WebHeader_Grove.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Become a sustaining member today for your chance to win two season ski passes to the NH ski resort of your choice.
The Exchange

The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest

DSC03882.JPG

A hundred-year mystery lured N.H. climber Mark Synnott into an unlikely expedition up Mount Everest. The mystery? On June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set out to stand on the "roof of the world," where no one had stood before. They were last seen eight hundred feet below the Everest summit. Did they summit decades before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953? Irvine is believed to have carried a Kodak camera with him to record their attempt; could the frozen film reveal Mallory and Irvine on the summit? Synnott's new book, "The Third Pole," is an adventure story that also describes the modern innovations and geopolitical, economic, and social forces at play in an Everest expedition.

Airdate: Tuesday, April 13, 2021

GUEST:  Mark Synnott -  elite climber, journalist, and an internationally certified mountain guide. He is a frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine and author of The Third Pole and The Impossible Climb. He lives in the Mount Washington valley.

mark_synnott_credit_paul_reitano_1.jpg
Credit Paul Reitano
Mark Synnott

This expedition up Mount Everest took place during the spring 2019 season that came to be known as “the Year Everest Broke" due to the traffic jam of climbers in the Death Zone, waiting to summit. Click here to read an article about the 2019 climbing season.

In this clip from National Geographic's documentary about the expedition, Lost on Everest, (available on Disney+) filmmaker Renan Ozturk flies a drone at 28,300 feet on Mt. Everest.

Transcript

 This transcript is machine-generated and contains errors.

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy, and this is The Exchange. Two years ago this spring, our guest today joined the small elite club of people who have made it to the top of Mount Everest, but reaching the fabled summit was not Mark Synnott's main goal. Instead, the New Hampshire based climber and author was there in hope, solving the mountains. Biggest mystery. Who were the first humans to set foot on its highest point? History has given Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary that honor. But within climbing circles, there's always been a question mark around that achievement. We find out more as we talk with Mark Synnott about his new book just out today called The Third Pole Mystery: Obsession and Death on Mount Everest. Mark, welcome back. It's good to talk to you again. Real broadly, before we get into this mystery that you were trying to solve, you describe Everest as a window on the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. And I love that description. Let's take the best first. Mark, how does Everest show us the best of ourselves?

Mark Synnott:
Well, I think the the best is is manifested in what I might call this the spirit of adventure, and it was something that that Mallory and Irvine, you know, back in 1924, they talked about Mallory in particular. And that was what initially drew me to this to this story and to this whole mission was thinking about the spirit that was inside of those those two and what it was that was driving them to attempt something that was so far ahead of its time. They were last seen at 28,200 feet. And that was on June 8, 1924. So that's 29 years before Everest was actually climbed when they were close to the top. So that's the spirit. And I think that what I found is it's the it's the same spirit that that I have that is inside of me. I think it's the same spirit that's inside of a lot of people who have followed and Mallory and Irvine's footsteps all these years. And I think it's the spirit, hopefully, that connects me and You to a lot of people who are listening to the show today.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and we'll talk in a few minutes about Mallory and Irvine. These are the two gentlemen who may have reached the summit a good couple decades before Hillary and Norgay. But what about the worst of humanity, Mark? How does Mount Everest show us the worst of humanity?

Mark Synnott:
Well, I would imagine that most, if not everyone who is listening right now saw the viral photo of the conga line that was that that picture was taken in, I think it was May 22nd of 2019. So it was when we were there on the mountain. And it shows this incredible line of people trying to get to the to the top of the mountain. And I think, I don't know if that in particular is the worst of humanity, but the problem is something like one point three percent of people who attempt to climb Everest are going to die in the process so that it works out to about one out of every two eighty two people who who had up the mountain trying to get to the summit. And there's a lot of just carnage and mayhem and drama. And there's people that are that are sometimes in the process of dying. They get passed by others who are trying to get to the summit and they could potentially stop and try to save those people. But a lot of times they don't. In some cases, they actually step over the bodies while they're still alive. That's something I talk about in the in the book. And I think it's something that people know about. And I think it's part of the reason why Everest has a bit of a modern stigma.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. That's pretty hideous what you just said. And that photo, by the way, I had not seen it before I started preparing for the show. And it's that colorful conga line of people smashing their way up this mountain. Because as you explain in the book, Mark, there's only a couple good days weather-wise where you can do it. Is that part of the reason you never considered yourself quote unquote, an Everest guy?

