At 29,035 feet (8,850 meters), Mount Everest is the highest point anywhere on Earth. In Nepal it's called Sagarmatha, meaning Goddess of the Sky. The Tibetans call it Chomolungma, which means Mother Goddess of the Universe. It's home to one of the harshest environments and the most treacherous climbing anywhere in the world. Since 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited, hundreds have followed in their path trying to reach the summit, while many others have died trying.
And if you were to ask Greg Rucka, it's a great setting for an all-new comic series.
In August of this year Oni Press will release "Everest: Facing the Goddess," a twelve-issue maxi series written by Greg Rucka with art by Scott Morse. Each issue will contain 32 pages of story with no ads. CBR News spoke with Rucka to learn more about the series and the challenges faced by the Rucka/Morse expedition as they climb the mountain on the printed page.
"Everest: Facing the Goddess" follows an expedition to summit the mountain, but it's not quite that simple. It never is with Everest. The Sherpas, the guides who lead the expeditions up the mountain, tell climbers that when attempting to summit Everest you must come "pure" to the mountain. You don't conquer or attack it, you treat the mountain with respect and come open and willingly. Rucka pointed out that it's believed the reason why Tenzing Norgay was able to summit with Hillary was because his relationship with the mountain was always one of love and for many people, this is still the case. Now that you, the reader, understand the relationship a climber must have with the mountain, we feel it's now time to tell you a bit more about the book.
"[In 'Everest'] we're following two main characters," said Rucka. "One of whom is a woman named Dr. Corcoran Gale. She's 28, 29. Her father was a climber. And there's a Sherpa named Lakhpa. His father was a climber. They each are part of the same expedition that's being led by a third guy named Tone Kovac, who is a Croatian climber. It's an attempt to summit the mountain from the Western Ridge, which is a non-traditional approach.
"There are tensions. Tone led a climb to summit Nuptse with Corky's father and Lakhpa's father. Tone didn't turn around when base camp told him to turn around. They summited and then something happened and the only climber to survive was Tone. So you've got basically the inheritors of this legacy climbing the mountain with the guy who is potentially responsible for the death of their fathers. It's very family is the best way I can put it.
"You see generation after generation of climbers come to the mountain. Last year, 2003, was the 50th Anniversary of Tenzing and Hillary's climb, and we saw Peter Hillary and an American named Brent Bishop (who's father died trying to summit from the southwest approach) climb the mountain, with Jamling Norgay, one of Tenzing's sons, running base camp for their expedition. Families climb, it's something father's hand down to their sons and daughters. So, our camp manager is, again, somebody who knows these people. So, Corky goes basically to be the physician at base camp and Lakhpa goes to be, ostensibly, the climbing organizer, the sirdar, for the attempt. And then Tone's going to climb with another guy.
"But nothing is ever easy, or simple, or goes the way you plan it.
"They say the most dangerous part of climb is getting out of base camp [17,400 Feet], the Khumbu Icefall, where you have pieces of glacier the size of three story buildings, randomly shifting and these things fall over and wham! you're dead. Through all this we see how events conspire to put Corky and Lakhpa on the mountain."
So while our protagonists Corky and Lakhpa deal with the weight of working with the man who very well may have led their fathers to death, they're also faced with another antagonist other than Tone, the mountain itself.
"It's weird, you used the words antagonist and protagonist. Those are probably better words to use than good guys and bad guys, because, again, it's how you climb the mountain. Climbing, for some of these people, is in the blood. They can not not climb, in the way that I can not not write or how I think Scott [Morse] can not not paint."
Rucka mentioned that originally the book wasn't going to be titled "Everest: Facing the Goddess." Rucka went round and round on the title, trying to come up with the right one. Morse and Rucka swapped e-mails and had settled on Chomolungma as a title. Rucka's friend Brian Bendis thought this was a bad idea. "Brian Bendis sort of grabbed me by the shoulders, which for him is a reach [laughs] and he said, 'You idiot, call it 'Everest.' Just call it 'Everest!' I said, 'Yeah, but I mean, come on, so many things have been called 'Everest!' At which point Bendis said, 'My guess is if you call it 'Everest,' people will understand. If you call it Chomolungma they'll ask, 'What is that? Chewing tobacco?''"
