“What is Everest without the eye that sees it? It is the hearts of men that make it big or small.” Tenzing Norgay, Tiger of the Snows
Today is the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. I expect there will be quite a few editorial pieces published today reflecting on how the mountain has changed in the intervening years. I expect most of them will lament the changes as a bad thing and talk about how the world’s highest mountain has lost some of its magic. As one of the people who have contributed to its downfall (ie. by climbing it), I’m going to adopt a slightly different stance in this post.
Another very successful Everest season has drawn to a close. Over the last three weeks there have been over 600 summits, and there are now approximately 400 new summiteers. For most of them it will be the culmination of years of preparation, and for others reaching the foot of the mountain has been as challenging as climbing it. Samina Baig has become the first woman from Pakistan to climb Everest, a country where many women live in purdah, and Raha Moharrak the first from Saudi Arabia, a country where women are not even allowed to drive or vote, and have only recently been permitted to ride a bike. Yuichiro Miura from Japan has climbed it at the astonishing age of 80, while Phurba Tashi, sirdar with the Himex expedition team, has equalled Apa Sherpa’s world record by climbing it for the 21st time.
All of these climbers are inspirational, and deserve respect and congratulations for their achievement, yet many people see the increasing numbers climbing Everest as a sign the world is going to the dogs. In 1953 when news arrived that Hillary and Tenzing had reached the summit as part of a British expedition on the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, it was seen as a victory for the British Empire. Both men became national heroes and were greeted by adoring crowds wherever they went. While I certainly wasn’t expecting that, I did feel quite proud of my achievement, and was surprised to be engulfed by an avalanche of abuse when I arrived home, unleashed by a flurry of negative newspaper articles about how selfish/useless/egotistical Everest climbers are.
Or to put it another way, I had my first experience of being on the receiving end of the popular sport of Everest bashing. This year I have been watching from the sidelines, and the events on the mountain have been different, but the coverage has been pretty much the same, revolving around a handful of popular themes. A favourite one is to criticise the traffic jams on the Hillary Step, a 15m rock scramble just below the summit on the Southeast Ridge. Most climbers are aware of its reputation, and expect it to be a bottleneck on a busy summit day. They stagger their start times, wrap up in warm down clothing, and carry extra oxygen cylinders to keep the blood cells circulating as they wait. All things told as long as you’re prepared for it, it’s actually not such a bad place to wait, and certainly beats queuing in line for a burger. This year there was an innovation: two ropes were fixed on the Hillary Step instead of just one – a rope for climbers going up, and one for those coming down – and the bottleneck was reduced significantly. This might have made for a more imaginative news story, but most media outlets preferred to publish the same tried and trusted pieces about queues instead of reporting something a bit more positive. You would have to ask a newspaper editor why this is regarded as better journalism.
Another favourite story is to focus on how easy it must be to climb Everest by citing examples of unusual successes (look – even an 80 year old man can do it!) while ignoring the stories of agonising struggle and summit disappointment (such as this heartfelt post by Nelson Dellis, who stretched every sinew and fought for days on the north side only to turn back at the First Step due to extreme cold). This particular type of negative story is certainly written by people who have never tried to climb Everest, or they would know it’s actually quite hard. I haven’t tried running a marathon, but I wouldn’t assume it must be a piece of cake just because I’ve seen someone on the telly running one dressed as a rhino.
One popular source of resentment are the artificial aids people use to help them climb Everest. Some technical equipment, such as ice axes, crampons, warm down clothing and triple mountaineering boots, seem to be allowed, while others, such as bottled oxygen, are regarded by some people as cheating and arouse strong passions. The use of fixed ropes and jumars is another topic of much controversy, and this year was no different. A jumar is a one-way clamping device which slides up a rope freely, but locks in place when tugged from below. It makes climbing a steep slope much safer, because in theory it’s impossible to fall, but it also opens up difficult technical sections to people of lesser climbing ability, because it’s possible to haul yourself up the rope with your jumar instead of looking for hand and footholds.
