"Keep close to Nature's heart ... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."
But what if nature's heart has been broken from being too long treated like a piece of sporting apparatus and there is no place left to wash the spirit clean? What then, John Muir?
Last month a well-known, accomplished, respected mountaineer took a photo on Mount Everest that is, in my view, one of the most astonishing, disturbing, informative photos ever taken on that oft-photographed mountain. Ralf Dujmovits is a 50-year-old German who is one of only 16 people to have climbed all 14 of the earth's 8,000-meter peaks. He has climbed Everest five times, the first time in 1992. He was trying to climb it again without the use of supplemental oxygen but turned back below the summit when his attempt didn't feel right, illustrating the old saw that "There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers." Dujmovits will live to climb another day. On his way down he saw a sight that inspired the photograph—a "human snake" of people a few feet apart attempting to climb up the mountain—which was published in papers and magazines around the world to show that even the highest mountain on earth is overpopulated.
There were 39 expeditions totaling more than 600 climbers on Everest on the day that Dujmovits took his photo. That weekend 150 of them made it to the summit, including a 73-year-old woman who became the oldest woman to climb Everest by breaking her own record set when she was only 63; and five members of the human snake died, some of them on the way down. Dujmovits said of the sight he photographed, "I was thinking how absurd the scene was ... that leaves you with a really oppressive feeling that some of the people in the picture would soon be dead. I was also filled with sadness. ... People nowadays treat the mountain as if it was a piece of sporting apparatus, not a force of nature. It really makes my soul ache."
Not only in mountains do humans treat the forces of nature as sporting apparatuses.
In 1953, the year Everest was first climbed by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the earth's human population was around 2.6 billion. Today it is nearly 7 billion, so it is not completely surprising that 600 of them would find themselves seeking to wash their spirits clean on the world's highest and, in theory, most isolated peak. Which brings to mind another old saw, "The greatest tragedy is when theory outstrips performance." And the theory that the earth is capable of indefinitely supporting its current and continuously growing human population is the greatest tragedy. The snake on Everest is a metaphorical, Edenic snapshot of that continuously growing disaster. Since Hillary and Norgay's climb, Everest has seen more than 5,000 ascents by more than 3,000 people. One of them, Apa Sherpa, a Nepalese who lives in Draper, Utah, has climbed Everest 21 times, the first time in 1989. Since then Apa has observed and been disturbed by the growing degradation of the Everest environment, from garbage left by hordes of climbers and the loss of glacier mass and snowpack and the resulting rock fall due to global warming, and he foresees a time when the lack of snow and ice will make the mountain far more difficult, if not impossible, to climb.
Dujmovits has joined many other mountaineers and environmentalists in urging the Nepalese government to restrict the flow of tourists to the Everest area and to seek higher physical and experiential standards for the "hobby" climbers who pay some $60,000 to be guided (and, on occasion, dragged) up a climb they are incapable of doing on their own. The population of Nepal has approximately doubled since 1953 and is now approaching 30 million, most of whom live in poverty. That snake of climbers on Everest brings millions of dollars to the Nepalese economy, needed employment for thousands of local people and for a few like Apa, the opportunity of a better life. For those quite legitimate reasons, as well as all the other well-known, illegitimate, corrupt couplings of business and government prevalent in every nation on earth, Nepal is not likely to begin treating the forces of nature with the respect they warrant.
And neither are any (much less all) of the other nations of the world, which, after all, are increasing population at a rate of nearly 150,000 new people a day and spending more than $2 billion each day on their military.
It's enough to make a soul ache and the spirit yearn for uncontaminated waters in which to wash.