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The epic of the Everest

Print edition : Jun 06, 2003 T+T-


The history of Everest expeditions is marked by both triumph and tragedy. Fifty years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled the world's highest peak, a look at the trail of adventure.

To my mind at least, as far as human endurance is concerned, it would be no more surprising to me to know that a man had succeeded in walking up Everest than to know that a man can succeed in standing an arctic climate while on a sledging expedition. I do not for a moment say it would be wise to attempt an ascent of Mt. Everest, but I believe most firmly that it is humanly possible to do so; and, further, I feel sure that even in our own time, perhaps, the truth of these views will receive material corroboration.

- Clinton T. Dent, Above the Snowline, 1885

"THUS ends the Epic of Everest," wrote expedition leader John Hunt in his diary for May 30, 1953, a day after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top of the highest mountain in the world. For that remark, Hunt has been derided by historians of mountaineering. Mountaineers have, after all, since then achieved faster ascents, used riskier routes, and recorded more extraordinary feats of strength, endurance and courage on the mountain. But looking back, Hunt appears as something of a prophet. Five decades on, all that remains to be achieved on the Everest is for someone to set up an amusement park on its summit, complete with joyrides, theme kitsch, fast food outlets - and traffic jams.

In at least some senses, the ongoing festivities in Nepal mark not so much a celebration of history, but of the tourism dollar. Hillary and Norgay's epic climb will be marked by Fiftieth Anniversary hot-air balloon rides advertised on the Internet, along with Fiftieth Anniversary white water rafting, Fiftieth Anniversary golf tournaments and, less predictably, Fiftieth Anniversary Elephant Polo matches. The "spike in the hype", as one journalist put it, has led members of 40-odd Fiftieth Anniversary expeditions from around the world to fork out up to $10,000 (about Rs.4.8 lakhs) - excluding even more vertigo-inducing fees for professional guide companies who promise even to shepherd the unfit and untrained but enormously rich up the mountain - for a crack at the Everest.

The Everest aspirants this season include Sean Burch, who will be carrying Viagra to study its effects on high-altitude sickness, the Everest Peace Project made up of representatives from eight world religions, and the still-to-be-decided winners of reality television contests across the world. Enterprising suppliers have set up shop at the Everest Base Camp, located at 5,450 metres, offering climbers beer, cigarettes, Internet access, and whatever else they might want.

This is not, quite obviously, a world that the many mountaineers who sacrificed their lives in the quest to be first up the Everest would have recognised. Mountaineering in the Himalayas had started in the late 19th century; the pioneers had to contend with not only primitive equipment but also the fact that no one knew just how to get to the world's highest mountain.

In 1893, Charles Granville Bruce, an officer in the 5 Gurkha Regiment and the then-Political Officer in Chitral, Francis Younghusband, discussed the possibility of an expedition to explore the approaches to the Everest, hoping that it would eventually lead to an ascent. Nothing much came of the discussion, but members of a reconnaissance party who participated in the Younghusband-led 1903 invasion of Tibet saw the mountain from a distance. That, in turn, sparked energetic efforts to mobilise funds for an expedition.

In 1921, an expedition through Tibet succeeded in identifying a possible route to the summit from the north. This remained, until after the Second World War, the sole route to the Everest, since Nepal did not permit mountaineers to approach the mountain from its side.

As planned, the first assault on the Everest started the next year, 1922. Geoffrey Bruce and George Finch, a scientist credited with inventing the duvet jacket, now an essential part of mountaineering gear, climbed with a rudimentary oxygen set and set an altitude record of 8,627 m. Bruce's achievement was particularly extraordinary; he remains the only mountaineer to set such a record on his first climb.

George Leigh-Mallory, climbing without oxygen, led a party up to 8,169 m. Tragically, seven porters, Lakhpa, Nurbu, Pasang, Pema, Sange, Dorje and Remba, died as a result of misjudgment of snow conditions by Mallory. In 1924, the mountain claimed the life of Mallory himself, along with his climbing partner Andrew `Sandy' Irvine, as well as Samsherpun and Man Bahadur. Mallory and Irvine were last seen moving into a storm above 8,450 m, but, despite considerable popular myth-making to the contrary, are unlikely to have made it to the summit (An article on Mallory's remains being found, appeared in the June 18,1999 issue of Frontline).

The first two expeditions to set foot on the Everest had cost almost a dozen lives. Their mountaineering achievements were, however, incredible. Climbing the Everest needed knowledge, equipment and endurance. The early mountaineers had only the last-named resource.

