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EDITORIAL: Tempting Mount Everest

Nature can be cruel to the brave who challenge the mountain above all others

- - Monday, May 5, 2014

The majestic mountain that rises above all others has once more conquered its suitors. Mount Everest — attainable by only a fortunate few — has rebuffed a season of climbers who would risk life and limb to take a "selfie" on its glistening summit.

The locals say the gods who animate the forces of nature in the Himalayas are angry. Others blame the misfortune on "global warming." The element of danger, though, is part of the lure that keeps adventurers coming back to test their mettle on the mountain.

The world's highest peak claimed a fresh brace of victims last month when about 30 guides found themselves in the path of falling ice blocks the size of houses that broke loose as the climbers passed through the Khumbu Icefall just above a climbers' camp at 18,000 feet. The avalanche killed 13 Sherpas, and three more are missing. It was the deadliest day in nearly a century of Everest climbing.

Nepal's authorities have not closed the mountain, but the Sherpa guides have refused to assist the three-dozen commercial expeditions that were all set to lead wealthy clients to the top. They claim the avalanche is a sign that the gods are displeased. Those more attuned to secular forces blame the tragedy on a purported planetary warm-up, which now goes by the meaningless euphemism "climate change." If ever there was a place where the climate changes without warning, as it has for millennia, it's Everest.

Although this spring's tragedy was the worst ever, the peak the locals call Sagarmatha has killed more than 264 climbers without any help from global warming. Most notable was the disaster of 1996, when eight froze to death when a rogue blizzard caught them unexpectedly near the summit of the 29,029-foot mountain, a tragedy recounted in John Krakauer's book, "Into Thin Air." That killer storm occurred before global warming began the "pause" that is now 17 years long.

The Sherpas say the Khumbu glacier, which spawns the ice-chunk field that climbers must traverse, has become less stable despite the warming hiatus, and warn that future hikers might be clambering over bare rock rather than snow on their way to the summit. Their fear, though, is rooted in a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which predicted in 2007 that 80 percent of Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. That forecast was found to be wildly exaggerated, forcing the resignation of panel chairman Rajendra Pachauri.

Climate scientists, who rely on computer models to predict temperature patterns, have fallen into the same crevasse as other crystal-ball readers whose forecasts never come true. Despite warnings about warming conditions on Everest, hikers won't be tempted soon to climb to the top in tennis shoes and shorts.

When a reporter once asked British explorer George Mallory why reaching the summit was so important to him, he famously replied: "Because it's there." He died during his 1924 attempt, but inspired countless others to try the thrill of cheating death. Everest will be there next year, and the years after that, and the tragedy of 2014 will only add to the attraction of the view from "the roof of the world."