Mark Synnott:
Yeah, absolutely. I'm fifty one, and so I would say that I came of age as a climber in the 1990s and the 1990s is when the the Everest guiding industry began. And previous to that,in the 1980s, Everest was really just the domain of elite Alpinist and you had to really pay your dues and rise to a high level in the sport to even be invited to go on an Everest expedition. All of a sudden by the early 90s, the idea was out there that if you had enough money, you could basically buy your way to the top of the world. That, of course, was kind of the plot for Jon Krakauer s book Into Thin Air. And I read that and I would say that it had a formative influence on me. And I think it did really on an entire generation, if not several of climbers. And so me and all of my peers, we looked at that and we felt like it it it didn't represent what what climbing meant to us. And so ever since my whole career, up until 2019, I was questing after random, obscure, remote mountains that most people listening here will not have heard of. And yeah. And so as a result it was never on my agenda. And I, I think it would be fair to say that I was actually anti Everest as a result, like a lot of people, like a lot I'm sure who are, who are listening right now.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and there are people in the book who sort of fit that profile, Mark. Amateurs certainly fit, but not as experienced as you are. And those folks sometimes die up there. You said one out of every 82 people who attempt Everest die in the attempt. So it sounds like you and some of your colleagues in the climbing world had some cynicism about this this mountain and don't go up.

Mark Synnott:
One hundred percent. That's a real thing right now, an example would be after the expedition I did this presentation in Mount Washington Valley and it was a fundraiser for the Mountain Rescue Service. And it was three guys who are from Mt. Washington Valley who had climbed Everest. And it was me, Thom Pollard, who was with me in 2019, and Rick Wilcox, who I think was the first New Hampshire-ite to climb Everest, probably like '91 or something like that. And it was great. It was sold out and it was a fundraiser. But when I looked out at the audience, there really weren't any climbers there. Very few. And I thought that was really interesting; the core climbing community is still pretty down on the whole thing.

Laura Knoy:
Well, why did the lure of solving this mystery, which you touched on earlier, did Mallory and Irvine actually reached the summit first in the 1920s? Why was this so alluring to you, Mark, where you kind of cast aside your anti-Everest cynicism and decided to go for it?

Mark Synnott:
Well, as I as I mentioned earlier, just the idea of what was inside these men, not just Mallory and Irvine, but all of the members of the early Everest expeditions, the 1924 expedition was their third attempt. So there was a lot of effort being put in. And I, I really had not ever studied or gone deep into that story. I attended a lecture by my friend Thom Pollard, and he told the story of Mallory and Irvine. And he, by the way, was there on the mountain in 1999 when they found the remains of Mallory. And something about that night in the way that he told the story really captured my imagination. And I thought, wow, why don't I know more about this? Because these guys were the kind of explorers that I have always admired. And I've devoured every book I can find on subjects like this. And I went home that night and I looked on my bookshelf and I realized that I only had one Everest book, and I'd actually only ever read one Everest book.

Mark Synnott:
And it was Into Thin Air, which doesn't paint a pretty picture of the whole scene. And I realized right then that I had never really given Mallory and Irving their fair due. And so I ordered a bunch of books. I read about a half a dozen books over the next two months and it sucked me into it. It completely captured my imagination. And of course, I'm a writer and I'm a storyteller and I'm a lifelong climber. And I started thinking, wow, someone wanted to do a modern version of this story. And they wanted to immerse themselves in it, which is the type of writing that I like to do. You know, what would that be and how would that look? How would that look? And I realized that it was so obvious that the person would go to Everest themselves and they would follow and Mallory and Irvine's footsteps and they would try to find Sandy Irvine, who still has never been found and who is believed to have been carrying this camera that might have images on it that could solve the mystery once and for all.

Laura Knoy:
So, Sandy Irvine, and the camera: Kodak told you, after almost 100 years, that film still could be viable, which was amazing to me. But there it is. So as you said, Mallory's body was discovered in an expedition about 20 years ago that included your friend Thom. Pictures were taken and then a bidding war erupted for those photos which ended up being sold to a Rupert Murdoch tabloid. What was the fallout from that?

