Being the world’s highest peak comes with a burden that Everest has gamely borne in the 60 years since it was first summited, but the strain is showing

The six decades since Mount Everest was climbed provide a barometric reading of how the society and environment of the Himalaya, the subcontinent and the world itself have transformed since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary made it to the top on May 29, 1953.

When the two climbing partners tackled the summit ridge above the South Col, their track was on hard snow. These days, the crampons of Everesteers scrape on exposed rock, the result of climate change and increased volume of “black carbon” and atmospheric dust over Asia. Not only is there reduced snow cover on the high peaks, matching old photographs show the glaciers of the Eastern Himalaya in alarming retreat.

The concern is not climbing aesthetics — the Himalayan range is the “water tower” of Asia, from which all the major rivers originate and radiate outwards. Depleted snow in the Himalaya is a marker of a simultaneous rise in the ocean level, impacting the coastal communities everywhere.

Trigonometry

With the Nepali rulers of the time refusing access, Everest was identified as the highest of all by the Great Indian Trigonometric Survey using triangulation from the Bihar borderlands. The build-up of atmospheric haze makes it rare to get a glimpse of the Himalayan giants from the Ganga plain today. Sir George Everest was the retired head of the Indian Trigonometric Survey, already back in England when the mountain got named for him. He never got to see it.

It used to take a full season to climb Everest, starting with a month-long trudge from Kathmandu to Base Camp, and with much time spent on acclimatisation. These days, climbers fly into the airstrip of Lukla and are on top of the mountain within as little as three weeks, using expedition-support, supplementary oxygen, and advanced climbing gear.

The travel writer, Jan Morris, had to send news of the success on Everest by relay runners to Kathmandu. Now there is 3G network right up the flanks of Everest. A French Ecureuil helicopter made an unauthorised landing on the summit in 2005, somewhat dimming the mountain’s lustre.

Nationalism

In 1953, the Rana oligarchy had just been overthrown in Nepal. The triumph on the “third pole” provided Nepalis the opportunity to celebrate their newfound freedom, and so, back in Kathmandu, Tenzing was feted wildly as a native son. The lanky New Zealander by his side was nonplussed, but he had decades of international celebrity ahead of him, which he also used to assist the Sherpa community. With the country mired alternatively in autocracy and chaotic democracy since the 1950s till the point of this writing, many Nepalis have had to take refuge in the crutch of nationalist symbols. This may be why the geological formation that is Everest is considered a symbol of national achievement — and it requires reminding many that half of the massif is actually in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Alpinism vs expeditionism

Tenzing was born in a Khumbu village of a mother who originated in Kharta on the other side of Everest (also Sagarmatha, Chomolongma). He went to Darjeeling for portering, like many Sherpas of his day, and evolved as an explorer to match his European peers.

Tenzing was to take up Indian citizenship and set up base in Darjeeling, leaving his Nepali supporters rather dejected. In Darjeeling, he started the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, but the goal of developing climbing as a sport is yet to be achieved. In both India and Pakistan, the field remains dominated by the military.

Even though alipinism has yet to take root in Nepal, the climbing industry has professionalised, with the locals graduating from step-breakers to mountain guides. Mountaineering is a source of rare income for the mountain people. This year, Nepali climbers were recognised by UIAGM [Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagnes] or the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations, as competent enough to train at the global level.

Nepal now has its own pantheon of climbing icons, including Pasang Lahmu Sherpa, who died on descent from Everest in 1993, and Apa Sherpa, who summitted the peak 21 times before retiring in 2011. A team of seven Nepali women climbers is presently climbing the tallest summits in all seven continents, having done Everest.

The tourist climber

Commercialisation of mountaineering probably lies at the root of the widely publicised brawl that took place high on the Western Cwm on April 27 between some Sherpa guides and Western alpinists. The latter were seeking a way up the mountain without fixed ropes and oxygen, which seems to have challenged the protocol developed by the commercial expeditions on Everest.

As a matter of logistical convenience, Sherpa guides known as “icefall doctors” are paid to fix ropes up from Base Camp up to the South Col, over the crevasse-ridden Khumbu Icefall. By now, the Tibetan north ridge and the Nepali southeast ridge is practically a touristic affair, managed by expert guides, fixed ropes and a good possibility of success barring disastrous weather. The Himalayan chronicler, Elizabeth Hawley, a close associate of the late Sir Edmund, says people are now climbing Everest “because it looks good on their cv’s.”

The trail ahead for Himalayan mountaineering obviously lies in allowing the expedition-style ‘assaults’ to continue, because of market-demand and the livelihoods at stake. The Nepal Government should actually consider raising the climbing royalty for Everest from the present charge of $70,000 per expedition of ten members (and $10,000 per extra climber).

In keeping with their spirit of adventure, the alpinist fraternity will obviously look to the other routes on Everest, including the West Ridge, Kangshung Face and Southwest Face. They can also try any one of the hundreds of other attractive, little-climbed peaks in Nepal and elsewhere.

Carbon dioxide

At the time of the 1953 expedition, the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere was 315 parts per million. This month, it crossed the 400 ppm mark. What will happen to Everest with the certain further acceleration in the accumulation of CO and other greenhouse gases? Two decades ago, Himal magazine published what it thought was a tongue-in-cheek cartoon showing pine trees reaching up the flanks of Everest, and a “Khumbu Waterfall” in place of the Khumbu Icefall. The joke may well be on us.

(Kanak Mani Dixit is co-editor, Himal Southasian magazine based in Kathmandu.)

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