Thursday, June 6, 2013

Everest Sixty Years After - Part II

Noel Odell photographed by John Noel

On June 8th 1924, around 12.50 pm, a British geologist was collecting fossils at around 26,000 feet on the north ridge of Everest. Noel Odell was climbing to Camp VI through the mist when suddenly the entire summit ridge and the final peak of Everest were unveiled.  Odell sighted two climbers on a rock step far above and as he watched their dramatic appearance, the mountain became enveloped in cloud. The climbers were Mallory and Irvine, who were never seen again and to this day there is intense speculation on whether they reached the summit.   

Ever since that fateful day, Everest has fired the imagination of mountaineers, trekkers, historians, photographers and arm-chair enthusiasts. Every year in May, the exploits of the climbers are followed with deep interest and fascination the world over. Though more than three thousand people have climbed Everest, the number of climbers and expeditions swell every year.

May 2013 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the first ascent by Hillary and Tenzing as well as the fiftieth anniversary of the first West Ridge climb by the American team of Unsoeld and Horbein. In an astonishing feat, they reached the summit at 6.15 pm after climbing for eleven hours and then descended at night by the South Col route, thereby completing the first traverse of the mountain.

Everest seen from the top of Kala Pattar 

But, in the last sixty years, there have been a lot of changes. Everest has now become a playground for guided expeditions. The South Col route pioneered by Hillary and Tenzing is now referred to as the “yak trail” and almost all expeditions on Everest use this approach to the summit. Sherpas lay fixed ropes to the top of the mountain and inexperienced climbers clip on to these ropes and are guided to the top. High speed internet connections send live dispatches as the action unfolds on these rarefied heights.  The drone of helicopters ferrying supplies or evacuating climbers is part of the daily routine. Due to the large number of climbers on summit day, there are often “human jams” on the famous Hillary Step and there have been incidents of climbers waiting for upto two hours in -20c temperatures and jet stream winds for a chance to make it to the top! This year there are around thirty expeditions from the south side and at the time of writing, more than four hundred climbers and sherpas have made it to the top this season!

Everest has always attracted its fair share of dreamers who lacked mountaineering skill but had great determination and endurance. In 1934 an idealistic Englishman, Maurice Wilson, planned to crash land his Gypsy Moth high on the slopes of Everest and then make for the summit. Wilson reached around 22,700 feet before he died.  In 1947 a poverty stricken Canadian, Earl Denman, forced Tenzing to accompany him on an illegal attempt and though Tenzing acknowledged that they had very little chance of success he says “the pull of Everest was stronger for me than any force on earth”. The presence of modern day Wilsons and Denmans on guided climbs have provoked a lot of criticism from the purists, but climbers can now pay adventure companies upto eighty thousand dollars each  for a chance to reach the top.

 In the quest to reach the summit at any cost, “turn around times” set by guides are often ignored and this has increased the fatality rate. In 1996, popularly referred to as the “Into Thin Air” disaster, after Jon Krakauer’s best selling book, twelve climbers died on Everest, eight on a single day including respected guides, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. In 2012 ten climbers lost their lives and in the current season there have been eight reported deaths so far.

Due to the large number of expeditions, there is intense competition between the teams. The “summit window” is small and everyone wants a slice of the Everest pie.  Hence, disputes and controversies are the order of the day. Last month, a Sherpa team laying fixed ropes on the Lhotse face came into conflict with a team of three top notch climbers, Simone Moro, Ueli Steck and Jon Griffith who were making their own attempt. The altercation soon turned ugly and resulted in the entire team of sherpas threatening the climbers who were eventually driven off the mountain and forbidden to return! Interestingly, the dare devil Moro remained in the Everest region and on 21st May 2013 piloted a helicopter to rescue a climber from 7800 metres on the slopes of Everest – the highest ever helicopter rescue till date!
 Mountaineering records on Everest are made and broken with rapid alacrity! On May 22nd 2013, Yuchiro Miura 80, from Japan, became the oldest climber to summit Everest. But Miura’s record is unlikely to last long as 82 year old Min Bahadur Serchan from Nepal, who held the record before Miura, is planning to summit again next week!

The current season has been an unusually good one for Indian climbers. A team of schoolboys from Lawrence School, Sanawar made their first ascent of the mountain. Arunima Sinha became the first amputee from India to ascend Everest, Chhanda Gayan from Bengal became the first Indian woman to climb both Everest and Lhotse in the same season and Nunshi and Tashi Malik became the first twins to summit, amongst other succcess stories.

And yet despite almost all the routes on Everest being climbed and the mountain remaining crowded, season after season, the lure of Everest is unlikely to fade.

The words of Noell Odell spoken eighty nine years ago still ring true today. As Odell gazed at Everest from that final Camp VI after losing Mallory and Irvine, he said “And yet as I gazed again another mood appeared to creep over her haunting features. There seemed to be something alluring in that towering presence. I was almost fascinated. I realized that no mere mountaineer alone could but be fascinated, that he who approaches close must ever be led on, and oblivious of all obstacles seek to reach that most sacred and highest place of all."

Times of India Crest Edition June 1st 2013

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