Everest: 70 years later

There have been over 10,000 ascents since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary summitted the mountain. Today the highest point on earth is a public arena with human traffic jams and helicopter shortcuts

Updated - May 27, 2023 04:18 pm IST

Published - May 26, 2023 02:23 pm IST

Summitting the Everest has never been more commercialised than it is today, decades after Hillary and Tenzing (in picture) made history in 1953

Summitting the Everest has never been more commercialised than it is today, decades after Hillary and Tenzing (in picture) made history in 1953 | Photo Credit: AP, Getty Images and Wiki Commons

On May 28, 1953, two men started out from the South Col of Everest at around 26,000 ft, to set up Camp Nine at 27,900 ft. Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, had attempted Everest six times and failed. Edmund Hillary, a bee-keeper from New Zealand, was on the mountain for the second time, having accompanied Eric Shipton on the Everest reconnaissance in 1951. The British had made eight attempts on Everest since 1921 and this could well be their last chance. In the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, it was imperative that they succeed. Camp IX at 27,900 feet would be the highest that men had ever slept. The next morning dawned clear and still as Tenzing pointed out the tiny dot of Tengboche monastery 16,000 ft below, where the Rimpoche had prayed for the safe return of the team. “God of my father and mother be good to me today” prayed Tenzing. Hillary’s boots were frozen and he had a tough job trying to unfreeze them for the climb. The duo started out at 6:30 a.m. and at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953, history was made as the two men stood on the summit of Everest.

A Sherpa walking on a glacier

A Sherpa walking on a glacier | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Life and death

The first ascent of Everest was followed by three decades of successful high-altitude mountaineering in the Himalayas.

After the 14 8,000 metre peaks were summitted, climbers turned their attention to new routes and unclimbed walls. On the Everest itself, in 1963, an American team led by Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein summitted the peak by the west ridge. In an astounding feat, they completed the first traverse of the mountain through the night by descending the south East Ridge down to the South Col. In 1975, a British team led by Chris Bonington laid siege to the south-west face of Everest and completed the first ascent of this huge wall. In 1978, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler accomplished the first ascent without supplementary oxygen; and again in 1980, Messner set a new benchmark by making a solo ascent of the mountain completely unsupported from the north side. By the early 90s, the stage was set for the first guided climbs on the mountain.

The summit

The summit | Photo Credit: Sujoy Das

Seventy years later, the lure of Everest has not diminished. Mountaineers dream to stand on the highest point on earth, every trekker’s bucket list includes the Everest base camp and once the Everest season begins in April, armchair travellers follow Internet dispatches with great interest as this drama of life and death is played out. Sadly, the mountain has now become a playground for guided expeditions, with rich clients paying up to $60,000 and more for a chance to be guided to the summit.

But there are many changes since the days of Hillary and Tenzing. The South Col route is now disdainfully referred to as the ‘yak trail’. The dangerous icefall below the Western Cwm is maintained by a team of Sherpas through the season, led by a senior ‘icefall doctor’. In order to make it possible for inexperienced clients to summit Everest, the entire mountain has a fixed rope from bottom to top. Helicopters also play a major role on the mountain today. There are stories of rich climbers, after completing their acclimatisation routine, flying to Namche Bazaar to a plush hotel or even Kathmandu to recuperate before their summit bid. In 1953 it took the British team around three weeks to walk from Banepa outside Kathmandu to the base camp, a journey that now takes 45 minutes in a helicopter.

Trekkers by a signpost “Way to Mount Everest Base Camp” in Mount Everest National Park

Trekkers by a signpost “Way to Mount Everest Base Camp” in Mount Everest National Park | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Indispensable Sherpas

Due to the limited ‘summit windows’ when the jet stream winds stop and the weather is stable, human traffic jams on the summit ridge are the order of the day. In May 2019, Nirmal Purja, who climbed all the 8,000-metre peaks in less than seven months, published a photo of a long line of climbers in a jam that went viral and provoked a huge uproar. Due to the slow progress, climbers were stranded barely 200 ft below the summit for up to two hours, in minus 20°C temperatures and gale force winds, waiting for the human jam to clear. Many of them had finished their oxygen and were at great risk on the mountain. In the quest to reach the summit at all costs ‘turn around times’, set by the guides, are often ignored resulting in a number of casualties. In 1996, 12 climbers died on the mountain. In 2006 on the north side 11 climbers lost their lives, and in 2012, 10 climbers died.

But sadly, the Sherpas, without whom Everest would not be climbed, are at highest risk. In 2014 a serac collapsed in the icefall and 16 Sherpas died. There was a huge uproar from the community, who demanded better compensation and insurance and they closed the climbing season that year.

Nepalese army men pile up garbage collected from Mount Everest in Namche Bajar, Solukhumbu district, Nepal.

Nepalese army men pile up garbage collected from Mount Everest in Namche Bajar, Solukhumbu district, Nepal. | Photo Credit: AP

“Everest was not a private affair, it belonged to many men” wrote Tom Hornbein in his classic book, Everest: The West Ridge. Hornbein who passed away on May 6, this year, at the ripe old age of 92, just a few days short of the 60th anniversary of the first West Ridge climb, could hardly have imagined that the Everest would become a public arena with news and dispatches beamed off the mountain as the action takes place. Most expeditions set up large communication tents at base camp with laptops, video and sound equipment connected to the climbers on the mountain. Daily news bulletins, photographs and videos are uploaded online, on social media and news channels for viewers back home.

Though rescue on 8,000-metre peaks is getting more sophisticated, with the example of the recent long line helicopter rescue on Annapurna of Indian climber Baljeet Kaur in April 2023, it still remains an arduous and dangerous task to rescue a climber from the death zone above 8,000 metres. There have been many horrific stories like the one of David Sharpe in 2006 who lay below the first step of Everest on the north side badly frostbitten and unable to move. Many climbers passed him by and spoke to him as well but none could help him. Sharpe died that night on that cold and inhospitable ridge, which has been the death knell of many climbers.

One of the most daring rescues carried out on the mountain during the guided era is worth recounting. In 1996, Beck Weathers part of the Mountain Madness team led by Scott Fischer was left for dead on the South Col. Miraculously, Beck survived the night and staggered into camp the next morning. From the South Col, he was helped down to the Western Cwm where, at an altitude of around 20,000 feet, Captain Madan Chettri, a daredevil helicopter pilot, evacuated him to a hospital in Kathmandu without landing the helicopter, an incredible feat in those days.

Namche Bazar, Nepal.

Namche Bazar, Nepal. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The dark side

Messner, who was the first to climb all 14 8,000 metre peaks says “Everest has become a tourist mountain and clients pay Sherpas to be brought to the summit.” The commercialisation of the Everest has led to a number of best-selling books on the triumph and tragedy played out at these altitudes. The most famous is Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which has sold more than three million copies. For the dark side of an Everest climb, Dark Summit by Nick Heil, chronicling the infamous 2006 season, and High Crimes by Michael Kodas are worth a read.

But despite there being more than 10,000 ascents on the mountain since 1953, Everest is still Everest. In the words of Tenzing, “I needed to go and the pull of Everest was greater than any force on earth.” And as I write this more than 450 climbers and possibly a similar number of Sherpas are getting ready to climb up the fixed ropes to the highest place of all.

The writer is a Kolkata-based trekker, photographer and joint author of Everest — Reflections on the Solukhumbu.

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