images of climbers queuing on K2. While similar scenes have become commonplace on Everest, I never expected it to happen on the world’s second highest mountain. K2 was too hard and too dangerous to be pulled within reach of the masses, and I believed — without fear of being wrong — that K2 would always be a mountaineer’s mountain.

But I was wrong.

Everest summit ridge. Photo: David Hamilton, Jagged Globe

Predictably, the images triggered a torrent of commentary, ranging from verbal high-fives for the jubilant summiteers, to reminisces of the good ol’ days of self-reliant adventure, and rants about the mountain’s ‘rape’.

It seems that history is repeating itself. The same polarised opinions have been bouncing around since the Big Bang of the commercial expedition era when, in 1992, half a dozen guided teams streamed up Everest’s southeast ridge. Thirty-two people reaching the summit in a day made headlines around the world. At the time, less than 400 people had climbed Everest over the thirty-nine years since its first ascent. Last May, 400 people climbed it in a week.

As a grass-roots climber who hitchhiked between crags and mountain ranges and slowly worked his way up the grades, I was among those who judged other climbers for the purity of their motivations. For me, the challenge of climbing was as much about self-reliance and decision-making as it was about the physical act of the ascent. Clients of mountain guides were spared such responsibility. While they made all the moves, suffered physical hardship, and pushed the boundaries of their mental endurance, their experience remained a diluted version of mountaineering as I knew it. Fine for them to be led up peaks in the Alps, but they hadn’t earned the right to go to Everest. At least, that was my opinion.

My position changed when I became a mountain guide. Taking people climbing allowed me to make a living by doing what I loved. I sought out justifications for my change of heart — the sharing of the mountains with those who’d otherwise never go there, the enrichment of their lives, the employment of local people, the boost to their struggling economies. Right or wrong, my traditional values were expunged by self-interest.

Opinion is like liquid. It flows downhill, takes the route of least resistance, and rests where it’s the most comfortable. When our world tilts, our opinions move with it, shifting one way or the other in accordance with our wants and needs.

So, on what side of the conversation do I stand today? It comes down to my answer to one simple question: Does the crowding of the peaks, whether Everest or K2, make the world a better place?

On balance, I believe it does.


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