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On the Viral Photograph of Mount Everest’s Traffic Jam

What the shocking image says about our desperate urge to achieve the unthinkable

Traffic jam on Mount Everest, 2019. Courtesy: Nirmal Purja and Project Possible. 

How the stomach responds to a picture of a mountain depends on context. Apple’s orange-tinted default wallpaper of California’s Lone Pine Peak summons an entirely different response to the viral image of a human traffic jam atop the world’s highest summit beneath the headline: ‘Walking over bodies: mountaineers describe carnage on Everest’. The universal appeal of shocking images like this lies in how we react, our reflexes.

Nirmal Purja’s viral photograph taken on 22 May showing hundreds of people waiting in line to see a once-in-a-lifetime panorama begets a kind of dizzy feeling; a blend of shock, curiosity and unease. And as everyone does when presented with a landscape image, you place yourself there. In this case, as one of amongst the pile-up. You imagine yourself, after a two-month long trek, waiting in a queue longer than your local accident and emergency department. It might seem like a stretch to find kinship between the NHS and what the Nepalese refer to as ‘Forehead (or Goddess) of the Sky’, but both are considered marvels, while also putting people through long waiting times that can result in loss of life. (Eleven have died this year on the mountain, mostly due to inexperience.)

So, the question that is ruminating on the ground floor is why is the world’s tallest mountain, a beautiful dark grey thing made of Ordovician limestone inter-layered with subordinate beds of recrystallized dolomite, so overcrowded? Ascending Mount Everest, whose agreed height stands at 29,029 ft, was once, perhaps a metaphor for scaling an aspiration, but now it is the aspiration. From our participation in social media daredevil challenges to our exposure to a decades-long motivational ‘Just Do It’ sports brand campaign, Purja’s image is a close-up our desperate urge to achieve the unthinkable. But what we often don’t want to admit, is that our eyes, in pursuit of awe and wonder, can sometimes be too big for our bellies. 

Kadish Morris is editorial assistant and staff writer of frieze, based in London, UK.  

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