Mark Synnott:
Well, it wasn't it wasn't pretty, and the main reason is that some of Mallory's relatives were still alive, including his son and daughter, and they woke up one day and just saw those pictures on the cover of this tabloid. And I think that they felt kind of violated by that. And then, maybe it kind of tainted the picture that they had and in their mind of their father, the idea and the thing that that really upset a lot of people was just that the photo was sold to the highest bidder. And so it wasn't something where we found this and it's going into museum and this is his history. I think people people saw it as kind of capitalistic and so that was unfortunate.

Laura Knoy:
Someone's last moments where someone else's moment of profit, it doesn't doesn't sit well. How did that experience in that backlash, Mark, shape your approach toward your own search for Sandy Irvine?

Mark Synnott:
Obviously, we were we were thinking about all of that and we were well aware of everything that happened in 1999, especially because Thom was there and he experienced all of that and he told us the stories. Our group made a pact beforehand, like a written thing, where we specifically will not do that. We're not going to sell photos, we're not going to do anything without going through the families first. But we're specifically not in it to to profit off of the the photos or the camera, for that matter, because the camera, as you can imagine, it's kind of a a bit of a holy grail of mountaineering history and and mystery. And it's very valuable. And I discussed this in the book, but there's some really tricky legal questions about who really owns that camera. Would it be the person who found it? Would it be the relatives of Mallory? Would it be the relatives of John Noel, who I think was the owner of the camera that he loaned to Mallory? Is it the Royal Geographical Society that has rights to a lot of the artifacts and potentially the photographs of all the team members? And so we we just decided that we would hand it over to whoever was the appropriate entity. If we found it, our whole expedition was sponsored by National Geographic, and so we were also sort of counting on them to advise us and help make sure that we made the right decisions. And there were things going on behind the scenes. But I would just say there was no reality in which we would potentially make any mistakes in that regard.

Laura Knoy:
You kind of had that set up in advance, respectful treatment of what you might find. Let's go to our listeners, Mark and Steve's calling from Nottingham. Welcome, Steve. You're on The Exchange. Go ahead.

Caller:
Good morning and thank you for this program. [garbled] climb Mt. Everest without carrying oxygen.

Laura Knoy:
Steve, thank you for calling. And this is what's great about the book, Mark, it's both this mystery, but it's also just the mechanics of how people have attempted to do this. And as you said, how many fail, dying while trying. What about this oxygen question? This comes up a lot.

Mark Synnott:
In the book, I call it the oxygen debate, and it is a thread which is woven through the entire book because, of course in the 1920s it was a critical question. Those guys back in those days did not know whether it was physiologically possible for a human being to climb Everest without oxygen. And the physiologists of the day were doing all kinds of studies to try to answer that question. So that was a huge unknown. That question was not answered until 1978 when Reinhold Messner and Peter Hablar climbed Everest without oxygen. That was the first time it had been done. And I should know this, but I'm going to say 200 people, maybe, something like that. It doesn't even get done every year. Of the year we were there nobody made it up without oxygen. In a normal season, there will be one or two elite climbers who are trying to do it. You know how I said one in 82 people roughly will die overall? I think your odds of dying, if you try it without oxygen, are seven times greater than if you use oxygen. So just think about that for a minute. I mean, it becomes infinitely more dangerous, but it is possible. And people do it and they're still doing it. And it's an elite thing.

Laura Knoy:
And speaking as a non elite hiker here, like, I like to hike as much as anybody else, but what is the point? What is the point of doing it without oxygen except bragging rights?

Mark Synnott:
Well, I think that it's a challenge, it's just like anything. I mean, I think you could sort of draw a corollary there that, for some people, people who are really driven and want to push the limits of their own human potential, that it's a way for them to do that. And so for someone, it might be, oh, can I climb up Mount Washington? But for other people who are much deeper into the whole game, it might be, can I climb Everest? And then for other still other people, it might be, can I climb Everest without without oxygen? And yeah, it's super dangerous. But I've always felt like it's everyone's prerogative to take as much risk as they feel like they want to take, as long as it's done with their eyes wide open and and it's done conscientiously and with preparation and all of that. And for some people that's considered kind of the ultimate challenge.