For a variety of reasons, mainly political ones, no expeditions could be carried out for the best part of a decade. By 1931, however, the British were confronted with the very real prospect of a United States or Swiss attempt on the mountain - or even, horror of horrors, by the Germans. The British India Office brought pressure to bear on the Dalai Lama, and permission was granted reluctantly for a fresh summit attempt. In terms of equipment and attitudes, matters had, however, changed little. The use of oxygen, much to the horror of critics like Finch, was still looked down upon and little understood. Finch's own experiments with duvet climbing gear had been forgotten.

The 1933 expedition only made it to the same altitude already reached by Bruce and Finch in 1922. A British eccentric, Maurice Wilson, attempted a solo climb the next year, having arrived at the Everest disguised as a Tibetan. His body was recovered at 6,400 m in 1935, by a reconnaissance expedition that surveyed the Everest region. Another British expedition in 1936 was repulsed by the early onset of the monsoon, which brought ferocious winds and snow to the mountains. A final pre-War expedition, launched in 1938, succeeded only in reaching 8,320 m, but showed that the mountain could be climbed with more limited human and financial resources than had been thought possible until then.

War meant an end to further attempts to scale the Everest. The climbers who returned to the peak, however, came enriched by war-time technologies. High-altitude aviators, many of whom made unauthorised passes over the Everest from their bases in India, had helped scientists understand the effects of oxygen deprivation and cold weather. Better clothing was now available, and the need for supplemental oxygen at high altitude was clearly established. Most important of all, Nepal was now opening itself up to mountaineers, offering the possibility of using the relatively easy - if that is the appropriate word - - south-east ridge route.

The first post-War summit attempt, a clandestine bid made in 1947 by Canadian Earl Denman, used the Tibet route. In 1950, however, a joint Anglo-American team was able to survey the route through the Solu Khumbu region, the gateway to the southern face of the Everest. The next year saw another British reconnaissance team enter the Khumbu Valley, while Danish mountaineer K.B. Larsen made the first, unauthorised, attempt through the same route. In 1952, even as the British planned their next move, a Swiss team launched an attempt through the south-east ridge.

The race to the top had been joined in earnest, and the Swiss mountaineers came closer to success than anyone before them. Tenzing Norgay, along with Raymond Lambert - who had become firm friends on the mountain although they did not speak a word of each other's language - made it to 8,598 m. The two had climbed higher than any human had before, and had, from a British point of view, come alarmingly close to the summit.

The members of the British Expedition, who had failed to launch an expedition in the 1952 climbing season, reacted with ill-concealed glee to the Swiss failure. "I think for the first time," Hillary later wrote, "I was really admitting to myself quite honestly that I didn't want the Swiss to climb the Everest. Let them get very high - good luck to them in that - but not to the summit!"

The leader of the 1953 expedition, Hunt, knew that this might be Britain's last crack at the mountain. The success of any other nation would make past expeditions, and his country, look foolish, whatever the reasons for their failure. Oxygen equipment was sourced from the Royal Air Force's Institute for Aviation Medicine, while special nylon-weft suits, impervious to winds of up to 100 km an hour, were manufactured for the ascent.

All the same, things did not start off well. The highly class and race-conscious Hunt had a fractious relationship with the team's Sherpas, who almost rebelled after being billeted in a garage in the British Embassy's grounds in Kathmandu, while the climbing members stayed in the main building itself. Norgay, who had been offered a room in the Embassy, considered marching off in protest, but finally stayed in the garage in the interest of team solidarity.

The next morning, the Sherpas found themselves compelled to urinate beside a road in the Embassy complex. When the story made it to the newspapers, there was more acrimony and recrimination within the team. Norgay himself commented on the absence of the kind of "informal, easy comradeship there had been with the Swiss", noting that he did not share a tent with any of his climbing companions, while he had done so with Lambert.

Yet, on the mountain, things began to fall together for the expedition. Critical judgment calls went Hunt's way, and the weather largely cooperated. Finally, on May 28, the team began its second, decisive assault on the summit. At 8,504 m, their supply team left Hillary and Norgay to rest before their final push, at what was then the highest camping ground in the world. It was 2-30 p.m. Their climb would begin again at 6-30 a.m.

