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The cost of climbing Everest

A new Radio 4 series reveals the stark and deadly reality of conquering the world’s highest mountain.

By Rachel Cunliffe

My childhood dream was once to climb Mount Everest. Mountains mesmerised me: we used to go on holiday to the Alps and it was impossible for my young brain to comprehend the cosmic difference in scale between the day-hikes my parents took me on and the prospect of summitting the world’s highest peak. By the time I realised that Everest expeditions last several months and claim multiple lives every year, I had moved on.

Rebecca Stephens did not. In 1993, she became the first British woman to reach the summit. “I was there at the cusp of change,” she recalls in this five-part series for Radio 4 on the commercialising of Everest.

It marks the anniversary of a tragedy. Ten years ago this month, 16 people were killed in an avalanche. Tellingly, they were all sherpas. They died carrying up equipment intended to help paying climbers who flocked to the mountain on commercial expeditions.

Stephens examines how this “global obsession with the world’s highest mountain is shaping its future and the future of the people who work on it”. The sound of creaking ice is interspersed with original recordings from her trip as she tells the story of her own personal journey: the planning, the training, the exhaustion of the ascent – followed by the exhilaration of reaching the summit and seeing the world from above in a 360-degree panorama.

On the gruelling journey back down, she met a fellow climber dying of altitude sickness. She speaks to sherpas – the name of an ethnic group, not a term for porters – who have devoted their lives to the mountain. Traditional Nepalese folk music plays in the background. A dreamlike, immersive soundscape is juxtaposed with the starkness of the reporting. A sherpa recounts how he brought the bodies of his colleagues home to their families.

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I grew out of wanting to climb Everest, but I was always in awe of people who have. There seemed something noble in conquering the summit of the world. Having listened to The Everest Obsession, I’m no longer so sure.

The Everest Obsession
BBC Radio 4; available on catch-up

[See also: Julia Louis-Dreyfus wants older women to be heard in Wiser Than Me]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward