Chaos on Roof of the World

Ed­mund Hil­lary and Ten­z­ing Nor­gay would be sad­dened to see the now crowded and lit­ter­strewn Ever­est

The Witness - - NEWS -

OUNT Ever­est, the much lauded Roof of the World, is again in the ne ws this month, 64 years af­ter a y oung New Zealand bee­keeper and a Bhutia tribesman from Nepal fir st scaled the sno w and ic eclad high­est point on the globe.

Ed­mund Hil­lary and Ten­z­ing Nor­gay made it t o the sum­mit at 11.30 am on May 29, 1953.

This snow­streaked black r ock peak sits mas­sively on the bor­der of Nepal and Ti­bet, d warf­ing at 8 543 me­tres, the mag­nif­i­cent fr osted splen­dour of the Gar­whal Hi­mala yas. Kno wn lo­call y as Cho­mol­ungma, god­dess, mother of the Earth and per soni­fi­ca­tion of cr eation, the moun­tain was said to be in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the sk y.

In 64 years that view has changed, and changed ut­terly. This month, four more climbers were found dead in a t ent at the o xy­gen­starved up­per al­ti­tude s while a solo South African, R yan Sean Davy, was caught at 6000 me­tres try­ing to climb the moun­tain with­out a per­mit. He is in jail in the Nepalese cap­i­tal, Kath­mandu.

An­other South African climber, Zam­bian­born Saray Khu­malo, who hoped to be the fir st black African w oman to sum­mit, had to be lifted off the moun­tain aft er get­ting int o dif­fi­cul­tie s. She was only one of hundr eds of climber s try­ing to plant a flag at the peak.

When Hil­lary and T en­z­ing did so in 1953, they were ec­static. But they never fore­saw the longterm re­ac­tion to their achieve­ment. It was a re­ac­tion born of a me­dia frenzy, a long way from the com­ment Hil­lary made to fel­low climber Ge­orge Lowe as he and Ten­z­ing made their de­scent: “Well, we knocked the bas­tard off”. It w as a com­ment never re­ported in the B ri­tish press that favoured Hil­lary’s com­ment that “It was a tech­ni­cally good Alpine climb”.

For Hil­lary, that w as it. T he job was done. An­other vir gin peak c on­quered and it was time to move on. For Ten­z­ing, born and r aised un­der the shado w of Cho­mol­ungma, it w as a cr own­ing achieve­ment. He would be hailed for­ever among the mount ain vil­lages of N epal as one of the gr eat­est climbers.

But while the two men were climb­ing at the up­per al­ti­tudes, they were un­aware that B ri­tish loy­al­ist fer­vour would see the sum­mit of E ver­est/Cho­mol­ungma as “an­other jewel in the crown”, in fact, a gift to the new queen of a fad­ing empire. Be­cause the corona­tion of Queen El­iz­a­beth II t ook place only days af­ter news ar­rived that the high­est peak in the world had been c on­quered.

What hap­pened then changed not only the lives of Hil­lary and Ten­z­ing, it also pro­jected the c on­quest of that gr eat Hi­malayan moun­tain as an epit ome of success. When Hil­lary and Ten­z­ing bat­tled the treach­er­ous ice of Khumbu and teams of Sher­pas car­ried tons of sup­plies up­wards, they were quite un­aware that the eyes of the w orld had been turned on them. “I thought ther e would be a bit of a fuss when we got down,” Hil­lary told me in his A uck­land home in 1 973. “A few pic­tures, para­graphs in the news­pa­pers and so on. I c er­tainly didn’t ex­pect what hap­pened.” What hap­pened was to cat­a­pult not just Hil­lary and Ten­z­ing to promi­nence, but also to put the idea of sum­mit­ing E ver­est as e ssen­tial for any wouldbe climber.

Yet, as Hil­lary said in 1 973: “Ever­est was just an­other moun­tain, one of many dif­fi­cult climbs. B ut in­stead of look­ing on it like that, many peo­ple seem to re­gard it as the ul­ti­mat e. It’ s not, y ou know.”

How­ever, with hind­sight, it is easy to see why there was so much in­ter­est and why it has per­sisted. One fac­tor was that in 1953, news broke of the pos­si­ble ex­is­tence of an “Abom­inable Snow­man” — the Yeti — long part of Hi­malayan folk lore. Foot­prints, ap­par­ently made by this elu­sive, hairy crea­ture of the high Hi­malayas, had been spot­ted by mem­bers of an ex­pe­di­tion led b y Eric Shipt on.

As a r esult of me­dia c over­age about this, be­fore and dur­ing the fi­nal Ten­z­ingHil­lary as­cent, and of the pend­ing corona­tion, the climbers and that moun­tain were cat­a­pulted into a me­dia mael­strom nei­ther man an­tic­i­pated. Hil­lary, a self­pro­claimed “lib­eral so­cialis t”, disc overed when he r eached base camp that he was now Sir Ed­mund, need­ing only to travel to Lon­don to be­come a knight of the Bri­tish Empire. Ten­z­ing, as a nonCom­mon­wealth citiz en, c ould not be knighted, but re­ceived a medal and was equally fêted.

In the years fol­low­ing their his­toric as­cent, both men and their f am­i­lies went on to de­vote con­sid­er­able time and en­ergy to im­prov­ing the li ves of the poor Sherpa fam­i­lies of Nepal. To­day, what is hap­pen­ing on the crowded slopes of the moun­tain g odd­ess of the Hi­mala yas would un­doubt­edly have sad­dened and in­fu­ri­ated both T en­z­ing and Hil­lary .

In 1990, for ex­am­ple, 72 peo­ple made it to the sum­mit while 641 reached the peak last year. Hun­dreds more dropped out. Or died. Cho­mol­ungma, the moun­tain god­dess, is no w lit­tered with decades of de­bris left by climbers, many of them part of e xpen­sive tour groups.

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