SHERIDAN –– National Geographic staff writer and University of Wyoming writer-in-residence Mark Jenkins will present “Climbing Everest: The Myths, the Macabre and the Madness” at Sheridan College on Monday.
The presentation will focus on his successful ascent of the mountain last year and also on the history of Everest treks, including the first ascent by an American 50 years ago.
Attempting an Everest summit is the ultimate goal for many mountain climbers and Jenkins is no exception, though he said the experience has changed since his first trek on Everest in 1986.
“I was a member of the U.S. North Face American expedition in 1986,” said Jenkins. “We didn’t summit. We spent 75 days on the north face hanging off of the ice trying to get to the top. We got over 26,000-feet. We came home friends and came home with all our fingers and toes and I count it as a very positive experience.”
Jenkins had the opportunity for a second Everest climb when he spent two months in the spring of 2012 climbing Mt. Everest, again with a team from the North Face, while on assignment for National Geographic. The trip coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest by an American, Jim Whittaker, in 1963. Jenkins’ article about his experience appears in the June 2013 issue of National Geographic.
“It was great to be back, but it wasn’t the same mountain I had been on 25 years earlier,” said Jenkins.
“It has always been a mountaineering icon, but now it has become a trophy. Probably half the people who go to Everest don’t have the skills to be there. Sherpas do so much of the work for you. The average climber of Everest is entirely dependent on Sherpas. There were 1,000 people on Everest last year. That is more than most towns in Wyoming!”
Jenkins own mountaineering experience came from exploring the peaks of Wyoming mountains while growing up in Laramie. Some of his first rock climbing experiences were in Vedauwoo outside Laramie, but he has since climbed in most of the mountain ranges of Wyoming. In 2009, he and Colorado climber and friend Ken Duncan made the first ascent of the southeast prow of Cloud Peak in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. They subsequently named the route No Climb for Old Men.
“It is challenging and there are consequences and I think that is really meaningful,” said Jenkins, about the allure of mountaineering. “Oftentimes, in our day to day lives we make decisions that are inconsequential all day long, but when you are climbing and you make the wrong decision, you fall and it is scary. You are hyper-focused. You can’t think of something else. You are 100 percent in the present and that is hard to do for us modern people. It is a physical and psychological challenge. There’s no room for mistakes and because of that it creates an intensity that is unlike other activities.”
Jenkins presentation will focus not just on challenges climbers face, but also challenges facing the future of climbing on Everest. He notes that during his two month ascent, he experienced crowded conditions, lax safety standards, large amounts of trash and human excrement along the route, as well as multiple unburied corpses of previous climbers who lie where they fell, often simply covered with a flag of their home country.
“When you have too many people going to a place, you have to find ways to regulate it so they don’t ruin the resource,” said Jenkins. “It is a carrying capacity issue. Everest is not a lost cause. There are still many people who climb Everest and it is the best experience of their life, but from a mountaineering perspective, it is a mountain that has been abused. It is a mountain that has lost some of its respect and that is tough to see.”
Jenkins presentation will begin at 7 p.m. in the new Whitney Presentation Hall. It is free and open to the public. The presentation is sponsored by the University of Wyoming Academic Affairs as part of the Global and Area Studies World to Wyoming lecture series.