Five hours after setting out from their final camp, Hillary and Norgay made their way across a small ridge that rose for a dozen-odd metres to a white-capped dome. Above them there was only the sky. Hillary and Norgay had become the first people to stand on top of the world. "I was too tired and conscious of the long way down to safety really to feel any elation," Hillary wrote of that magical moment. "But as the fact of our success thrust itself more clearly into my mind, I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction spread through my body - a satisfaction less vociferous but more powerful than I had ever felt on a mountain top before. I turned and looked at Tenzing. Even beneath his oxygen mask and the icicles hanging from his hair, I could see his infectious grin of sheer delight. I held out my hand, and in silence we shook in good Anglo-Saxon fashion. But this was not enough for Tenzing, and impulsively he threw his arm around my shoulders, and we thumped each other on the back in mutual congratulations."

Down the mountain, they met George Lowe, who emerged from the squall carrying hot soup and spare oxygen. "In rough New Zealand slang," Hillary recalled, "I shouted out the good news." "What he actually said," records historian Walt Unsworth, "was: `Well, George, we knocked the bastard off'."

In the 50 years since then, the mountain has well and truly been knocked off. National pride drove a series of successful Everest ascents: India, China, the Soviet Union, the U.S., Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and a host of European countries had joined the Everest Club by the end of the 1970s. By 1996, mountaineers had succeeded in reaching the summit from 15 possible routes.

In 1975, Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit. Three years later, Italian Reinhold Messner and Austrian Peter Habeler succeeded in making the first ascent without supplementary oxygen, fulfilling Mallory's dream of pitting pure human endurance against the mountain. In 1980, Messner achieved an even more spectacular feat, climbing solo for three days from his base camp at 6,500 m without either oxygen or support staff. The endeavour reflects Messner's philosophy of mountaineering, which sees the contest between the individual and the mountain, unmediated by technological and human support, as the essence of mountaineering.

Appa Sherpa holds the record for the largest number of Everest ascents, 11, all without supplemental oxygen (see box: `Records'). The records for the youngest and oldest mountaineers fall regularly; blind and physically challenged individuals have also made it to the top. People have skied down the Everest; jumped on to it; flown off it.

About the only thing the Everest has not seen, adventure company owner Christine Boskoff has sardonically noted, is "the first naked climber". While it is not fair to sneer at the many individuals who have risked their life and staked their claim to be part of the ultimate mountain prize, the sad fact is climbing Everest is not any longer an extraordinary journey of distance and will. The world's highest mountain is, increasingly, being reduced to a tourist destination, just like any other.

Several companies offer escorted climbs to the summit, enabling any reasonably fit and extremely affluent client an opportunity to stand where Hillary and Norgay did five decades ago. In 1996, a sudden deterioration in weather conditions, coupled with a `traffic jam' of inexperienced and under-skilled climbers led to eight deaths on the mountain. Nonetheless, extreme adventure tourism is growing, as are the crowds on the Everest. China is already working on plans to establish a luxury hotel at Rongbuk, at the foot of the mountain. Many observers believe that some similar enterprise will be initiated at the Base Camp in Nepal once a viable road link can be built from Lukla, the nearest road-head, currently a two-day walk.

The enormous environmental degradation caused to the Everest is already there for all to see, and such development will only make things worse. Global warming has added to the problems, and several recent scientific studies have indicated that the entire Khumbu region faces long-term flood threats because of accelerated ice-melt. The upswing in human activity around the mountain, experts agree, could put further pressure on the fragile glacier systems.

The tourism revenues that supposedly legitimise this damage do little for their supposed beneficiaries. Tourists brought $152 million to Nepal that year, 15 per cent of its total foreign exchange earnings. But, Nepali academic Prakash Raj noted in a recent paper, just 10 per cent of these revenues go to local communities, since catering for tourists requires extensive imports.

Even these revenues are concentrated in the hands of village elites who own shops and hotels. Worst of all for the poor, the large-scale influx of tourists into remote areas has led to the overuse of scarce firewood, and a rise in the prices of basic commodities. The porters employed by the trekking trade, a business propelled by the mystique of high-altitude mountaineering, remain poorly paid despite several brave international initiatives. Child labour is common; sick porters are known to have been left behind in dangerous conditions by trekking parties.

The bottom line? One of the world's most beautiful places is being destroyed, for no particularly good reason. And that raises the obvious question: why climb the Everest? The famous cliche, `Because it's there', is clearly inadequate. Perhaps, 50 years after Hillary and Norgay's epic climb, the time is coming to give the much-trampled on mountain some well-deserved rest.