On 5 May, the television watchers around the world were served with live coverage of the China-Japan-Nepal Friendship Expedition to Everest 1988 conquering the highest real estate in the world. A dozen mountaineers climbed up from one country, traversed the summit and descended down into the other country. The sponsors in Beijing, Kathmandu and Tokyo expressed themselves satisfied, but the story does not end there.
In terms of mountaineering achievement, the exercise was hardly noteworthy. The northern and southern routes chosen had little challenge left in them. The Nepal route, in particular, leading up the Western Cwm and the South Col, has become a tourist passage that can be climbed by any expedition with time on its hands, adequate logistical support, and moderate weather.
Even the live broadcast from the summit was not really pioneering, for American climber David Breshears already did that on 7 May 1983 without hype and hoopla. What the Japanese did was to relay the microwave transmission via satellite to TV stations, which is hardly a technological marvel in this day and age.
The trination bonanza was a massive 252 member affair. Never before had Everest been subjected to an assault of this magnitude. The siege style climbing strategy harked back to the expeditions of 1950s. Veteran mountain watchers were aghast, as were some environmentalist. Everyone else was awash in talk of friendship and more friendship.
Money talks, especially in mountaineering. Which is why, while there is no reason to doubt international amity up on the mountain, it was the Japanese who called the shots. The entire U$ 2.3 million cost was paid for by Nippon Television, the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun and the Japanese Alpine Club. The Chinese and Nepalis were “requested to participate” by naming their climbers and helping transport equipment and locally procured provisions to base camps on either side. All expenses paid in yen and no questions asked.
Having picked the tab, the Japanese got the most mileage out of the enterprise. The live broadcast from the summit, and not the traverse, was their primary goal, and that was achieved spectacularly on the promised day. But someone should calculate the boost received worldwide by this marketing coup for made in Japan camcorders, television sets and satellite products. in addition, it seemed that all the heroics on the television screen seemed to be reserved for the Japanese climbers, as Nippon Television’s 39 member camera crew single mindedly trained their lens on their own kind.
The Japanese and the Nepalis had sent along veteran Everesteers, but the Chinese were all first timers. These recruits got valuable exposure and experience on the mountain. What did the Nepalis get besides abundant friendship? The Nepal Mountaineering Association insists “we got this, we got that”, but the decorations, junkets and cash did not go to the foot soldiers who had guaranteed the expedition’s success.
The spectacle is long over. The climbers are on other mountains and the cameramen are back at their Tokyo beat. But the lessons of the so called epoch making 1988 tripartite friendship expedition must not be lost. The first thing is that mega expeditions are passe and should be relegated to the history books. The goal of any climbing expedition must be to attain the summit as a challenge. There should be no hidden agenda.
Most importantly, the kind of expedition in which one party calls virtually all the shots and the others serve as semi surrogates must never again be attempted. If one of the partners has to, for example, ask even for passage money for its delegation to attend victory celebrations in another capital, the national pride is the first casualty. Let us remember that climb is first and foremost a sport for the proud.
Ram Pradhan reports for the international press from Kathmandu.
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