Laura Knoy:
Is lack of oxygen the most common reason people, those one out of eighty two people, don't make it off Everest. Is it the cold or is it the lack of oxygen, Mark?

Mark Synnott:
I think it's mostly due to the altitude, which would be elevation, which is also known as hypoxia, and it can do a lot of weird things to the human body. There's two main types of altitude sickness, really dangerous ones, which are called high altitude cerebral edema and high altitude pulmonary edema. And basically, if you go a little bit too fast or you push a little bit too hard or you're you're stressing your body out too much, you can have fluid that starts to basically, like, fill up your lungs and your brain that can kill you. I go deep into all of this in the book, in part because I wanted to paint a portrait of the whole thing, of what Mount Everest is, what it's always been, what is it today? But I also was just fascinated by it myself, especially because I was going to go there and I wanted to know as much as I could so that I wouldn't kill myself. One of the scariest things that I learned about is what they call sudden death, and they don't really have any explanation for it. And it's not pulmonary edema or cerebral edema. It's basically just people who are performing well. It typically happens on the descent. And then I think it probably has to do with developing fatal heart arrhythmias. And all of a sudden your body's just so stressed out by what you're doing that you get you get a weird heartbeat and then you have a heart attack and you drop dead. But they don't really understand it. And it can happen to anyone and it normally happens on the descent. So it happens to a lot of people who have already summited. And it happened to quite a few people in 2019, 11 people died that season. And that's actually three more than died in 1996 in the storm that Krakauer wrote about in Into Thin Air.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Today, New Hampshire author and climber Mark Synnott on his brand new book, The Third Pole. It's about his 2019 expedition to solve a 100 year old mystery over who really was first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. And Mark, right back to our listeners. Holly's joining us from Greenfield. Holly. Thanks for calling The Exchange.

Caller:
Oh, hi, thank you for the show. I had a question about the Sherpas who assist the climbers carrying all their equipment and everything, and I was wondering, do they use oxygen?

Laura Knoy:
This is a great question. I'm so glad you called Holly, because there's so much to talk about with the Sherpas. Go ahead, Mark, to her question first.

Mark Synnott:
Yeah, the Sherpas do use oxygen, all of them pretty much without exception, and the reason is that most of them, unless they're conducting their own expedition, in which case sometimes they will go without oxygen, but they're they're working as guides. And so it's safer for them to to use oxygen. One of the the things that I explore in the book is the whole sort of subject of Sherpa physiology. And we've all kind of heard about how they are kind of like super humans of the Himalaya in terms of their ability to perform at altitude. Most of them can perform at high elevation, the same way that the rest of us do at sea level. And there's some really fascinating reasons why in terms of genetics and evolution and things like that. And I kind of vaguely understood some of that. But I wanted to use this book to educate myself, but also my readers. So I went pretty deep into that and explained it is clear clearly as I could. And I personally find it really fascinating.

Laura Knoy:
And you really honor them in the book and the ones on your team are pretty amazing at one point, I think, Mark, correct me if I'm wrong, one of the westerners on your team, his oxygen starts to go bad and so your lead Sherpa throws him his oxygen can, says, here, take mine.

Mark Synnott:
Yeah, one of the the camera guys, he ran out of oxygen. This was way up high, above 28,000 feet. And I mean, just to give people a sense of what it's like up there, this guy is an extreme athlete. I mean, when he was training for the expedition, he was doing days where he would do 10,000 vertical feet. So picture climbing Mount Washington two or three times in one day, like, that's how fit this guy is. And when he ran out of oxygen, he passed out, and we were on a traverse up on the northeast ridge on these tiny little catwalks where you're basically rock climbing. And when he passed out, luckily, he fell forward in towards the wall because if he had fallen out, he would have pulled us all off because you're all attached to these little strings, you know, their ropes. And if one person falls, everybody else is going to get plucked off because they're going to pull down on the rope and Lhakpa Sherpa, our head guide, basically just jumped over us, got to Matt, took his own oxygen bottle out, gave it to Matt, and then was just completely fine. I mean, Matt passed out because he didn't have oxygen. Lhakpa took his off and as far as I could tell, it really made no difference to him.

Laura Knoy:
That's amazing. Well, and what was your relationship with the Sherpas on your trek, especially the thorny question, Mark, of who's in charge?

