The Gods Must Be Angry

THE WAY THE SHERPAS SEE IT, last year's assault on Everest was jinxed from the start when two climbers had sex in a tent. They sniggered outside, Jon Krakauer recounts in his book ""Into Thin Air,'' then worried that disaster would follow. Soon, ei ght died, from wealthy clients to a couple of the world's best climbers. Others, like New York socialite Sandy Pittman, barely escaped with their lives, frostbitten and shaken. This year, many climbers are back again, and the word at Everest Base Camp is no more ""sauce-making,'' as the Sherpas put it. But the goddess Chomolunga, who Tibetan Buddhists believe lives inside Everest, is still angry. Some of the Westerners asked a Sherpa to cook pork, and he has been praying for five days to purify himself as a result. Last week word emerged that six more climbers have perished this year, four foreigners and two locals, all of them strong climbers. Three of them, including German banker Peterko Kovalcic, who was in his late 20s, had successfully ""summited '' the difficult North Face, when the jet stream dipped down and literally blew them off the mountain with a 140-mph blast. It was a bad beginning to what could yet become Everest's worst mountaineering season ever.

The omens are all bad, whether spiritual or meteorological. Conquering Everest, with its pyramidal peak jutting nearly into the stratosphere, is possible only for a few weeks in spring and fall. But with bad weather, a record seven expeditions, wit h 80 foreigners and 100 Sherpas, are now backed up at Everest Base Camp, waiting to try the South Col route where last year's tragedy took place. An additional 12 teams, 150 strong, were trying the North Face, which is more dangerous but less expensive. When the weather finally breaks, they will all have only a few days to try for the top. ""The worst-case scenario would be that 100 people might be summiting at the same time,'' American climber Todd Burleson told NEWSWEEK by satellite telephone from Bas e Camp. ""That would be too dangerous.'' The one team that did reach the summit from that side, the Indonesians, had to step past the frozen body of one of last year's climbers, tangled in his ropes and hanging upside down.

All in all, it seems like a good year to leave Everest to its spirits. Instead, the mountain is more crowded than ever. Last year's tragedies were blamed on three factors: unprecedented numbers, bad weather and unqualified climbers using profession al guides. This year the climbers are more numerous, the weather is the worst in memory and the guides are as busy as ever. In the United States, writer Krakauer was on a book tour promoting his account of last year's tragedy, which he witnessed as a fel low climber, when he heard the news. ""I was literally sick to my stomach,'' he says. ""It's pretty disturbing, actually, but everyone knew it was going to happen again sooner or later. And it still could get a lot worse.''

Krakauer is among those who believe that, as he says, ""Everest shouldn't be guided.'' Even though many of the casualties last year were experienced guides, trying to help their less able clients get their $65,000 worth may have cost such guides th eir own lives. But all the bad news just made the phones ring off the hook at the mountaineering companies. Veteran climber Rob Hall's company was even sold, and is now back at Everest; Hall died after calling his pregnant wife in New Zealand from his la st resting place, a snow-hole well above the Death Zone. ""Every guide service was swamped by callers saying "Oh my God, I didn't know you could be guided up Everest. When can I go?' '' Krakauer says. ""But Everest kills without prejudice, and it kills t he strong as quickly as the weak and the incompetent.''

There are no traffic cops to sort out the weak and the strong at Base Camp; the Nepalese government, which used to limit expeditions to four to a route, now welcomes anyone willing to pay $10,000 a head for a permit. The danger is that when the win dow of opportunity opens, everyone will try to rush through at once - especially if they're delayed much longer. ""We're worried that if the weaker teams go up first, it might turn out to be a rescue opera-tion instead of a summit attempt,'' says Burleso n. ""Everybody is worried about the Malaysians,'' says Krakauer. Their team originally planned to try to put 23 men on top. ""They're under incredible political pressure to summit,'' says Krakauer. ""You have to realize that back in Malaysia, these guys are like rock stars.'' Still, many of the teams have been unable to agree on what order they'll climb - and how to avoid the deadly bottlenecks that occurred last year at a treacherous defile called the Hillary Step, where they may see some of last year' s bodies (the corpses are too heavy to retrieve by climbers at that altitude). But so far only the Japanese team has turned back, after its ill-prepared leader couldn't climb the Khumbu Ice Fall on the way to Camp One on the South Col route.

There is plenty of amateurism to go round this year. One team already at Base Camp was advertising on the Internet for a meteorologist who could read satellite weather maps; another boasted it hoped to put a 68-year-old novice climber on the top. B efore the Japanese left, helicopters flew in their corporate sponsors for a photo op at Base Camp. The camp itself was cushier than ever, supplied by daily chopper flights, with video movies and propane heaters in some of the tents. The Malaysians even h ad Coca-Cola packed in by Sherpas, while camp caterers cranked out bagels, pizza and sushi. Despite the winds at the top, the sun came out enough that the climbers jokingly called the rocky scree on which they camped ""Hypoxia Beach,'' after the term for altitude sickness.

Yet even Base Camp has proven jinxed this year. One morning late last month the leader of the British expedition, 43-year-old Malcolm Duff, didn't come out of his tent. ""Mal died,'' American Ed Viesters announced in the communications tent. ""That 's not a funny joke,'' a climber snapped. ""I'm not joking,'' Viesters replied. Duff apparently had vomited in his sleeping bag, and choked to death. He may have had a heart attack, or a pulmonary edema from altitude sickness, but either way, the mountai n probably killed him. Says Burleson: ""Everest has been unkind to us in the last couple of years.''

Krakauer's account of last year's tragedy has quickly ascended the best-seller lists, and fired up a controversy among many of his fellow climbers. Some think he was too critical of the professional guides - especially those who died. ""Some of the ir family members felt I was kicking them when they were not only down, but dead,'' Krakauer says. He's appalled, though, that his own critical views, published last year in Outside and widely aired on the Internet, haven't so far dissuaded many others f rom making the attempt. ""I am never going back up there, there's no . . . way,'' Krakauer says. Despite the success of his book, he says, ""I feel like climbing Everest ruined my life. Emotionally, mentally . . . I'm just a basket case over it.'' At lea st he's still alive. Some of the climbers now on Everest probably won't be able to say the same.