Why would anyone voluntarily choose to risk life, limb and bank balance to try to get to the treacherous top of a massive, snow-covered hill? Numb with cold, gasping for air, with muscle tissue quickly deteriorating – even when mountaineers do achieve their goal, they can do little more than briefly stand tall on the summit, and cajole their companions into taking a souvenir photograph. They then begin the arduous and equally dangerous journey down. Why not simply stay home?
“Because it’s there,” goes the famous quote by the British mountaineer George Mallory. Shortly after mouthing this memorably obtuse aphorism, in 1924 Mallory took part in the third British attempt on Mount Everest (he had also been on the first two), and promptly disappeared. Although his body was eventually found in 1999, to this day no one knows exactly what happened. An expedition that began this June is attempting to discover whether or not Mallory and his companion, Andrew Irvine, made it to the top. Since these first efforts were made on Everest from the Tibetan side of the mountain, Himalayan climbing has changed dramatically. Whereas Mallory and Irvine were still clad in woollen knickerbockers, modern mountaineering has brought with it not only the relative luxury of high-tech clothing, but also the indisputable opulence of cinema tents, heated showers and bakeries at the base camps on both the Tibetan north and Nepali south sides of the mountain.
From 29 May 1953, the day Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first summited Everest, until 1996, the year a single storm killed eight people near the summit, only 842 ascents were recorded. Over the last decade, however, more than 2200 people reached the peak. After last year recorded 471 ascents of Everest – also claiming 11 lives – the 2007 season has again broken all records, with more than 500 people reaching the top of the world between April and June.
In the old, halcyon days of Himalayan mountaineering, it was considered a privilege to take part in an expedition. Nowadays, would-be mountaineers have only to cough up a pile of cash (Everest can be climbed for between USD 15,000-60,000, depending on the side of the mountain, number of Sherpas employed for support, and additional services) to be helped up the mountain. Of course, this is a claim that most expedition leaders are loath to admit. “Climbing Everest has changed,” veteran Everest expedition leader Russell Brice accedes. “But people still have to put one foot in front of the other themselves. Carrying someone up is simply not possible.”
These assertions aside, Everest has become something of a playground. Indeed, with dozens of people gathering at the summit at one time taking snapshots, slogging your way to the top has lost some of its charm, not to mention its exclusivity. Rather, the race to ‘conquer’ Everest has devolved to one of a series of ‘firsts’: the first blind man, the first blind woman, the first person without arms, without legs, the first Welsh woman, the first man in shorts, or the first Westerner to race up and down the mountain multiple times in a single season.
This year, upon reaching Everest’s summit, a 17-year-old American girl became the youngest person to climb the highest summits on all seven continents. Weeks later, a 71-year-old Japanese man became the oldest person ever to reach the mountain’s heights. A Brit this spring claimed to have made the first telephone call from the peak – although a Chinese team later disputed this alleged record, saying that they had done so way back in 2003.
Of course, of those hoping to achieve another ‘first’ this year, not all have succeeded. Wim Hof, known as the Iceman, failed to reach the summit wearing only his shorts (see photo). The 48-year-old Dutchman, who holds nine endurance records and recently ran 21 kilometres barefoot north of the Arctic Circle in Finland, reached an altitude of 7400 metres, but was forced to turn back. He has vowed to tackle the mountain again before long.
Taking on Everest under-clothed made a big splash last year as well, when Lhakpa Tharke Sherpa caused a furore by baring his upper chest while atop the peak. Many of his fellow climbers, as well as the Nepal Mountaineering Association, were aghast, decrying his actions as an insult to the holy mountain. But Lhakpa Tharke claimed his deed was a religious one. “It was a way of promoting peace in the world, and making different religions come together,” the 26-year-old said. “I painted a picture about peace, and held it in front of my heart. I prayed to the gods, and stayed like this for three minutes. My life has been better since then.” That might indeed have been the case, but Lhakpa Tharke has now become known, rather incorrectly, as the ‘naked Sherpa’.
Despite the dramatic changes in equipment and support, the popular techniques used in approaching Everest have changed little over the decades. The expedition that had put Hillary on the summit in 1953 used the ‘siege’ style, whereby a huge team sets up a large camp at the mountain’s base. From there, they create a massive supply chain up the mountain, eventually leading all the way to the summit. Such an approach requires a large number of workers behind the climbers themselves, a niche that has long been filled by the Sherpas that live in the area leading to the entrance to Everest. The economic benefit of mountaineering to this community in particular has therefore, on the south side, been tremendous.
Depending on size and kind of expedition, the normal ratio is one climbing Sherpa per climber for summit day. In addition, however, there is generally a large team of Sherpas providing back-up to an expedition – cooking, fixing ropes, setting up camp and the like. The Sherpas earn about USD 50-70 per day, plus up to a USD 1000 bonus if they get to the top.
However, even as Westerners are setting more and more records, climbing Everest has become more than a mere job for some Sherpas. “This is my interest,” says 34-year-old Lhakpa Sherpa, from Okhaldunga, a region south of the Sherpa heartland of Solu-Khumbu. “From my hometown we can see the amazing panoramic view, and when I was young I always wanted to climb all these mountains. That has always been my dream.” Meanwhile, the famous Apa Sherpa has now broken all records, by scaling Everest 17 times and counting. (Rumour has it that the 47-year-old Apa had promised his wife he would stop when he reached the summit for the 12th time, back in 2001.) This year, he summited with a speed climber, Lakpa Gelu, who currently holds the record for the fastest ascent from base camp to the top, at 10 hours, 56 minutes and 46 seconds.
Siege v alpine
Armchair adventurers have long been particularly obsessed with Everest, and tend to forget that there are seven more 8000-metre peaks in Nepal alone. While each of these is tackled every season, climbers do so in a very different style than is employed on Everest. And, whereas criticism has arisen that the ‘siege’ approach has allowed rich amateurs to climb Everest without previous mountaineering experience, such is not the case on most of the other 8000-metre peaks in the Nepali Himalaya.
Annapurna, the world’s tenth-highest peak, is infamous for its avalanches, and has claimed the lives of several world-famous mountaineers, including the Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev. This season, only three mountaineers reached Annapurna’s summit, and according to some of the accounts, the experience was rather unpleasant. “We did it, we did it, we did it – and survived,” read the dispatch written by Andrew Lock, Australia’s most accomplished mountaineer, when he finally reached the safety of Annapurna’s base camp this spring. “We did not have the thousands of metres of fixed rope, oxygen, climbing Sherpas or hundreds of other climbers, as on both sides of Everest,” he wrote, emphasising the difference between the climbing culture surrounding Everest and other peaks.
One question that is posed from time to time is whether the way of tackling Everest would have been different if the first Westerner to set foot on its summit had not been Edmund Hilary and his siege-style expedition (led by John Hunt), but rather Reinhold Messner. In 1978, the south-Tyrolean became the first person to climb the mountain ‘alpine style’, a technique that does without Sherpa support on the Himalayan peaks. Then climbing alpine, the mountaineers carry everything themselves, without using additional oxygen in bottles. If Messner had been the first to summit Everest, could alpine style have come to be seen as the ‘proper’ way to ascend the mountain? Or, what if Hillary’s initial prediction had been correct, and his achievement had been of little interest to the world in general? If the urge to climb Everest, as the world’s tallest peak, had not been so strong, perhaps Himalayan siege-style would never have emerged as a progressively less sporty sport.
But today, regardless of the purists turning their nose up at siege-style climbing on Everest, it seems clear that this particular version of the climbing sport will continue – as long as Everest “is there”.~ Billi Bierling is a Kathmandu-based freelance journalist