Mark Synnott:
Well, the relationship was great. One interesting thing about this expedition is that we were climbing on the Chinese side, that's the north side of Mount Everest. So it's not the sort of traditional story that people are used to hearing, the Khumbu Icefall and all that. This is in Tibet and then it's on the other side. And tricky situation with the permitting. We were making a film for National Geographic and the Chinese officials, it's called the Tibet China Tibet Mountaineering Association, they said, we're going to give you permission. You've told us exactly what you're planning to do. We're giving you permission. We're just not giving it to you in writing. And the reason why is because there's different entities that control Everest. And one is the China Tibet Mountaineering Association and the other is the Beijing government. And then you have the Communist Party and then you have the Chinese army.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. That's complicated.

Mark Synnott:
Yes, it was. And so as a result of that, they said, you know, we'll tell you that you can do what what you want to do, but we're only going to give it to you verbally. And people can figure out for themselves why they might do that. And we're going to assign four of our Sherpas to be part of your team. That's a highly unusual thing. And one of the things I talk about in the book is just how we weren't able to form strong bonds with those guys. And that was unusual because with everybody else we were, and there were a few guys in particular, there's one guy named Prakash, a younger climber. He was 27. And he and I really hit it off and developed a good rapport and kind of became friends. But then there were these other guys that were essentially in the employ of the Chinese government who were pretty wary of us. And I think without question, they were reporting back to the Chinese about our activities and what we were doing, et cetera.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. They were sort of your communist babysitters, there.

Mark Synnott:
It felt like that a bit. Yeah, and it was kind of unfortunate and it did lead to a lot of drama ultimately when it really came down to it and when we were up on the mountain and it was not all hunky dory, as you might say.

Laura Knoy:
Well, one more question about the Sherpas and Holly, I'm so glad you asked about it, because it's it's so important. This does get to your decision, Mark, to free climb off the rope to get to the spot where a longtime scholar of this mystery had told you that the body and the camera might be. And your lead Sherpa is yelling at you in the film, you can hear him yelling at you. No, no, no, no. Too dangerous. How did you make that decision and how do you view it today with a clear head in hindsight?

Mark Synnott:
Well, yeah, no, that's a that's a tricky one, and I unpack all that pretty carefully in the book, and I think what I say in the book, which is what happened, is that when Lhakpa was saying no, no, no, his microphone was keyed on his radio, and that was going directly down to the officials in base camp who had told us that we couldn't leave the rope. They figured out what we were we were all about, what we were doing. We were trying to find Irvine. And they didn't want us to find Irvine, because if we found that camera and it turned out that those guys did climb Everest in 1924, it would take something away from the Chinese first ascent of the north side of Everest in 1960. The route that Mallory and Irvine were trying to do was not climbed until 1960 and it was done by the Chinese. And that ascent for the Chinese represents essentially the equivalent of what the moon landing represents for the United States. It's a very important thing in their history and in their culture and nationalistically. So they don't want anybody to ever find out whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit. So they told us that we couldn't leave the ropes. The Sherpa all knew what our plan was. We did tell them what we intended to do. And so when Lhakpa was saying, no, no, no, even though I mean, it was, it was a tricky situation. But he was covering himself with the CTMA. And afterward, he and I, we debriefed the expedition when we got back to Kathmandu and he came to my hotel, we sat down for three hours. We talked it all over. And I just said, hey, I just want to make sure we're good, right? And totally 100 percent handshakes. We're friends. It's a tricky, complicated thing. The nuances of it did not come across well in the film. And I think it made it look worse than I actually really am based on all of the the detail.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and having read the book and watch the film, you're right. It's hard to pack all that subtlety into a one hour film. So for the Chinese, that's really interesting. So Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary get the credit for being the first on the Nepal side. But the Chinese still take credit for being the first to reach the top of Everest from the Chinese side. And they didn't want you to find this camera that might prove otherwise. You have that right, Mark.

Mark Synnott:
Yeah, I mean, that might be potentially I'm on slightly shaky ground there journalistically to state it definitively like that because again, it's more complicated than that and that's an oversimplification. And I get pretty deep into that in the last chapter of the book in terms of some scenarios, in terms of what might have actually happened and whether the Chinese found Irvan previously. But it's it's it's a really it's a really tricky one. But yes, based on interviews that I've done with Chinese people, with Everest guides, with Everest historians, with people who have way more knowledge and experience it than I do, that that is that is the story. And I have eyewitness accounts of of of people who have said that they have heard exactly that from from Chinese officials.

