How chaos came to the “Roof of the World”

Posted on May 29, 2017


Mt Everest, the much lauded “Roof of the world” is again in the news this month, 64 years after a young New Zealand beekeeper and a Bhutia tribesman from Nepal first scaled the snow and ice clad highest point on the globe. Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it to the summit at 11:30am on May 29, 1953.

This snow-streaked black rock peak sits massively on the border of Nepal and Tibet, dwarfing, at 8 543m (28 028ft) the magnificent frosted splendour of the Garwhal Himalayas. Known locally as Chomolungma, goddess, mother of the earth and personification of creation, the mountain was said to be in constant communication with the sky.

In 64 years that view has changed, and changed utterly. This month, four more climbers were found dead in a tent at the oxygen-starved upper altitudes while a solo South African, Ryan Sean Davy, was caught at 6 000 metres trying to climb the mountain without a permit. He is in jail in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu.

Another South African climber, Zambian born Saray Khumalo, who hoped to be the first black African woman to summit, had to be lifted off the mountain after getting into difficulties. She was only one of hundreds of climbers trying to plant a flag at the peak.

When Hillary and Tenzing did so in 1953, they were ecstatic. But they never foresaw the long term reaction to their achievement. It was a reaction born of a media frenzy, a long way from the comment Hillary made to fellow climber George Lowe as he and Tenzig made their descent: “Well, we knocked the bastard off.” It was a comment never reported in the British press that favoured Hillary’s comment that “It was a technically good Alpine climb”.

For Hillary, that was it. The job was done. Another virgin peak had been conquered and it was time to move on. For Tenzing, born and raised under the shadow of Chomolungma, it was a crowning achievement. He would be hailed forever among the mountain villages of Nepal as one of the greatest climbers ever.

But while the two men were climbing at the upper altitudes, they were unaware that British loyalist fervour would see the summit of Everest/Chomolungma as “another jewel in the crown”, in fact, a gift to the new queen of a fading empire. Because the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place only days after news arrived that the highest peak in the world had been conquered.

What happened then changed not only the lives of Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, it also projected the conquest of that great Himalayan mountain as an epitome of success. When Hillary and Tenzing battled the treacherous ice of Khumbu and teams of Sherpas carried tons of supplies upward, they were quite unaware that the eyes of the world had been turned on them.

“I thought there would be a bit of a fuss when we got down,” Ed told me in his Auckland home in 1973. “A few pictures, paragraphs in the newspapers and so on. I certainly didn’t expect what happened.” What happened was to catapult not just Hillary and Tenzing to prominence, but also to put the idea of summiting Everest as essential for any would-be climber.

Yet, as Ed remarked in 1973, “Everest was just another mountain — one of many difficult climbs. But instead of looking on it like that, many people seem to regard it as the ultimate. It’s not, you know.”

However, with hindsight, it is easy to see why there was so much interest and why it has persisted. One factor was that, in 1953, news broke of the possible existence of an “Abominable Snowman” — the Yeti — long part of Himalayan folk lore. Footprints, apparently made by this elusive, hairy creature of the high Himalayas, had been spotted by members of an expedition led by Eric Shipton.

As a result of media coverage about this, before and during the final Tenzing/Hillary ascent, and of the pending coronation, the climbers and that mountain were catapulted into a media maelstrom neither man anticipated. Ed, a self proclaimed “liberal socialist” discovered when he reached base camp, that he was now Sir Edmund, needing only to travel to London to formally become a Knight of the British Empire. Tenzing, as a non-Commonwealth citizen, could not be knighted, but received a medal and was equally feted.

In the years following their historic ascent, both men and their families went on to devote considerable time and energy to improving the lives of the poor Sherpa families of Nepal. Today what is happening on the crowded slopes of the mountain goddess of the Himalayas would undoubtedly have saddened and infuriated both Tenzing and Hillary.

In 1990, for example, 72 people made it to the summit while 641 reached the peak last year. Hundreds more dropped out. Or died. Chomolungma, the mountain goddess, is now littered with decades of debris left by climbing teams, many of them part of expensive tour groups.

Posted in: Commentary