Sometimes, it takes a tragedy to change the way we view the world. For me, it was the story of David Sharp.
Sharp was a climber in distress who died 300 feet from the summit of Mt. Everest. A number of parties, including that of double-amputee Mark Inglis, passed him by, oblivious to his plight as they sought the small beer glory that comes to those who scale the world’s highest mountain long after the feat has become commonplace.
When I learned of Sharp’s death, I could only sigh in disgust at my fellow man (and the overwhelming majority of the world’s premier climbers are men).
And then it struck me–this never would have happened if the many highly-competitive egotists who passed Sharp by had only stopped to partake in the camaraderie of karaoke as they made their way up and down the mountain.
Since it was first developed in the 1970′s, karaoke has become a staple of after-work get-togethers around the world. The term is derived from two Japanese words, kara and okestura, which roughly translated mean “bad singing.”
Karaoke first became popular among Japanese “salary men” who are expected to go out after long work days and socialize into the night. Their bosses hope that bonding through singing will improve team spirit, leading to greater corporate profits. Simply put, it is impossible not to feel a sense of common purpose with someone who has heard you sing Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive” after you’ve had three Margaritas.
My goal: To bring the bonhomie that karaoke engenders to the mountain known to sherpas, the Nepalese natives who guide foreigners to its peak, as “Chomolungma” or “Graveyard of Lousy Tippers.”
My sherpa’s name is Pemba Dorjie, and he recommends the VocoPro Karaoke King, a 7 Watt, 120 volt beauty with a Signal-to-Noise Ratio of 65 db and Wow and Flutter of 0.35% WRMS. “This bad boy has two microphone inputs with individual volume controls,” he notes in his native Tibetan tongue. “Duets can thus be performed with ease, cranking the fun up another notch.”
We choose the southwest ridge for our ascent, and make base camp at 17,600 feet above sea level. Pemba asks if he can be the first to try out the VocoPro, and I gladly agree. I know him to be a big Barry Manilow fan and–wouldn’t you know it–his first selection is “Copacabana,” the 1978 disco hit that combined Latin rhythm and Borscht Belt nightclub shtick to produce what Rolling Stone magazine called the worst song of the decade.
Pemba’s voice is strong and soulful as it echoes across the mountain face, triggering an avalanche that wipes out a party of five below us who were trying to become the first set of quintuplets of Lithuanian descent to reach the summit. “Tough luck,” says Pemba. “Avalanches are the leading cause of death here.”
After a few weeks to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude, we move up the Western Cwm to the base of the Lhotse face. Before we turn in for the night, we stare into our campfire and think the thoughts that come to men as they reach into the heavens.
“Pemba,” I say. “This Cwm–why does it have no vowel?”
Pemba is uneasy at first. “We are a poor nation,” he says after a while. “We cannot afford all the vowels that you rich Americans toss around so freely.” I nod my head in sympathy, then show him how a “y” is the Swiss Army knife of the alphabet and can be used as either a consonant or a vowel!
“Thanks,” Pemba says with a smile. “This will bring many hours of happiness to my children.”
Over the next two days we pass through the South Col, the Geneva Spur and the Yellow Band until we hit the Death Zone. At 26,000 feet, we can survive only two or three days in the rarefied atmosphere near the summit, where there are estimated to be corpses of over 100 climbers who died without realizing their goal.
I begin to have trouble breathing, and Pemba urges caution. “Here,” he says as he hands me an aerosol canister of Cheez Whiz, the processed cheese spread. “Stick this up a nostril and squirt.” I do as he instructs me, and after an initial blast of the orange, viscous liquid hits my soft palate, my nostrils clear from the gases that propel this delicious treat onto corn chips, hot dogs and cheesesteaks across America. “Wow,” I say as the fluorocarbons jolt me into a heightened state of consciousness. “What a rush! Hope it doesn’t poke a hole in the ozone layer.”
“You some kind of tree hugger?” Pemba asks scornfully. “Nature is your enemy, man.” And indeed, my concerns about global warming evaporate in the -100 degree Fahrenheit cold.
“That should last you a few hours,” Pemba says. “Just enough time to get set up.”
We hurry to hook a solar-powered generator up to the karaoke machine, then wait for teams of climbers to pass by. We notice one straggler, apparently disoriented from lack of oxygen to the brain, making his way up the slope. “Excuse me,” he shouts out as he draws nearer. “I’m looking for the Northeast Bancshares Summer Outing.”
Pemba and I exchange looks of concern. The man has been separated from his party, and is unlikely to survive a night alone. “You like Kool and the Gang?” Pemba asks tentatively.
“Who doesn’t?” the man replies, and before you can say “Jungle Boogie,” our new friend is laying down a loose groove of funky stuff to “Celebration.”
“Cel-e-brate good time–c’mon on!” he sings, not too well, but with more than enough gusto. The words ring out across the Kangshung Face and–out of nowhere–who should appear but Beth Lindsay, Director of Human Resources for the fourth-largest bank holding company in America.
“Ed Ferguson–we need you over on the northeast ridge for volleyball,” she says with concern as she checks her clipboard. “You two don’t mind if I steal Ed for awhile, do you?” she asks Pemba and me. “Karaoke doesn’t start until after dinner tonight.”
“Not a problem,” I reply with more than a little satisfaction at a mission accomplished. Pemba puts Ed’s microphone back into the VocoPro’s hard shell protective case, and we head back down the mountain.
“You know,” he says as we pass the body of a climber who was abandoned by his party after he fell forty feet from a ledge above us, “music can really bring people together.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Yes I Can’t!”