Laura Knoy:
Here's a couple of emails that I want to run by you, Mark Arthur emails. Did Mallory use the South call route or other routes on Everest as crowded? So if you could just explain what the South call route is, Mark, and answer this question, please.

Mark Synnott:
So there's two standard routes on Mt. Everest. And there's two sides of the mountain. One side is in China, Tibet, the other side is in Nepal. The the Nepal route is called the South Col. And that's kind of the the route that everybody knows of, the north side of the mountain, the standard route is called the Northeast Ridge. That's the route that was attempted by Mallory and Irvine, Mallory and Irvine. And the and the British never went to the South Side in the 1920s. They wanted to they knew about it. They saw the the Western Cume, as Mallory called it, which is the Khumbu Glacier in that whole south side on the first reconnaissance expedition, which was in nineteen twenty one. But he never went there because at that point in time, Nepal was closed and the British were not allowed to attempt the mountain from that side. So that's why they were trying to do it from the north side, from, from, from Tibet

Laura Knoy:
And the Tibetan side, right, Mark, is less crowded than the Nepalese side.

Mark Synnott:
It is. The year that we were there, there were, I think, a total of 1100 people who attempted the mountain, so 1100 individuals. And I'm trying to think if that includes the Sherpa guides or not. I think that number does include the Sherpa guides, which generally that's a one to one thing. So most people who are signing up with an outfitter to climb Everest are going to have a one to one ratio with with their guides. And of that, 800 were on the south side. So 800 were climbing from Nepal and 300 from the north side, from China.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. It's a big difference.

Mark Synnott:
The interesting thing is, like I said, the statistics that I -- and I got pretty deep into this as I was reporting on the story beforehand and afterwards when I was writing the book -- these numbers, there's a thing called the Himalayan database where they've kept track of every person who's ever attempted to climb Everest and and also all other peaks in the Himalaya. There's incredible database of information. And looking at that 1.3 percent, you take that number and you apply it to 1100 people who attempted to climb the mountain in 2019. And lo and behold, 11 people ended up dying that season. And it has this uncanny way of of playing out year after year. And the odds are the odds and there's just no real way around it.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and you describe in the book and in the film, you know, hiking past dead bodies, at one point you're sitting down and leaning on one. And, you know, I have to say, Mark, when I watched the film, I found it both creepy and profoundly sad. What was your own mindset, hiking past these dead bodies?

Mark Synnott:
Well, it is really sad and I will say that it's a lot different to hear about it or to see it in a film or to read about it than it is to see it with your own eyes when you're doing the same thing that killed those people.

Laura Knoy:
Right, to me as an, you know, regular person climber, not an elite. That would be my symbol to turn back. I would say, OK, this person is sending me a message. Go ahead.

Mark Synnott:
Well, the weird thing about climbing and other, what you might call, extreme sports, they're dangerous, is that none of us think that we are the ones who are going to have the bad outcome. I mean, if you all these people that are trying to climb Everest and all the other mountains, and I mean, I know these people because I've been doing this stuff basically for my whole life, no one ever thinks they're going to be the one who's going to have the bad luck. And so there's there's a pretty big disconnect there and in terms of sort of just this vast gulf between people who haven't made it and those that think that they're going to be OK. For me personally, I tried to really keep my eyes wide open as far as all of that and to realize, you know, this sudden death category, for example, like that could happen to me, and and to be aware that that weird things can happen up there. And as a result of that, I made a point to pay tribute to the the people, the unfortunate people who had died up there, that I encountered when I was on the climb. I wasn't just walking by them. I was taking a moment to to kind of acknowledge them and to realize that before whatever befell them, that they were normal people who were trying to do the same thing that I was. But it's weird. I mean, people who are obsessed with climbing Mount Everest, or obsessed with climbing anything, we sort of bank on the fact that we're not going to to have a bad outcome. I think if you if you get too deep into that and you get too morbid and worried about it, then you're not going to be able to do it. You're not going to be able to do something dangerous because you'll just be too worried that you're going to have a bad outcome.

