EVEREST BASE CAMP, Tibet—Wim Hof likes extreme challenges. The Dutchman has held his breath under polar ice for more than six minutes and run a half marathon barefoot in the snow. This year he's climbing Mount Everest—in shorts.
Hof, who goes by the nickname "The Iceman," is far from alone in seeking to conquer the world's tallest mountain and garner some publicity en route. Also on the mountain this year are a Norwegian who lost his arms in an electrical accident and a Canadian with an artificial heart valve.
The violent and icy landscape of Mount Everest has become a magnet for a blend of commercial interests, individual achievement and runaway vanity, turning the peak into a venue of bravery and folly, a place where egos rise in thin air and life can evanesce like oxygen.
Hundreds of climbers from 30 nations are on the slopes of the 29,035-foot Mount Everest for this year's 10-week climbing season. As of Wednesday, about 50 reached the summit.
Scaling the jagged peak is a brutal feat. Climbers must acclimate their bodies to thin air that contains only a third as much oxygen as air at sea level. Fierce winds and huge temperature drops occur routinely. Death stalks the ill-equipped. Yet people are arriving for the trek in ever-greater numbers, lured by the low cost of climbing from Tibet.
They include veteran guides, wealthy and inexperienced clients, independent mountaineers long on passion but untested in the high-altitude "death zone," climbers with disabilities hoping to overcome huge odds, and adventurers seeking fame through often wild stunts.
Hof, an affable 48-year-old, leads the derring-do crowd this year. Last year, among those making headlines for reaching the summit were a Playboy playmate from Poland and a New Zealand double-amputee climbing on prosthetic legs.
Fatalities will occur in the 2007 season. Still unknown is how it will rank next to 2006, when 11 climbers died in the second deadliest season on record.
One reason for the death toll is money. Word has gotten out that Everest can be climbed on the cheap. Some no-frills climbers plan to rely on the safety ropes and weather reports of large expeditions. They climb without guides, radios or Sherpas, ethnic Nepalese from high-altitude regions, to help them if they encounter distress.
"Not all people who are here really should be here," said Simen Moedre, a 42-year-old Norwegian chief executive of a financial advisory and an experienced climber.
"Going up in shorts doesn't make sense to me. I've done the North Pole, the South Pole. It's extreme weather here. I think it's a lot of ego."
Added Duncan Chessell, an Australian expedition leader: "The standard routes are where all the pogo-stick people, all the crazies, are congregating."
Most climbers tackle Everest during a short season in April, May and the first weeks of June, when the weather clears and ice remains firm. Expeditions generally spend two months, making one or two forays to advanced camps on the mountain, then returning to base camp at 17,200 feet to recover, before making the summit push.
Camaraderie prevails among climbers, but bad vibes also waft in the air. Some veterans look down on the rich clients, who they think are buying their way up the mountain. Purist climbers dismiss those who use bottled oxygen at high altitude. And climbers from small teams commonly gripe that commercial interests have taken over the mountain.
As the death toll mounts, life-and-death ethical issues also arise: Who's responsible for rescuing climbers in distress? Should some inexperienced climbers be barred from the mountain? When a climber in the "death zone," above 26,000 feet, is deeply frostbitten and delirious, and a rescue attempt would endanger the lives of rescuers, should the distressed climber be left to die?
Such questions took on renewed urgency after last year's season, when more than three dozen climbers passed an independent Briton, David Sharp, as he froze to death in a small cave at close to 28,000 feet.
Commercial expeditions, under pressure to get clients to the summit, have been accused of ignoring distressed climbers. When they do conduct rescues, it can affect business, as Daniel Mazur, a veteran U.S. guide, learned. Mazur, 47, was leading Canadian and British clients toward the summit last May when he spotted Australian Lincoln Hall, who'd spent the night at 28,000 feet and was severely frostbitten and near death.
Sitting two feet from a 10,000-foot precipice, Hall turned to the climbers and said slowly, "I imagine you're surprised to see me here."
Mazur told his clients to turn around and help him assist Hall down the mountain. "They were pissed," Mazur recalled, noting that they lost their chance to reach the summit.
Mazur said the rescue hurt his Everest business. Potential clients are afraid he'll always opt to rescue a distressed climber instead of getting them to the summit.
"Nobody wants to go on a team that turns around," Mazur said. "For a lot of people, it's their only chance ever to climb Everest. The climber might be, like, `Dude, I just want to go to the top.'"
