60 years ago on May 19; Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali Sherpa of Indian citizenship made the news for having successfully climbed on top of Mount Everest, the highest elevated mountain from sea level in the world. The romance in the conquest of Everest perhaps stems from the trail of people who have lost their lives starting from the point when the British began the Great Trigonometric Survey of India to determine the location and names of the world`s highest mountains in 1802. The survey team ended in two casualties and one survey officer giving up due to poor health even before reaching anywhere to the Chomolungma which would later come to be known as Everest. This was to be the precursor of various efforts to map the mountains in the region of the Himalayas and measure their heights till an Indian mathematician and surveyor from Bengal Radhanath Sikdar using trigonometric calculations based on earlier measurements became the first person to officially identify Everest as the highest mountain in 1852. ‘Chomolungma’, the Tibetan name for the mountain was unknown to the British since Nepal was a closed down to the British. Named merely as Peak XV, it was to be in honor of Sir George Everest a former British Surveyor General of India. What underlies the history of the peak is in fact the documentation of a colonial rule and one cannot help but wonder over whether the people living with the mountain in their midst would not ever have set their feet on it and come back to tell the tale.
29 years before the pair of Hillary and Norgay set foot on the summit, 37 year old George Mallory was part of three British expeditions with the last one being the most poignant and controversial down the line. George Mallory and his partner Andrew Irvine made an attempt on the summit via the North Col/North Ridge/Northeast Ridge route from which they never returned. Later, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition found Mallory`s body on the North Face in a snow basin setting off talks of whether it would have been possible for either Mallory or Irvine or both to have reached the summit. Juxtaposed between man’s romantic notions of venturing to the unknown and the mystery of the elements, Irving’s and Mallory’s story will never be clear. What is clear however is that since the early phases when the Everest was still out of bounds to the majority, the equation of heading to the summit has changed and how. Consider the statistics that says that about 300 people have made it to the top till May this year! This is not to say that the element of danger does not enter into the picture for an equal number of people have died while trying to reach the highest point on earth in the last six decades. This year too, seven climbers have died while attempting their ascent and descent from the peak.
Over the years, there have been other categorizations while attempting the peak: climbing without oxygen, climbing the maximum number of times, being the youngest or oldest climber, fastest to reach the peak et el. The traffic and the rush for the peak has reached a stage where tour like corporate expeditions have become an accepted norm with money being the first criteria considering that permissions for the climb means forking out a considerable fee. Earlier in this year’s season of fair weather climbing, a fight broke out between three European climbers and Nepalese guides. Many environmentalists have expressed their concern over the possibility of Everest becoming the world’s highest garbage dump with waste materials being discarded on the peak. An unfortunate fallout of the race to the top emerged in 2006 when a group of climbers found a lone climber who was taking shelter under a rock a mere 450 metres (1,480 ft) below the summit but did not stop to rescue him. But again, the human race is also about basic emotions of greed, selfishness and personal perseverance. For some being on top of the world would be their ultimate even if it means having to leave someone to die in the biting cold and the unforgiving altitude. For some, it would mean having to beat great personal odds and overcoming physical disability to set a milestone. And for Nepal, a country with not much potential for industrial growth, the trekking circuit in the Himalayas would only mean a major revenue earner with Everest being the top of the list. A whole economy thrives on the madness of adventure and gives economic sustenance to porters and guides. The romance sadly died a long time ago.