Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest in 1953 with his partner Tenzing Norgay. His relationship with the Himalaya has, if anything, deepened in the 35 intervening years. Sir Edmund, presently New Zealand’s envoy to India and Nepal, talked recently in Kathmandu to HIMAL
Himal: Some say that there is little commonality among the Himalayan peoples. Do you agree?
Hillary: There is an enormous variety, of course. But there is a lot in common among the mountain communities. There is a strong relationship between the peoples, be they Rais, Gurungs, Tamangs or Sherpas. By and large, they have confidence in their relationship with the mountain environment. Otherwise they would not live here.
Himal: After decades of observation, do you find cause for concern about life and environment here?
Hillary: There is immense ecological degradation across the mountains. The main problem, of course, is the increase in the number of people, which puts tremendous pressure on arable land. In the Nepal Himalaya, in Garhwal, and other areas in the Indian Himalaya, I have found cause of extreme concern.
The Chipko experience is good and seems to have worked in its specific region, but maybe every area has to develop its own techniques. Not by any means are people conservationists by nature. They have to live from day to day and life is hard. The need for firewood is immediate. It is no good saying “we want this environment unchanged for the next hundred years”. The hill people live very much in the present.
Himal: What are the major challenges to development?
Hillary: Two major challenges for Nepal, at least as I see it, are family planning and reforestation. Unless much more substantial efforts are made in these two areas, slowly but steadily, the Nepal Himalaya will become a desert. Much of that is also true for the Indian hills. Bhutan is in a better state, but then there are not that many people there. The obsession with roads and big factories is misplaced. Above all, for progress, you must have the support of the ordinary man in the field.
In the Nepali mountains, the Sherpas are benefitting from tourism. The Rais are poorer. No doubt, Nepal is a poor country and it has major problems ahead. But in the hill areas, I would rather see slow and steady progress. As my Sherpa friend Mingma Tsering says, “Slowly, slowly is better.”
Himal: Are you concerned over tourism’s impact on our environment and peoples?
Hillary: In Nepal, there are some places that are just lousy with tourists and trekkers. The idea of tourism is good: you get to know other peoples and cultures, but one has to consider the pressure on the environment and the local culture. There has to be some discipline and control, but by that I do not mean that you immediately increase costs so that only the wealthy get to see a destination. The young and the impecunious must not lose their access. So what is required is balance in control.
Himal: You did open the tourism floodgates in Khumbu by building the Lukla airstrip in 1964.
Hillary: I believe that I am initially to blame for the flood, but console myself with the thought that it would have happened anyway. Once you get away from Lukla and the trading post of Namche, actually, the Sherpa livelihood is not very different from what it was 30 years ago. Those two villages have become extremely tourist-oriented. I say let Namche be ruined by the tourist, but let us protect Khumjung, Khunde and the other villages which are the real heart of Khumbu. What is needed in the Khumbu, and elsewhere, is not heavy-handed control of tourism, but better administration and lesser numbers.
Himal: Everest has been climbed siege-style, alpine-style, solo, by armies and without oxygen. It has now been traversed from both sides. What is to become of the poor mountain?
Hillary: I say let the mountain alone for five years. There is so much worldwide pressure to climb it and that affects the environment. They should close the peak and then start all over again in a controlled manner. The major expedition syndrome will not fade away, because with siege-style there is a place for television-rights, media. I do not like the collosal size of big expeditions. On the other hand, the big mountains of the Himalaya should not be the sole preserve of hot-shot alpinists. That is an arrogant view. Mountaineering should be for everyone who is reasonably competent.
Himal: Do you prefer “Chomolungma”, “Everest” or “Sagarrnatha”?
Hillary: I think people should use the name they prefer. But whatever it is called in Tibet and Nepal, the world will always know it as “Everest” no matter what.
Himal: Tenzing Norgay is no more. Did you like the man with whom you made history?
Hillary: In 1953, when we climbed Everest, we were friendly and worked well together, but you would not have said we had warm relationship. In the last ten years, we came closer, and in the last couple of years, we were really very close. We were able to communicate better and we talked philosophy, for he was quite a philosopher. Buddhism was very important to Tenzing, and he had a gumba on the top floor of his house. He was very concerned for the education of his children. He had very little to do with the Sherpas of Khumbu. The way of life of the Darjeeling Sherpas and the Khumbu Sherpas are very different.