Instances of climbers walking past distressed colleagues have sent shock waves through the world climbing community. None other than Sir Edmund Hillary, the onetime beekeeper from New Zealand, who along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to summit Everest in 1953, declared: "I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top. They don't give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress."
Distress and Everest are synonyms. Winds commonly gust to 100 mph near the peak, lifting plumes of snow high into the air. In the "death zone," climbers can face hallucinations and altitude-related illnesses that fill the lungs with fluid or cause the brain to swell.
Even when breathing bottled oxygen, veterans experience extreme fatigue and impaired judgment.
"Everything is at a very slowed, reduced pace. It's like running around with a plastic bag over your head," said Mark Woodward, a 43-year-old New Zealand guide who's reached the summit three times since 2004.
In the "death zone," climbers say rescue attempts can cost more lives, pushing already weak and exhausted climbers into new danger.
"Certainly if you walk by someone who asks you for assistance and keep going to the summit, that's not OK," said Chessell, the Australian guide. "But if one person is struggling and dying, there's no point in another six people working themselves up and dying as well."
Some veterans said that any attempt to reach the summit should be undertaken only with the knowledge that the thin air makes rescue deeply unlikely.
"It's unfair to expect to be rescued if you put yourself in this danger," said David Tait, a British climber who's attempting a "double-traverse" of Everest, climbing up the Tibetan side, down the Nepalese side, then returning via the same route, an unprecedented feat.
Some climbers ignore their limits.
"The reason that many people die," said Chessell, "is that they push themselves too far and too hard. They collapse and go to sleep for a while, and they die."
That kind of ambition has always infected Everest mountaineers. What's different now, several climbers said, is the gap between the well-financed high-end expeditions, where clients might pay up to $60,000 each, and the shoestring climbers on the Tibetan side of Everest. More climbers than ever come to Tibet, where climbing fees are less than half of what they are in Nepal to the south. And with the barrier to Everest at a low $4,700 per mountaineer in Tibet, climbers on tight budgets fill base camp here.
"The mountain is a very different place now," Woodward said.
Major commercial expeditions offer clients specialized physicians at base camp, satellite telephones, individual Western guides and Sherpas to act as porters nearly each step of the way. They also make huge investments in placing safety lines on the mountain and getting detailed weather reports.
Embodying the high end at base camp this year is the "Tiger Dome," a white double-insulated structure that offers a cozy respite for members of the Himalayan Expeditions (or HiMex) team. Inside, HiMex clients can warm themselves near a wood stove, sip a cocktail, gaze out through transparent panels at a panoramic view of Everest, or sit on chairs and couches and watch movies on a widescreen plasma television.
"We watched `Crash' last night, and `The Good Shepherd' the other night," said Woodward, who works for Russell Brice, the famed New Zealand guide and owner of the Chamonix, France-based HiMex.
Woodward said wealthy clients sometimes dismiss the value of support personnel.
The climb "happens on the backs of the Sherpas. They are the real unsung heroes. A lot of these Westerners climb to the summit and say, `Hooray! I made it!' But it wouldn't have ... happened without the Sherpas," he said.
Across a gravel plain at a simpler tent camp, Hof and some French climbers entertained themselves by juggling rocks.
Solidarity is palpable among independent climbers, some of whom pay only for climbing permits, bottled oxygen and a few rations.
Hof, when told that some fellow climbers believe he may have to be rescued in his shorts, voiced utter determination.
"Nobody is going to rescue me from the mountain. I'm going to make it!" he said.
Most climbers make the summit push in late May. Early weather has been good, but Woodward said risks loom for some climbers.
"There's going to be carnage. It's a horrible thing to say. I hope it doesn't happen. But there are going to be fatalities," he said.
Here are three Web sites for tracking current Everest expeditions:
Discovery Channel's Everest blog: http://discovery.blogs.com/everest/
British climber David Tait's blog: http://www.davidtait.com/
News about climbing in the Himalayas: http://www.mounteverest.net
(During a 12-day visit to Tibet last month, Tim Johnson, Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, spent several days at the base camp for climbers attempting to scale Mount Everest from the Tibet side. He was under severe restrictions during his entire trip to Tibet, with guides from an official travel agency warning of high fines should he stray from their supervision. His accounts from the Base Camp provide a unique look at an extreme sport that is not only highly dangerous but also rapidly growing.)