Laura Knoy:
Well, toward that point, Frank in New Boston emails, do you know the percentage of people that start the climb who turn back? It's probably not the exact numbers, Mark, but give us a sense of that.

Mark Synnott:
I have that that data in my book, and it's hard now for me to recall all of it. But there is a shockingly high percentage of people nowadays who make the summit. And, gosh, off the top of my head, I'm going to say it's something like 75 percent. So, I mean, they have this down to a science now with the oxygen, with the ropes that they fix on the mountain, with the guides, the Sherpa guides and also with all of the weather forecasting. One thing that's really interesting is that your odds of summiting and by the way, the Himalayan database has every data point that you could possibly imagine. And there's data scientists who've gone in and mined it and written articles about it. And I reference a lot of those in the book. But there's kind of this exponential graph that they've put together, which is age on one axis and chance of summiting on the other and up to about the age of 50, your odds are really good. And then it suddenly goes exponential. And by the time you get into your 60s, your odds not only of not making it, but of dying go through the roof. And so it really is a young man's game. I think part of it is what I was talking about in regards to the sudden death and these fatal heart arrhythmias that people get. When you're younger, your heart is stronger and you're more likely to survive if you put a lot of stress on your heart, and as you get older, there's more chance of of of things getting weird in a bad way. But what's interesting is that the older demographic above 50 is sort of the main block of people nowadays. And I think the reason why is because it takes people that long to get to that point in their life or at their maximum earning potential where they can afford to to try to climb Everest because it's an expensive endeavor.

Laura Knoy:
Well, coming up after a short break, I do want to ask you a little bit more about the cost also definitely, as you said, this is a young man's game. But I want to ask you, Mark, about the few women who do attempt Everest every year. Today, we're talking with New Hampshire author and climber Mark Synnott about his new book, The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession and Death on Mount Everest. And Mark, just before the break, you said Mt. Everest is largely a young man's game in terms of making it up there successfully. There are a couple of women, though, in your book, including a British woman of Indian descent who very driven, very fit and does end up making it down. What was her experience like doing this mountain in what is largely still a man's world?

Mark Synnott:
Yeah, I mean, in terms of calling it a young man's game, I think maybe I'm just kind of referring to myself, my perspective there, but it's something like one in five are women.

Laura Knoy:
That's more than I thought.

Mark Synnott:
And that demographic is growing. And one thing that I do know is that women fare about equal with men in terms of this information in the Himalayan database, their odds of making the summit and their odds of surviving and all of that. So it's very much an even playing field. There's women who have climbed Everest without oxygen and there's not as many but they're basically performing up there at the same level as men. Kam? Boy, I mean, her story is is a really important part of the book. And I don't want to give too much of it away, but one of the things that I wanted to do was I wanted to tell the story, the behind the scenes story of the viral conga line photo that everyone saw in the spring of 2019. I happened to be on Everest. I wasn't in the conga line because we chose not to be in the conga line. We knew that it was going to be a bad scene and that a certain percentage of people were going to be dying right around us. And so we said we're not going to do it. We're going to take our chances and we're going to wait. But Cam was up there. She wasn't in that photo because that was on the south side.

Mark Synnott:
But there was a similar situation going on, on the north side and in and it it was epic. People people died. And because I was there and I was witnessing it, and I was hearing stuff on the radio and seeing these people when they were coming into camp, while I was still planning to go up, I decided that I was going to be a really important part of my book was to to tell that story and I did a tremendous amount of reporting on it. The wildest epic of them all was what happened to Kam. And I mean, it's one of the craziest stories I've ever heard, Everest or or anywhere else. And I mean, she's incredible woman with incredible grit. And basically that part of the book is two chapters towards the end and one is called The Day Everest Broke. And the other one is just called Kam. And Kam has an incredible story. I don't want to tell it here because I want people to to read about it. But she's really a hero and a remarkable woman. And I think that she in some ways is sort of archetypal of the kind of people that are drawn to Everest.

Laura Knoy:
So that day, I think, was May 22nd. Right, Mark? That's the day when those crowds went up because all of a sudden the weather was good and you don't have that many weather windows to get up there. So that's the day that is often referred to as the day Everest broke. But like, what does that mean exactly? Like what's broken? Is it the system of allowing too many people? Is it like what does that signify?

