This month’s National Geographic carries a story on the mess at the top of the world. It’s a shaming report on how Mount Everest has become an icon for everything that’s wrong with climbing. Ironically, it coincides with the 60th anniversary celebrations of the ascent of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on 29 May 1953. Any nostalgia for the event has been eclipsed by the unsavoury aspects of Everest that come up for inspection every climbing season.
Everest is being mobbed by crowds. In the ‘fair weather window’ on 19 May this month, 146 people reached the summit, and more than 350 people are expected to climb this season. New records were set: the first woman from Pakistan, the first woman from Saudi Arabia, the 73-year-old Japanese who became the oldest woman, the Indian sisters who became the first twins, and the six teenagers from Lawrence School, Sanawar, who became the first school team to successfully summit. Every year in the spring season, the months of April and May, dogged record setters trek up 29,000-plus feet to come back at sea level and be able to brag. Last year’s photograph of 600 climbers forming a human snake that stretched several hundred metres across the snowy slopes went viral and established what the naysayers had been saying all along: Everest is maxed out.
And yet, hidden somewhere behind the headlines of human traffic jams on Everest and the trophy hunters with ludicrous records (this season’s record includes the highest ever Harlem Shake at Camp 1 by a group of Arab climbers) are the stories that validate what Edmund Hillary famously said: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” This year, that story is of national-level volleyball player Arunima Sinha. Sinha’s right leg had to be amputated in 2011 after she was pushed out of a moving train for resisting a chain-snatching attempt in Bareilly. All she wanted then was for people to stop looking at her with pity. In an interview before her ascent, she said, “When I was undergoing treatment at AIIMS for four months, I could not do anything on my own. But then one day I decided to climb Everest.” On 21 May, Arunima Sinha became the first female amputee in the world to climb Everest, and somewhere, the experience may have helped heal her wounds. She also shows us why Everest will always be Everest, the metaphor for the ultimate in human endeavour and aspiration, the repository for some of our biggest dreams.
British adventurer and Everest hero George Mallory said of his lifelong obsession to climb Everest, “There is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself, upward and forever upward… What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy.” Mallory, along with Hillary and Tenzing, belonged to the age of exploration, when climbing represented the geopolitical ambitions of empires. Everest was a particularly British obsession, but there were other peaks with other claimants: the French had Annapurna, the Germans had the Nanga Parbat, the Italians and Americans had K2.
American historian Maurice Isserman, author of Fallen Giants, a book on the history of Himalayan expeditions, points out that the early quests were for both individual and national glory, and were bound up with the culture of empire. But that has changed. In an email interview, he says, “The race to be first on top of Everest captured the imagination of people around the world, especially in Europe and America. Bet ween 1950 and 1963, the 14 highest mountains in the world, all in the Himalaya, had their first ascents. After that, the nationalist impulse in mountaineering died down. Expeditions to the Himalayan peaks focussed instead on purely mountaineering concerns, such as finding the most challenging route to the summit, or making the first winter ascent of a mountain, or making the first ascent without using artificial oxygen, and so on. Eve rest, as the highest mountain on earth, has spawned a vast commercial enterprise, focussed on aiding affluent amateur climbers to reach its summit.”
The complete takeover by amateur climbers that Isserman refers to has given rise to an attitude of sneering disdain in alpine circles for the mighty mountain. Harish Kapadia, editor of The Himalayan Journal, says, “Everest gets low priority in mountaineering circles, except when it makes news. Of course, the common man knows only Everest, and it’s difficult to raise money and sponsorship for other peaks. Everest attracts its share of fame and money, though it has been climbed too often and lost all respect.”
“For climbing to be a challenge,” says Suman Dubey, who was part of the second Indian expedition to Everest in 1962, “you have to do it by yourself and not be guided to the top, attached to a rope. The whole point of being in high altitude mountains is to not stand in a queue.” He calls the Everest of now a disaster and recalls fondly the hard times from the ’62 expedition: securing routes, pitching ropes, ladders and tents, stocking up on food. Every member had their tasks cut out.
Contrast that with the Everest of today, where team spirit and the romance of adventurism have given way to a commercial form of individualism. Every year, the mountain becomes the stage for many sorts of stunts and marketing gimmicks. The Everest ticket can cost anything between $30,000 and $65,000. Commercial companies provide Sherpa guides, take care of flights, food and lodging, permits, procuring climbing equipment, oxygen cylinders and satellite phones. The Base Camp has Internet connectivity and smartphones work all the way up. Climbers routinely flood social media with minute-to-minute updates of their ascent. While acclimatising on Base Camp, there are many entertainment options, bars, bakeries, tea houses and movie nights.