This year fixed ropes became the subject of one of Everest’s fiercest controversies yet when a fight broke out between a group of Sherpas who were fixing ropes for commercial teams and some elite climbers who were ascending the slope on their own beside them. For some people it was seen as an isolated incident, unlikely to be repeated, while others saw it as the inevitable culmination of a serious breakdown in Sherpa-Western relations which has been years in the making. It was certainly a bizarre incident and many people who are never likely to climb Everest or even visit Nepal became extremely angry about it. I found this a little hard to understand. For example, when I heard the Bacup morris dancing troupe in Lancashire was facing closure because of inflexible health and safety laws, I sympathised with the injustice of their plight, but it would have felt foolish to become incandescent with rage about it.
I would love to be able to say all this Everest moaning is by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Last week an article entitled Tourism has devalued Everest appeared in the Telegraph. The article was written by Stephen Venables, the first Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, one of our greatest highest altitude mountaineers and also a very talented writer. He repeated the usual stories about overcrowding on the Hillary Step, lamented how commercialised and crowded the mountain has become, and talked about how valueless it is to climb Everest with supplementary oxygen. He ended by saying the real adventurers seek their challenges, and the solace of wild places, elsewhere.
I don’t know what job Stephen had before he was able to earn a living as a writer and professional adventurer, but if he had to spend as many hours in meetings like I do in my job as a web project manager, interviewing people about what they want from their website, showing them wireframes, conducting testing session after testing session, juggling priorities against internal politics and typing up tedious technical specifications full of fine detail, then it’s possible he might see things differently. I wish I didn’t have to do any of these things, but I’m very glad I do because they enable me to get away from it all from time to time and climb remote mountains in faraway places. He didn’t say what you have to do to consider it an adventure, but if climbing Everest doesn’t qualify then Google might as well stop larking around with Google Glass and invent a desktop computer which clamps to your neck so you don’t ever have to take holidays or stop working at all. It’s true that I didn’t have to risk my life in the towering ice of the Kangshung Face or bivouac at 8500m on the Southeast Ridge like Stephen did. His solo ascent by a new route in 1988 was one of Everest’s most extraordinary ascents, but I was very aware on my summit day of treading a fine line between life and death, and most people would regard that as quite adventurous. I decided to mention this to him.
It turned out I wasn’t the only person to find Stephen’s article a little uncharitable. My Everest tent mate Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson also stepped in.
Neither Axe nor I consider ourselves to be elite climbers, and both of us happily acknowledge the help we received from Sherpas load carrying, fixed ropes and bottled oxygen. We’re very grateful that we were able to do it at all. The summit of Everest came at the end of very long journeys for both of us. We climbed many mountains, and the Northeast Ridge was an unbelievable experience neither of us will ever forget.
To his credit, Stephen replied.
He had a point: although it’s theoretically possible, there is yet to be an ascent of the Kangshung Face which didn’t join the Southeast Ridge below the Hillary Step, and his own route took him all the way up from the South Col, from where there are now fixed ropes all the way to the summit. But there is the West Ridge, or the Norton Couloir, or even a post-monsoon ascent: all of these options involve a crowd-free ascent. And there are other mountains. In some ways his attitude isn’t that surprising. He is an elite climber, after all, one of the very best, and by his standards what we did isn’t very adventurous. But that doesn’t mean you need to take his opinions about what constitutes an adventure any more seriously than you would Wayne Rooney’s if he started up a blog in which he slagged off park footballers (“You call that playing football? etc.”).
He’s not the first elite mountaineer to speak disparagingly of those of lesser ability. Reinhold Messner, arguably the best there’s ever been, is famous for it. But before I tar him with Messner’s brush, an earlier tweet of his gave a hint that he may have been playing devil’s advocate to some extent (as well as a little clue about the Telegraph’s editorial policy).
Opinionated he may have been, but he didn’t say anything very controversial.
Why people get so upset about Everest being busy is puzzling. Those who want to climb it, can, and those who don’t want to climb it don’t have to. For those who want a more adventurous, difficult and dangerous ascent away from the crowds, there are still plenty of options, even on Everest itself. When I expressed this sentiment on a friend’s Facebook timeline last week, somebody else responded by saying that although they didn’t care about Everest, they resented the fact some of the practices prevalent on Everest – such as fixed ropes, permits, media intrusion and sponsorship – were spreading to other mountains which they did care about. Someone else’s Facebook timeline is not a place to be engaging in tit-for-tat arguments with strangers who clearly hold very different views to your own, so I didn’t ask them to explain themselves, but if their attitude is common then it suggests two things to me. The first of these is fear and resentment about a changing world, and the second is a reluctance to share the beautiful places with others.
