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What Mount Everest Climbers and Migrants Have in Common

Despite the very obvious differences, many deaths—of migrants and mountain climbers alike—are the result of government policies that prioritize economic and political agendas over human life

"Like Everest mountaineers, many desert migrants will die on their journey, succumbing to the extreme conditions and brutal landscapes through which they travel," Goldstein writes. "Their bodies will remain out in the open, their bones polished by the hot desert sun or the cold mountain wind, harrowing road marks for all who subsequently travel those paths." (Photo: Screenshot/CBSN)

Perhaps you’ve seen the photos: A long, snaking line of mountain climbers, each one waiting their turn to summit Mt. Everest. The climbers’ brightly colored gear contrasts with the white of the snow and the blue of the sky. They stand there at 29,000 feet, their oxygen depleting with each passing moment, in an incredible traffic jam at the top of the world’s tallest peak. The photos tell many stories: of human tenacity and endurance, the willingness to pit one’s self against nature’s extremes in the quest for glory, to prove something to one’s self and to posterity.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away and thousands of feet lower in altitude, undocumented migrants struggle to cross Arizona’s Sonoran desert as they make their way north, in search of a better life. Like the Everest mountaineers, the migrants have paid extraordinary sums to an outfitter (a coyote, they are called) to guide them on their journey. Though the amounts differ —mountaineers may spend up to $130,000 to fund their Everest adventure, while an unauthorized migrant from Latin America might pay between $4,000 and $12,000—each has invested a considerable amount in their dream.

There are some obvious differences. Unlike the mountaineers—wealthy people outfitted in the latest gear to help them survive the climatic and geographic challenges they encounter—the migrants travel with little. They are poor people, after all, with bad shoes and an old backpack containing a few meager possessions. Many of the migrants will run out of water before their journey ends. Many will be abandoned by their guides or robbed by gangs at the border or raped and murdered in the desert. Failing to complete their journey can be costly: Unlike Everest climbers, for most unauthorized migrants their journey is not a quest for glory but a matter of life and death.

But despite these differences, there are other, more telling similarities. Like Everest mountaineers, many desert migrants will die on their journey, succumbing to the extreme conditions and brutal landscapes through which they travel. Their bodies will remain out in the open, their bones polished by the hot desert sun or the cold mountain wind, harrowing road marks for all who subsequently travel those paths.

"Mountaineer deaths in 2019 have unleashed an international outcry, with citizens and governments alike clamoring for reform of Nepal’s Everest policies... But the deaths of migrants go unnoticed. No clamor arises as migrants die in the desert, year after year, their deaths the direct result of US border policy."

What’s more, many of these deaths—of migrants and mountain climbers alike—are the result of government policies that prioritize economic and political agendas over human life. The bodies lying by the trail are reminders not only of individual human drive and determination, but of the willingness of governments to sacrifice human lives to self-interest, nationalism, and greed.

On Mt. Everest, some 300 mountaineers have died trying to reach the summit. This year has been especially deadly, with 11 climber deaths reported in 2019. Many of those deaths have been attributed to the increase in climbing permits issued by the Nepalese government, which has allowed ever greater numbers of climbers to attempt the mountain, many of them inexperienced and unprepared, in exchange for the high permit fees they are willing to pay.

Meanwhile, in the Sonoran desert, the Pima County Medical examiner reports an average of 155 migrant deaths each year, with a total of nearly 3000 over the last 20 years. Directly implicated in these deaths is the US policy of “prevention through deterrence,” which channels migrants into the harshest desert zones. Prevention through deterrence enlists the desert topography and climate to the enforcement of US border policy, directing migrants across the most hostile terrain, where they are most likely to suffer dehydration and death. The actual number of migrant deaths is certainly higher than the official estimates, given that many additional thousands of people have simply disappeared into the vast landscape of the southwestern US, their bodies never discovered, their loss never reported to authorities.

And here we see the greatest difference between the deaths of migrants and mountaineers. Every mountaineer death is recorded and memorialized. Mountaineer deaths in 2019 have unleashed an international outcry, with citizens and governments alike clamoring for reform of Nepal’s Everest policies.

But the deaths of migrants go unnoticed. No clamor arises as migrants die in the desert, year after year, their deaths the direct result of US border policy. Those who attempt to help migrants by providing them with water and solace risk arrest and prosecution: Scott Warren, a member of the humanitarian group No More Deaths, is now facing felony charges for rescuing dying migrants in the Sonoran desert.

Migrants and mountaineers share some responsibility for their own lives and deaths, having made the decision to walk a dangerous and uncertain path. But the actions of government have made those paths ever more perilous, and governments must be made to share in the responsibility for the deaths they cause.

Daniel M. Goldstein

Daniel M. Goldstein

Daniel M. Goldstein is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

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