“If you are fit and have money, all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other. You can have a Sherpa in front of you and one at the back. And the Base Camp increasingly looks like a fairground,” says Chewang Motup Goba, who runs Rimo Expeditions, the only Indian company to offer commercial tours of Everest. This year, Rimo organised an Indo-Nepal Army Joint Expedition to clean up the mountain. They brought down more than a ton of non-biodegradable waste. His wife and business partner Yangdu Gombu is the daughter of Nawang Gombu, one of the finest Sherpa climbers of his time and the nephew of Tenzing Norgay. “My father would always say Everest must be crying under all this weight.” Yangdu says that they have been in a fix over their Everest expeditions — their conscience not allowing them to continue sending more people, a consideration that is outweighed by the Sherpas, who would lose their livelihood if they shut shop at Everest.
No climb on Everest has been possible without the Sherpas, the extremely devout ethnic group, known for their strength and integrity, who live in the Khumbu region of Nepal. In the second British Everest Expedition of 1922, of which George Mallory was a part, 13 British climbers were assisted by 100 Sherpas, of whom seven died, the first recorded deaths in Everest history.
Nearly one-third of the casualties on Everest have been Sherpas. The Sherpas and the ‘Sahibs’ (Western mountaineers) approach climbing from two extremely divergent perspectives. For the Westerners, climbing is an extreme sport; for the Sherpas it is livelihood, a source of income. The relationship between the two has been romanticised as an example of East meeting West in perfect harmony, and the torchbearers for this image were Tenzing and Hillary who remained friends and refused to divulge who took the first step to the summit till the end.
Jamling Norgay, son of Tenzing, says, “Sherpas are the unsung heroes, the lifeline of the mountain. They do all the work, risk their lives, trying to get sahibs up the mountain. They need more respect and they shouldn’t be taken for granted.” His words foreshadow the brawl that broke out last month on the higher slopes of Everest between three Western climbers and a group of Sherpas who were laying the ropes before the beginning of the climbing season. It made headlines around the world and brought back attention to the symbiotic relationship. What outraged outsiders see as greed, corruption and ego on the part of Sherpas, those within the community see as a sign of newfound confidence, of finally standing up for their rights, something that Tenzing had campaigned endlessly for. In two generations, many Sherpas have raised themselves to the level of professional mountaineers and big ticket businessmen working in Himalayan tourism, and come a long way from their load-bearing predecessors.
Yangdu Gombu says that her father — who partnered Jim Whittaker in the first American expedition to Everest in 1963 — ensured all his children were given a Western education and kept away from climbing. Ang Tshering Sherpa, who runs Asian Trekking, one of the biggest commercial expedition companies in Nepal, comes from a long and illustrious line of Sherpas. His son Dawa Steven, a business graduate from Scotland, was expected to take over his father’s business. “I’ve seen how risky climbing can be. It’s not what I want for my son. But climbing was in his blood and he is on his third expedition on Everest,” says Ang Tshering. Even though the likes of Dawa Steven heed the call of the mountains, many Sherpas are now entrepreneurs, doctors and professionals.
Climbing Everest may have become easier than ever, but every once in a while, the mountain asserts itself. As Colonel John Hunt, expedition leader in 1953, said, it reminds us of “man’s smallness in relation to his environment”. 1996 was one such year, when eight climbers died on a single day in a blizzard near the summit. Last year, 10 people died, this time due to human error, proving once again that a harsh mountain like this cannot be taken lightly. This year’s death toll is already at eight.
Edmund Hillary was of the mind that we need to stop harassing the mountain and give it a rest of at least five years. Climatologists, ecologists and many climbers have suggested ways to clean up and stop treating it as a cash cow. To ensure that hobby climbers stay away, Nepal government could set a certain amount of experience as prerequisite for climbers, hand out fewer permits, allow smaller teams and ensure every climber brings back their waste.
“Why climb Everest?” has been answered in many ways by many different people. Mallory immortalised the question by saying, “because it’s there”. Rupesh Khopade, a 31-year-old Pune-based software engineer and member of Giripremi, a mountaineering club, climbed Everest last year. He invested his savings, trained vigorously for five years and says that more important than the climb itself is the reason for it. The expedition was organised to promote mountaineering and he rightly points out that climbing up more challenging peaks, like Makalu or Nuptse, would never have got them the attention they needed. “Personally, it was a lifelong dream, after I saw an interview of Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman on Everest,” he says. “Our club has been working for three decades to promote love for mountaineering, but it was Everest that got us both sponsorship and new members.” These are the characters that make up the new narrative of Everest.
Phil Ershler, American mountaineer and Everest record-holder sums up the Everest phenomena when he says that it’s never going to be 1953 again. “The challenges have changed. That era is over. What Hillary and Tenzing saw then, we will never see again. There is nothing in the world that has remained the same. Times have changed, the environment has changed, the mountains too have changed.” Long timers on Everest say they cannot predict what the next 60 years will bring. It may be swamped or it may fall out of fashion, but it will stand there to remind people to strive a little harder every time.