Every now and again some remarkable picture, eloquent and unusual, makes its way around the world. One of the latest is this one, showing human overcrowding on Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. It was taken by Ralf Dujmovits, an experienced mountaineer who had turned back from the summit of Everest because of dangerous conditions, only to be "astounded and horrified" by the site of this long queue of tourist or hobby climbers trudging upwards.
He says the sight gave him the "oppressive feeling that some of the people in the picture would soon be dead." Four of them were. Others ended up crowding the hospitals of Kathmandu being treated for hypothermia and frostbite.
Dujmovits describes the craze to ascend Everest at any cost a "mass hysteria," and has pleaded with the Nepalese government for stricter regulations.
P.S. As regular readers know, I'm a big fan of outstanding nonfiction writing. Mountaineering boasts an extensive literature, the excellence of which might account in part for those long lines on Everest (although most of us are content to remain armchair adventurers). Two of the very best books of the genre that I can heartily recommend are British climber Joe Simpson's 1988 book Touching the Void, an absolutely gripping biographical account of a near-disaster that will have you on the edge of your aforementioned armchair; I'll just warn you, don't start this one unless you have time to finish it. It was an extraordinary worldwide bestseller (here's the U.K. link). More pertinent to this photograph is of course Jon Krakauer's extraordinary Into Thin Air, a first-person account of the events of May 1996 on Everest by a man who started out as a journalist (for Outside magazine) who meant to write an article about an ascent, and who ended up being one of the primary participants in an appalling disaster that made news all over the globe. The book has one of the most disturbingly unsettled endings in literature, which is of course very appropriate; the new edition linked here contains an account of the ongoing controversy and Krakauer's continued struggles with the ghosts of his past. Undoubtedly one of the greatest mountaineering books ever, and among the true masterpieces of nonfiction literature of recent decades. Not to be missed (although Touching the Void is a shorter, easier, and, in terms of its ending, more satisfying read).
At least read the short book description of Into Thin Air at Amazon.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by John Nollendorfs: "This picture from the Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike gold rush is much more interesting! At least those fools were after something tangible, like gold!"
Featured Comment by Darin Boville: "Tilted image? Sure looks like it to me."
Featured Comment by expiring_frog: "To address the question of 'why,' I strongly recommend Rob Macfarlane's book Mountains of the Mind, an eminently readable cultural history of how climbing mountains captured the public imagination. Two other classics worth mentioning are Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, possibly the most famous mountaineering book ever (about the first ascent of an 8000m peak and subsequent horrific retreat), and Reinhold Messner's The Crystal Horizon (first solo Everest climb, without oxygen). Messner's climb is particularly pertinent because he was the only person on the mountain that day, with only his girlfriend and a liaison officer at base camp, the polar opposite of the current tourist logjam."
Featured Comment by Peter: "As a climber myself I have always advocated that Everest should have the top 500 meters blown off by a big bomb. Then K2 would be the highest mountain in the world and you cannot drag tourists up there!"
Featured Comment by Avi Joshi: "Being a Nepalese, this makes me sad. Sadder still to think that no regulation change is likely to happen when the country is in such a political disarray."
Question from Alan Farthing: "Mike, what's your view on the tilted image?"
Mike replies: I searched for the picture and was not able to find a larger JPEG online; it doesn't appear to be on Ralf's website. Virtually all the instances I was able to find (500+, only four pages of which I looked at) reproduce the same angle as the one at the top of this post. The image appears to originate from an Outside magazine article that also shows the same angle of tilt. At least, they seem to be the most reputable publication publishing it. If that's the case, then they should be the ones taking editorial responsibility for the photograph (As you probably know, the web is not good at determining primacy of publication.) I haven't had much luck asking publications questions like this, because often the people who know the answers are tough to locate, and then once you locate them they're not sure if they have permission to speak to you or not. This makes some sense if you consider that you're essentially asking them if their publication misrepresented the facts, which is not an easy question to get a straight answer to (although a strong denial can be worth something).
Enlarging the image as best I can, it appears from the degree of uprightness of the climbers that the slope shown in the picture is indeed somewhat exaggerated—not as much as Darin suggests (they're clearly not on a flat plain or they'd all be pitching over forwards), but maybe eight or 10 degrees. The figures are just not quite distinct enough to tell for sure. However, our perception might be skewed somewhat by the fact that they would all be carrying large, bulky packs.
The picture rotated 10 degrees counterclockwise looks subjectively about right to my eye when I enlarge it to enough to see the climbers better; possibly a little less might be better, and I can't really tell what's most accurate.
As several people have suggested, he might simply have tilted the camera to get the greatest number of people in. If his point was that there are too many people on the mountain, showing more of them would be more important information that showing the angle rectified. I'd guess it's possible he was using a very small fixed-lens camera; we know he's not going to be carrying a DSLR and a zoom lens on the way back from a summit attempt. According to reports there were 300 people on the mountain that day, and there aren't 300 people in the picture.
If someone who speaks German would like to try to contact Ralf and ask him, that would probably be the best way to get to the bottom of it. As someone who does this kind of research all the time I'd guess our chances of getting a substantive answer would be on the low side—Ralf appears to be a busy man of action who probably has better things to do and probably doesn't spend a lot of his hours at the computer—but it might be worth a shot. To avoid peppering him with many questions, why doesn't someone volunteer to me? We'll delegate one TOP translator. He might be more likely to answer if he gets one query as opposed to twenty or whatever.
Darin adds: After further research it appears that the original image that Mike posted isn't a still image per se but a still frame of a video. In the link they show the line of climbers in two cuts. The first part looks right in terms of tilt. However, the second part starts off right but then rotates—at least that is my judgement. This can be seen most easily if you grab the video and advance it frame by frame—about halfway in the rotation is most obvious. I tried to use stitching software to position but not distort a selection of screen grabs from the video but my software insists on stretching parts of the image. Maybe someone else has the skills to make a few measurements or to use stitching software more to this purpose.
"My take home points so far on this are: 1) The image is tilted to a pronounced degree. More, I think than Mike's version but less than mine. 2) Given the sweep of the video--the arc of his arm had to travel—this is probably nothing more than heavy clothing getting in the way and pulling the camera out of level at the right extreme. 3) However, the chosen still frame is still misleading—and at the same time not misleading. The ground was nowhere near as tilted at the spot where the hikers were packed most dramatically—misleading—but there were indeed many, many hikers coming up the steeper parts of the trail and on the mountain in general, as the rest of the video shows. I'll leave it to others to debate the ethics here."
Mike replies: I think I'll have to disagree with you here. I don't think the picture is a frame grab; at least, I can't find the exact same pattern of climbers in the video that I see in the still. And, without going into forensics, the video makes the frame grab seem essentially accurate to my eye. My 10°-corrected detail again:
Versus a frame grab from the video:
That's looking pretty close to me. (Of course, I do get that you're saying the video camera itself is tilted; it's just that it doesn't look that way to me, so we can disagree there.)
But now others can judge for themselves...good find!