Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Everest Sixty Years After - Part I

Everest as seen from near the 5th lake of Gokyo 
On 28th May 1953 two men set up Camp Nine at 27,900 feet on the south East Ridge of Everest. Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Thami near Namche Bazar 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 attempted Everest eight times since 1921. And in the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, it was imperative that they succeed. The morning dawned clear and still as Tenzing pointed out the tiny dot of Thyanboche Monastery, 16,000 feet below, where the Rimpoche had prayed for the safe return of the team. The climbers started out at 6.30 am and at 11.30 am on 29th May 1953 history was made as the two men stood on the summit of Everest.

Tenzing & Hillary after their successful 1953 climb
The first ascent of Everest was followed by three decades of successful high altitude mountaineering in the Himalayas. The major peaks fell one by one and climbers turned their attention on new routes and unclimbed walls. On Everest itself, in 1963, an American team led by Willi Unsoeld and Tom Horbein 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 Messner and Habeler accomplished the first ascent without oxygen and again in 1980 Messner set a new benchmark by making a solo ascent of the mountain completely unsupported from the north side. In 1983 an American team climbed the avalanche ravaged the Kangshung face, one of the last great challenges of Everest. And by the early nineties, the stage was set for the first guided climbs on the mountain.

May 2013 marks sixty years of the first ascent of Everest and it is interesting to see how the mountain has become a playground for guided expeditions, with rich clients paying upto sixty thousand dollars and more to stand on the highest point on this planet. This year there are at least fourteen guided teams from the south side and five teams from the north side attempting the mountain. Adventure Consultants, Jagged Globe, Berg Adventures, Alpine Ascents and many other companies are back with their clients to fulfill the ultimate dream.

But  there are many changes since the days of Hillary and Tenzing. The South Col route climbed in 1953 is now disdainfully referred to as the “yak trail”. The dangerous icefall below the Western Cwm is maintained by a team of sherpas right 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 fixed rope from bottom to top. Climbers assisted by their sherpas clip onto the fixed rope and move up the mountain. There have been stories of sherpas dragging clients up difficult pitches in order to get them to the summit!

The Khumbu Icefall
And human traffic jams are the order of the day. In May 2012, a German climber Ralf Dujmovits published a photograph which went viral on the internet showing a long line of climbers stuck on the Lhotse face all bunched one behind the other.  Last year climbers were stranded on the famous Hillary step barely two hundred feet below the summit for upto two hours in minus 20C temperatures and gale force winds waiting for the human jam to clear! In the quest to reach the summit at all costs “turn around times” as set by the guides are largely ignored resulting in a number of fatal casualties.  In 1996 twelve climbers died on the mountain, eight in a single day. Again in 2006 on the north side eleven climbers lost their lives and in 2012 which was possibly one of the worst seasons on Everest ten climbers lost their lives.

In the midst of these guided expeditions are the record breaking climbers. The youngest climber, the oldest climber, the fastest ascent from base camp to summit are some of the records which are made and broken on Everest every year. This year eighty year old Yuchiro Muira from Japan who has climbed the mountain twice aims at becoming the oldest man to summit Everest!

“Everest was not a private affair, it belonged  to many men” wrote Tom Horbein in the classic, Everest the West Ridge.  While the West Ridge climbers celebrate fifty years of their first ascent, Horbein could hardly have imagined that 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 video are uploaded onto internet sites, facebook pages and news channels for viewers back home. On summit day, trekkers and  climbers ascent a spur on neighbouring Pumori from where the route to the summit is visible and track the climbers using telescopes and high powered telephoto lenses.

 In the 1996 disaster on Everest, leading guide Rob Hall was benighted near the summit with his client Doug Hansen. Hall would not abandon Hansen and remained with him as a fierce storm raged on Everest. Base Camp was able to connect Hall to his pregnant wife  in New Zealand.   “Sleep well my sweetheart, please don’t worry too much ” said Hall signing off as the world watched the disaster unfold. Twelve days later IMAX filmmaker David Breashears and Ed Viesturs climbing near the south summit found Hall’s body in an ice hollow.

The guided expedition has led to the creation of a new breed of climber for whom reaching the summit is the ultimate goal.  Camaraderie, fair play, rescue of fellow climbers, once the very back bone of mountaineering has been consigned to the back burner. In 2006 David Sharpe, a British climber lay below the First Step on the north side of Everest badly frost bitten and unable to move. More than forty climbers passed him by and many spoke to him as well. However, none were able to help him.  Sharpe died that night on that cold and inhospitable ridge which has been the death knell of many a climber.  Most Everest experts agree that a rescue above the “death zone” is an immensely difficult proposition and beyond the ability of “guided clients” most of whom are struggling themselves to stay alive!

The Scott Fischer memorial above Dugla
Some of the daring rescues carried out on the mountain during the guided era are 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, Beck was helped down to the Western Cwm where at an altitude of around 20,000 feet,  Captain Madan Chettri, a dare devil helicopter pilot evacuated him to a hospital in Kathmandu without landing the helicopter!

The numerous expeditions to Everest year after year has taken its toll on the mountain and its environs. Everest is now referred to as the “highest junk yard in the world”.  In the spring of 2011, eight tons of trash was brought off the mountain by the Saving Mount Everest Clean-Up expedition and efforts are underway to remove more garbage from the mountain every year.

The commercialization of Everest has led to a number of best selling books on the triumph and tragedy that is played out at these altitudes. The most famous  is undoubtedly  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 covering the infamous 2006 season and High Crimes by Michael Kodas are worth a read.

But as the 2013 expeditions get ready for their summit attempts, the words of  an Everest pioneer, Eric Shipton, is worth remembering : “No, it is not remarkable that Everest did not yield to the first few attempts; indeed, it would have been very surprising and not a little sad if it had, for that is not the way of great mountains. Perhaps we had become a little arrogant with our fine new technique of ice-claw and rubber slipper, our age of easy mechanical conquest. We had forgotten that the mountain still holds the master card, that it will grant success only in its own good time. Why else does mountaineering retain its deep fascination?”

For The Telegraph Sunday 26th May 2013 version of this article please do visit 

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