Devoted to Promote tourism in Nepal
Mount Everest is officially closed to climbers after the worst accident in its history. The future looks bleak for a number of reasons, not least among them climate change, but that will never dim the allure of the great mountain. We will continue to climb it, even if only in our minds.
By Bijoy Venugopal
In an interview with The New York Times published on March 18, 1923, the legendary English mountaineer George Herbert Leigh Mallory was asked why he was persistent about climbing Mount Everest. His answer became the most famous three words in the history of mountaineering:
Mallory was 37 when he disappeared while attempting to scale Mount Everest. Along with his climbing partner Andrew Irvine, 22, they were part of the ill-fated 1924 British Everest Expedition, their third assault in four years on the world’s highest mountain. Irvine and Mallory were last sighted about 800 vertical feet (245 m) from the summit. Mallory’s body was found 75 years later in 1999 by the American mountaineer Conrad Anker and his team. The corpse was face down, frozen hard as concrete, and riddled with injuries. Irvine’s body was never found. It is debated to this day if the duo ever summited the mountain.
“Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics and others with a shaky hold on reality,” wrote Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air, an epic first-person account of the 1996 disaster season on Mount Everest that killed 15 Sherpas and raised serious questions about tourism mountaineering that had created a veritable traffic jam on the peak. It also evokes the terrible aspect of the unforgiving place that is the world’s highest mountain, where an avalanche left 16 people dead on April 18, 2014. Of the 25 men hit by the falling ice, most were Sherpas. This last accident is, on record, the worst ever on Everest with the highest number of casualties, wrote Krakauer in a recent blog for The New Yorker titled ‘Death and Anger on Everest’.
Qomolungma or Sagarmatha, as the Tibetan Buddhists and Nepalese Sherpas variably address the mountain, remains one of the most popular mountaineering destinations in the world and earns Nepal a fat packet every year in revenue. In the climbing season, which begins in April, the trail to the Everest Base Camp resembles a metropolitan expressway, crammed with trekkers, mountaineers, guides and porters. Teahouses line the road, offering basic bed and breakfast facilities. It’s also a veritable shopping mall of used mountaineering gear left behind by earlier expeditions. A shopaholic friend in her fifties, who blithely made the trip to Base Camp two years ago, declared that there was no better place on earth to buy jackets, visors, rucksacks or crampons.
Fly-bys of the mountain are also popular and they too have been fraught with disaster. In February 2011, 19 tourists were killed when a Buddha Air Beechcraft 1900D crashed in heavy rain and dense fog. Before and after the first confirmed ascent of Everest on May 29, 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay gazed at the world from its highest terrestrial viewpoint, many have died trying to replicate the feat. No summit attempt is imaginable without the able assistance of the Sherpas — rugged pillars of fortitude and endurance who are indispensable to any Everest climb. It is their toil over the years that has built the fabled ‘Yellow Brick Road’ of ropes nearly all the way to the summit.
Buddhist inhabitants of the villages around the foothills of the Himalayas, the Sherpa are an impoverished minority in a Hindu-majority nation. The people of the plains deem them unemployable, so Sherpa men await the climbing season eagerly for it supplements their penurious life with a flood of riches. They are often the only earning members of their families, which tend yaks and engage in basic sustenance farming. While the seasonal earning of around $8,000 may seem like a killing, it is often the only money they make year-round, for they are not otherwise profitably employed. Many of the Sherpas are veteran mountaineers, having summited the great mountain many times in their lives. There are also other peoples — Gurung, Tamang and Chhetri — who do the work of the Sherpas. In fact, of the 16 people who lost their lives on Everest on April 18, three were of the above ethnicities.
Climbing Everest could well count among the most dangerous occupations in the world. Consider the statistics: Outside magazine reported that more Sherpas have died on Everest in the last three years than US military personnel in Iraq in an approximately equal tenure. In fact, between 2012 and 2014 alone, 24 guides were killed, making it the worst three years in the history of Everest ascent. And we are not even counting those crippled, disabled or paralyzed by accidents, frostbite and altitude-related hemorrhaging. The loss of breadwinners spells the ruin of entire families, often villages.
These statistics don’t cut ice with the Nepal government or tourism regulators, who profit yearly from the $370 million that the adventure travel industry rakes in. Commercial climbing, run by professional expedition agencies, began in the mid-1990s. Over the years, the lines of paying climbers queueing up to summit Everest have gotten longer. The wealth that flows from the Everest business, wrote Jason Burke in The Guardian, ‘irrigates everything below’ — from the guesthouses and cafes, schools and hospitals, to the airstrips, even the road to Kathmandu. Yet, the Sherpas, for all their contribution, are at the fag end of the gravy train. Often, expedition companies don’t foot the hospital expenses of injured Sherpas or pay compensation to the families of the dead. The standard life insurance claim of $4,600 that Sherpas receive, wrote Grayson Schaffer in an Outside Online article titled ‘The Disposable Man: A Western history of Sherpas on Everest’, barely covers the elaborate funeral expenses. As for the $4,000 rescue insurance, it amounts to nothing since a chopper rescue costs at least $15,000. ‘No service industry in the world,’ Schaffer declared, ‘so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients. The dead are often forgotten, and their families left with nothing but ghosts.’
Last week, dozens of Sherpas packed up their tents and left the mountain in protest. Many of them have complained that the hefty fees the government levies for climbing permits barely trickles down to the guides. The event signaled the close of the climbing season this year. The Sherpas, sadly, will be the hardest hit.
There is another, more chilling, reason why an ascent of Everest may never be safe again. Even as the world debates over climate change, the evidence in the Himalayas is clear and present, and cannot be shrugged away. Glaciers are retreating rapidly and ice on Mount Everest is melting, which might explain the increased frequency of landslides and avalanches. Kancha Sherpa, one of the oldest living mountain guides, accompanied Hillary on the historic 1953 Everest expedition. He recalls the path to the summit being packed with pristine ice; now only rocks and stones remain. The Buddhist Sherpas have heard of climate change but their faith leads them to believe the depleting snow is the curse of the angry goddess Sagarmatha. Either way the outcome will be the same. When all snow disappears from the Himalaya, the rivers flowing into the plains will dry up and enslave humanity to unspeakable thirst. As for Mount Everest, neither the Sherpas nor the climbers will have anything to do on a bare mountain.
All of that said, 61 years after the first ascent, the allure of Mount Everest remains undimmed. InMountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination, Robert Macfarlane wrote: “Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.” There is no unbinding our race from this fascination. The expeditions may begin again next year for, as humans, we are prepared to pay any price for a view from the top of the world. We cannot bear our burning desire to conquer this mountain of the mind. We will climb it because, ice or no ice, it will still be there.
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