Rucka found himself coupled with Morse through his editor at Oni.
"I think it was [Oni Press Editor] James Lucas Jones. What happened was Morse had sent an e-mail [to James] after 'Magic Pickle' saying 'I have an idea for the next Magic Pickle, it's going to be 'Planet of the Grapes.'' James wrote back and said, 'That's fantastic! Unless you want to do this 'Everest' thing with Rucka.' As a joke. Scott's response was 'Hell yeah!' From there Scott and I started talking. It was a no brainer. Scott is just so staggeringly talented. Normally for projects like this, the hunt for an artist is really, really arduous, but in this case it was really, really easy. Scott isn't just the artist on this, he's the other 50%. We're absolutely co-collaborating. I figure, in large part, my job is to get out of Scott Morse's way, which is not a bad place to be."
For those familiar with Morse's artwork, you know that his painted art always has a very specific color palette, specially selected for each work. It's still very early in the development stage of this book so nothing's set in stone, yet, but Rucka has some thoughts.
"I've seen some of his designs, but I think he's still trying to decide what his final colors are going to be," said Rucka. "One of the things we've been talking about is precisely that. How the color shifts in relation to where you are on the mountain. How to play some more with the blues and greens and me being the sicko I am, I love the idea of a nice blue, white, Scott Morse painting with a nice splash of crimson blood in it."
Rucka did hours and hours of research in order to craft this story. He devoured the works of Mark Twight like "Kiss of Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber," a collection of essays on climbing, and "Extreme Alpinism," which focuses on how top alpine climbers tackle the hardest routes. Rucka also found inspiration in Anatoli Boukreev's "The Climb", as well as "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer, both personal accounts of the 1996 disaster that saw eight people die by the end of summit day. In addition, he read numerous books on ice climbing, watched countless documentaries and even did a little climbing of his own. "Just enough so I know what I'm talking about, but not so much so that I'd be in trouble for leaving my wife and children behind," said Rucka.
The writer did point out that so far he hasn't interviewed anyone who's climbed Mount Everest.
"I'm a little leary of that. I always worry in situations like this that if I do too much research I'm going to find myself bound by the facts too much. So, there comes a point where the fiction has to take precedence over the facts. I suspect I will eventually try to contact [a number of climbers], but it's one of those things I get a little nervous about. I don't want to have to do a huge rewrite!"
The genesis of this project goes back many years, even before the release of "Whiteout."
"I love stories about environments. I love stories about places people go where they really shouldn't and the emotional, physical and intellectual cost of doing these things. And this begs the question why do it in the first place? You're dieing once you hit basecamp. You haven't even started climbing and you've started to die. It's a slow process. You can acclimate and slow it down, but you're dieing. Once you've hit the South Col, the clock is ticking. Every breath is one less, because your whole body is decomposing as you move. That's what altitude sickness is. Your lungs start filling with fluid. Your brain starts filling with fluid. People die. We're not talking about frostbite or dehydration. We're talking about fundamental betrayals of the body.
"I'm fascinated by the fact that the higher you go the more impaired you are and the less aware you are of the impairment. You read stories about how this person made this mistake at this altitude, and one of the things that isn't always clear is that it's not that they were stupid, they were as smart as you or I, but they were denied the opportunity to be that smart because they were sick. There's something really compelling to me in that. There's something really compelling about extreme environments and stories about people who put themselves willingly in those environments.
"I've seen documentaries where they're interviewing people who say, 'Oh yeah, you know, I sold my business, I had a couple of million dollars and I just decided this would be a fun thing to do! Never climbed a day in my life!' Those people are going to get to the summit, or in some cases die trying. The fact that there is a tourist industry that makes climbing Everest like going up a flight of stairs is something else that needs to be dealt with, too.
