Chaos on Roof of the World
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would be saddened to see the now crowded and litterstrewn Everest
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.