Everest at 60: Commercialism Increases Risk

Did commercial expeditions kill altruism on the way to the summit?

Sixty years since Mount Everest's first successful ascent, little remains of that noble enterprise of courage and personal challenge, concludes a new study.

Ego, hubris and greed have replaced the early climbers' gentlemanly conduct, leaving civil behavior almost entirely to the Sherpas, says the research into more than 6,300 expeditions.

David A. Savage and Benno Torgler, two researchers from the Queensland Behavioral Economics (QuBE) Group in Australia, analyzed over 60 years of Himalayan climbing data, and divided them in two distinct periods, pre-commercialization (1950-1987) and post-commercialization (1988-2009).

PHOTOS: The World's 'Eight-Thousander' Mountains

They investigated 285 peaks and more than 47,000 expedition members in an attempt to understand how humans react to stressful conditions at high altitude.

"There is limited scientific knowledge available on how humans actually behave in extreme situations, but would we really be willing to let a man die for personal glory?" Savage said.

Before the introduction of commercial climbing ventures in the 1980s, rivalry was neither cut-throat nor anti-social. Mount Everest was populated by a community of climbers who were for the most part well known to each other and tied together by the "brotherhood of the rope," a deep sense of solidarity.

That sense of community suffered after the introduction of lucrative commercial expeditions, the study suggests. Clients paid exorbitant climbing fees, up to $65,000, to get to the summit, thus focusing on a single attempt.

"The people just want to get to the top," said Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent on May 29, 1953. "It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by."

Perhaps the most infamous example was that of David Sharp, an English mathematics teacher and mountaineer who died in 2006, a mere 300 meters from the summit of Mount Everest.

Attempting a solo climb, without either guide or Sherpa, Sharp began suffering altitude problems, starving of oxygen.

"He sat just off the climbing route, slowly drowning as his lungs filled with his own fluids while his arms and legs turned to ice," Savage said. "I think what disturbed the world was that approximately 40 climbers ignored this man's plight as they made their way to the summit," Savage said.

NEWS: Have Sherpas Had It?

Savage and Torgler point out that after a death has occurred, commercial expeditions go on to record a successful climb in 80.6 percent of cases, but only 37.8 percent for the non-commercial expeditions.

"The Sherpa appear to embody and hold to the pre-commercial values of behavior, which has been weakened in the modern climbers, and is faintly visible in the non-commercial expeditions," Savage concluded.

Unlike commercial expeditions, a death in a non-commercial venture has a highly significant negative impact on the probability of success, indicating a willingness to stop or abandon expeditions.

"Given the multitude of anecdotal reports, books and newspaper stories about the behavior of modern climbers, these results did not come as a surprise to me," Savage told Discovery News.

"However, I was not expecting to find that the non-commercial climbers had started to weaken as well," he said. "The Sherpa may be responsible for the remaining prosocial behavior," he said.

Richard Salisbury, the co-creator of the Himalayan Database used in the study, told Discovery News he was not surprised by the findings, although he believes they need to be confirmed by further research and methods.

Savage and Torgler detail their findings in the journal of the Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts.

The world's 14 "eight-thousanders" -- mountains taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) -- are all located in Asia. On one hand, they really beautify a horizon, but on the other they present a fierce, at times fatal, challenge to mountain climbers. Beauty can, indeed, be deadly. Here's the "baby" of the bunch, Shishapangma in Tibet, peaking at 8,027 meters (26,335 feet).

This is Gasherbrum II (we'll have another Gasherbrum coming up shortly), on the border of Pakistan and China. It's 8,035 meters up in the sky (26,361 feet) and is sometimes known as K4. These mountaineers are near the summit.

On the left side of this picture we see the sheer mass of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet at 8,047 meters or 26,394 feet above sea level.

As promised, here's another Gasherbrum: Gasherbrum I. (Gasherbrum, translated from the Tibetan language Balti, means "beautiful mountain.") It also goes by the name of K5, lives along the China-Pakistan border and is 8,080 meters (26,444 ft) high.

The Himalayan mountain range Annapurna, in Nepal, is seen here from Pkhara, about 124 miles (200 kilometers) west of Kathmandu. Annapurna is considered one of the most dangerous for climbers; first crested in 1950, it has since been climbed by more than 100 people but taken 53 lives along the way.

This somewhat unsettling photo was taken in 1931 by mountaineers at a base camp on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest eight-thousander at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet). The area captured in the picture is known as the Nanga Wall.

Eighth-tallest of the eight-thousanders is Nepal's Manaslu, at 8,163 meters (26,781 feet).

The Dhaulagiri mountain range in the Himalayas sports a rather volcanic look in this picture, with the sun brushing its top. But Nepal's 8,167-meter (26,795-foot) monster is of course quite chilly on top. Dhaulagiri's south face is considered by mountaineers to be a next-to-impossible climb, and no one has ever topped the mountain from that side.

Clouds hover over snow-covered Cho Oyu mountain in Tibet. The sixth-tallest mountain stands 8,201 meters tall (26,906 feet), and the "Mountain Goddess" (in Tibetan translation) is considered one of less-challenging climbs among the eight-thousanders (if you don't consider climbing ANY mountain a challenge, that is!).

Next in the eight-thousander club is Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, looming on the border between Nepal and China. It's 8,463 meters (27,766 feet) tall and is another tough climb, with 22 deaths tallied against its 206 successful climbs.

Standing 8,516 meters tall (27,940 feet), Lhotse, fourth-tallest, rests on the border of Nepal and Tibet. It was first climbed in 1956.

Kangchenjunga, in Nepal, is the world's third-tallest mountain, edging Lhotse by just 71 meters, standing 8,587 meters tall (28,169 feet). It's a prominent mark on the horizon in Darjeeling, the tea-growing region.

K2, the second-tallest mountain on the planet, is 8,611 meters up in the clouds (28,251 feet) along the China-Pakistan border. Climbers know it for its incredibly difficult ascent routes; in 2008, an ice fall on the treacherous slopes took the lives of 11 climbers.

And now we reach the Big Daddy in the worldwide mountains club. That, of course, would be Mount Everest. Its name alone is synonymous with challenging feats, as climbing it continues to this day to be a dicey endeavor, though it draws people year after year to attempt the ascent. And what a climb: Mount Everest stands 8,848 meters tall (29,029 feet). It was famously crested for the first time in 1953 by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.