Yes, it’s true that mountains are becoming more accessible and more crowded. This has been going on since long before Hillary and Tenzing first climbed Everest. Paccard and Balmat made the first ascent of 4810m Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe, in 1786. Now there’s a cable car to the Aiguille du Midi at 3800m and hundreds of people climb it every year. Sometimes there are so many people it’s impossible to find floor space at the Goûter Hut on the most popular route. When a Welsh miner called Morris Williams first had the idea of selling refreshments to the handful of hikers on the summit of Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales, in 1838, he could scarcely have envisaged a railway opening to the summit in 1896, or the state-of-the-art Hafod Eryri visitor centre which opened there in 2009. On a sunny summer’s day the Pyg Track and Llanberis Path are crawling with visitors, but only last year I found relatively few people walking up the Watkin Path until I reached the summit and joined the crowds. A few miles further south are the wild and beautiful Rhinogs, where you can enjoy heavenly peace and tranquillity.
And in Nepal Everest isn’t the only place being changed by tourism. When Maurice Herzog and his team of French mountaineers first explored the Annapurna region in 1950, they had difficulty even finding Annapurna, never mind climbing it. The Annapurna Circuit has been popular with trekkers for years now. A surfeit of tea house accommodation has meant that it’s relatively straightforward for anyone to hike it carrying little more than a 10kg pack and stopping to buy hot food and accommodation along the way. You can even sign up for an organised trek run by an adventure travel company and have everything arranged for you. Some people have an aversion to this type of travel, and say that it shields you from the culture and only enables you to scratch the surface of a place, but it doesn’t really matter how you do it. I’ve tried both types, and they both allow you to see much more of it than you would by sitting at a desk typing up tedious technical specifications in Microsoft Word, I can tell you that much. Getting out there is the main thing.
The Annapurna Circuit is losing some of its charm as a trek now that a road has been built most of the way round, a road that has changed the lives of the people who live there. There are still other remote places to trek in Nepal though, and it’s likely one day they too will feel the touch of civilisation.
This phenomenon isn’t confined to Nepal. America has lost much of its charm since Columbus first sighted it in 1492, or Lewis and Clark completed their great expedition across the continental divide in 1804. The South Pole has certainly lost much of its charm since Scott and Amundsen raced to it in 1911. There’s now a research station there. To paraphrase Stephen Venables, you could say science has devalued the South Pole. In fact, exploration has lost much of its magic now that you can zoom into pretty much anywhere on Google Earth.
There’s certainly a limit to the number of people who can climb Everest at any given time, but we’re not there yet. It’s the highest mountain in the world; you can be sure more people will want to climb it, and many of those people will be less competent than me and Axe (well, less competent than Axe anyway). Eventually there will even be a time when people no longer moan about it, like they no longer moan about the train up Snowdon and just accept it as one of those things that exists. As you can probably tell, I long for that day.
Personally I feel incredibly grateful to live in an age when the world is becoming more accessible. I’ve been to some pretty amazing places in the last few years. Instead of sitting at home or behind a desk complaining about it, it’s much more satisfying to be getting out there and taking advantage of the new opportunities. While I’d love it for those places to remain quiet, it would be churlish of me to deny them to other people.
I don’t mean to sound too gung-ho. It’s a world of finite resources and everything we do has an environmental impact. I definitely believe some places in the world need to be protected and Everest is one of them, but while there are certainly problems with litter that have been building up since the first expedition in 1921, it’s not the trash heap some people make it out to be. We’re not yet at a point where the mountain can’t be cleaned up and for future expeditions to be run sustainably.
There are challenges ahead in this changing, crowded world for sure, but to use terminology I find myself saying in my day job quite a lot, birth control and economic growth are beyond the scope of this blog post.
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Tags: annapurna circuit | apa sherpa | climbing equipment | commercial mountaineering | edmund hillary | everest | exploration | first ascents | grant rawlinson | maurice herzog | media sensationalism | mont blanc | mountaineering ethics | phurba tashi sherpa | sherpas | snowdon | stephen venables | tea house trekking | tenzing norgay
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