Wednesday, April 23, 2014


I remember when we heard the news that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had scaled the towering, majestic slopes of Mount Everest--the first human beings to do so, in what seemed to us all at the time a magnificent, indeed an almost superhuman accomplishment...

The two men reached the summit on May 29, 1953, but news was a little slower in arriving in those days: I learned of it only when I was camped out for the night on the Mall with a group of friends, in an uncharacteristic display of patriotism, awaiting the pomp and ceremony of the new Queen's coronation parade on June 2nd.  Two majesties, then, on a single day!  I was 17 years old (and am now able to confess, some 60 years later, that at least one of my motives was to indulge my newly acquired--but then forbidden!--habit of smoking cigarettes.  I must have gone through two packs of Senior Service in the course of that night...)

Everest had remained until that time an undefeated challenge, one that had taken the lives of many who attempted it--including, a long thirty years previously, that of George Mallory in 1924.  British explorers were the source of great pride to boys like myself, who grew up in the immediate post-WWII years.  We were as inspired by them as we were the military heroes whose valor had helped assure the victory over Hitler (no link for him!) and his Nazi Germany (nor them!)  There were many besides myself who bathed in the reflected glory of their courage.  So news of Hillary and Tenzing's triumph, arriving on the very day of the coronation, was a heady and memorable event--one worthy, I'm sure, of another few celebratory cigarettes.

Once a mythical--and to many a sacred--monument to nature's superiority over puny humankind, Everest is now reduced to the status of a tourist mecca.  A venerable mecca, to be sure, but one that is accessible to even indifferently skilled climbers.  It is also, to judge from the recent Nepali documentary Death Zone: Cleaning Mt. Everest, "the world's highest garbage dump," littered with the discarded remains left behind by hundreds of climbers whose attempts are made possible only through the work of the legendary Sherpas--an ethnic group that became known largely to the rest of the world only when Sherpa Tenzing partnered Hillary on his epic climb.  Without him, it is generally acknowledged, Hillary's achievement would never have been possible.

I'm sure I share in a greatly romanticized image of the Sherpas, but I was shocked by the news that 13 had been wiped out in that avalanche a few days ago (three more are still listed as missing), in the service of aspiring climbers from the West--more than three hundred of whom were installed at Base Camp, awaiting the opportunity to join the line for the climb to the top of the world.  Beating the path and carrying the supplies that would make the ascent, if not easy, then at least tolerably achievable for those drawn here by ambition, or challenge, or simple vanity, provided what must have been a welcome livelihood for these men.  The return for themselves and their families must have seemed worth the great risk of their employment.

Quite aside from the physical risk to life and limb, however--at least as I have been led to understand--was the act of desecration involved in exposing this sacred place to the invasion of Western commerce and exploitation.  I find it infinitely sad that even such remote and inhospitable parts of our planet Earth have sacrificed their mystery and once-venerated inviolability to the insatiable lusts that characterize our species; and that the unrivaled mountain-climbing skills of the Sherpas have been co-opted to enable our ambitions.  The ascent of Everest now no longer takes exceptional skill, strength, daring, endurance  and individual initiative.  It just takes several tens of thousands of dollars and a team of Sherpas to see you to the top.

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