"Then you have to ask, why climb the mountain? Who are the kind of people who do this type of thing? There are so many types of climbers. There are ethical climbers and there are unethical climbers. There are people with passion. There are people who are trying to prove something to their selves or the world."
This leads to a regular debate amongst climbers and those in the tourist trade about who should be on the mountain and who shouldn't. Rucka reminded us that of an event that happened a couple of years ago, when a well known American corporation sponsored a climb. "Starbucks was sponsoring a tent at base camp. There's 800 people there and there's a big banner on the side of a tent that says Starbucks! That's perverse! That's just wrong!
"We have an attitude, it's a very American attitude to a certain extent, which is you should have the right to do whatever you want. And if that means you want to climb Everest, well hell, all it costs is money.
"There's a wonderful National Geographic DVD on the 50th Anniversary expedition. There's a bit in it where you're watching footage of people trying to get to the summit on summit day and they're all roped in on a line at the Hillary Step. There are so many people roped in on the line that the guy at the front of the line is in danger of being pulled off the mountain because of the tension behind him. Traffic jams of 30 and 40 people. One day it's not going to be 6 or 8 people, it's going to be 50 fucking people who will die, because one day someone's going to think it looks perfectly clear, the weather is good, they're going to get up there by noon, everyone's going to be fine on their oxygen and then there's going to be a micro-burst down draft and 50 people are going to fall 10,000 to their death."
When asked if he feels the Nepali government should limit the number of climbers attempting to summit each year, Rucka responded with an emphatic yes.
"I absolutely do. It's bad for the environment, it's bad for the mountain and it's dangerous. It's fundamentally disrespectful to the planet.
"There are lots of different reasons why there are so many people up there, but the biggest reason is money. It's become a huge money making venture. That's not just for second or third party contractors who put together the tours, but for the Nepali government. It's a huge cash cow for the Nepali government. $60,000 for a climbing permit and if they issue 500 of those, it's a lot of money for their country. You can't really tell them they shouldn't want to make money or supplemental income, but at the same time what's the trade off going to be?
"There's footage of the South Col, which is the third camp where climbers break and try to recover for the excursion for the summit which normally starts around midnight. There's this field, a field of discarded oxygen bottles. In recent years people have been paying Sherpas to bring the bottles back down to try to clean up the mountain, but there's something wrong in that there were that many up there in the first place. We hear talk about how beautiful and wonderful it is up there, but we're leaving our trash everywhere up there."
All this discussion of the mountain and the ethics of climbing begs the question, would he ever attempt to climb Everest himself?
"I honestly don't know," admitted Rucka. "I think if I had known 10 years ago what I know now, I might have oriented myself in such a way to train properly for it. I may well have done it. But, there's a piece of me, that says no, I don't want to go. That's a triumph for other people who have earned it more than I. Some of these climbers are remarkable. You read about them and some of these guys start real young. They have a level of fitness that would shame Olympic athletes. Seriously. They're in extraordinary shape. Completely on the basis that once you're at 23,000 feet, you need your body to be able to do prolonged, high-power, high-energy, high-strength action with depleting oxygen."
Rucka admits that daredevil events are quite his thing, but he does have some experience with falling, something you don't want to do on Everest.
"I did some cliff diving in college where you climb really high on a cliff and throw yourself into the water. You know, once you do that at like 75 feet, that was when I determined how you know when a fall is too far. It was the kind of fall where you have time to go, 'Wow, I'm still falling... and I'm still falling...'
"My crazy stuff has normally been well fixed to the ground. Raced the odd motorcycle and fired way too many firearms. Gotten drunk with people who if I had been sober at the time would never had done it. Part of the reason why I write is I gotta find my kicks some other ways. I prefer travel and going places and seeing things. I'd love to go to Nepal.
"My brother tried to hike to base camp. My brother was in great shape and he couldn't make it. He'd been hiking in the Himalayas with a guide and a friend of his for two weeks. They finally did summit 150 feet higher than base camp. His description of just the last 100 feet was that with every step he took a breath. Like I said, my brother was in good shape. That's how hard it is."