Mark Synnott:
Well. It's a lot of different things. Part of what happened was that the spring of 2019 was an all time terrible year to try to attempt Mt. Everest. The way that it works meteorologically, is that most of the time, because the mountain is so high, the jet stream is actually raking the summit and the jet stream can blow at 200 miles an hour or a hundred easily. So it's like blowing constantly at above hurricane, a Category five hurricane strength, and right before the monsoon begins, for complicated reasons that I don't think are fully understood. But I explain as well as I can, it mostly has to do with temperature differentials in the atmosphere. The jet stream will get pushed away from the mountain as the monsoon is approaching. And that's when we get these summit windows. That's when the wind will die and you can go up. And on a good year, that window can be pretty lengthy. In 2019, which is a year that no one really heard anything about, the weather window was 11 days.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's small.

Mark Synnott:
As a result of it being, you know, so long, all of the outfitters were able to work with each other to stagger their attempts so that you didn't have the conga line. But in 2019, the weather window was essentially one day. And so everybody on the mountain, all 1100 people, all had to go to the top at the same time. I'm oversimplifying because there were outliers and it ended up being more like two days. But that's why you had the conga line. Nobody wanted to be in that conga line. None of the guides, none of the Sherpas, none of the people that were attempting Everest. But after everything they had been through, that was it. That was your one time to get up there. But if you're in that line and you end up in distress or you're having a problem and you need to go down, you can't go down. You can't go up because there's people in front of you. You can't go down because you're on this narrow ridge and then bad things happen. Because, yeah, in terms of why is it broken, some of the people in that line aren't very experienced. And in some cases on the north side where I was, there was a team of Indian teenagers who were underprivileged youth who were chosen from their school to go to Everest.

Mark Synnott:
They went through a training program and it was relatively rigorous, but they never even made it to six thousand meters. So they never climbed above 20 thousand feet. And they're trying to climb Everest. So there'll be people in base camp who are trying to figure out how to get their crampons on their boots for the first time. You have crowds and you have people who are inexperienced and you have governments that are treating the mountain like a business where they're just trying to get as much money as they can. And they're not really vetting the experience of the people who are attempting it. Then you end up with a broken system that's ultimately, really, the outcome is that more people are dying than should be and the mountain is getting trashed. Because what happens is some of the people just abandon their gear on the mountain. And we experience that. Not everyone does that. We did not do that. But some people do. And it's a real shame. And the mountain is kind of getting trashed in the high camps as a result.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. And in fact, so you're stuck on that conga line. There's one chilling part in the book where a more experienced climber is stuck behind someone who is less experienced and is kind of freaking out for lack of a better word. And the whole line has to stop. And you're waiting and waiting and waiting. Meanwhile, you're getting cold. You need to get down, but there's nothing you can do. Incredibly frustrating. Well, and to the point about the window of time that is available to do this and why that creates problems. Susan emails, how do you think climate change will expect the experience and the ability to climb Mt. Everest? Susan says, by the way, I know someone who is attempting Everest right now. Wow, Susan. What about that, Mark, what's the thinking around climate change and how that will change, whether people make it up Everest or not?

Mark Synnott:
I'm not sure if anyone knows how climate change might affect the jet stream. Climbing Everest is really all about that, in terms of when it's going to be on the mountain and when it's not on the mountain. It's a very dynamic thing. So I don't think anybody really knows that. So in terms of the weather, that's probably a pretty big unknown. But the more scary thing is that the warmth is causing the glaciers to become more active and in the Western khum where people climb Everest on the Nepal side, there's giant seracs, like big ice cliffs that hang over the route. And we all know about what happened in 2014 and 2015 when these giant avalanches came down and killed so many people, unfortunately, mostly Sherpa. And so that is becoming a bigger and bigger problem on Everest and on mountains all over the world.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, wow. OK, well, Mark, we could have talked a lot more, but we'll stop there. And I just want to thank you very much for being with us today. And if folks want to see some pictures and learn more about this book and the expedition, you can go to our website, nhpr.org. It was great to talk to you. Thank you. And I'm glad you made it back in one piece. And Mark Synnott will be signing books outside White Birch Bookstore in North Conway, Thursday at 4:00. Today Show was produced by an NPR News host and exchange producer, Jessica Hunt.

Related Content