Everest 60th anniversary

60 years ago today, on the 29th May 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood on the summit of Everest. With the news announced to the world on the day of the coronation, it marked the beginning of the second Elizabethan age in spectacular style. For anyone interested in mountaineering, walking and camping, the first ascent of Everest was a kick-start to an industry producing outdoors equipment where the designs of many tents, sleeping bags and footwear had remained pretty much unchanged for 50 years.

While on a British-led expedition, Tenzing and Hillary weren’t themselves British. It wasn’t until Chris Bonington’s 1975 expedition that Doug Scott and Dougal Haston became the first Brits to summit Everest, climbing by the toughest route up the mountain – the south-west face. To this day, Scott and Haston’s achievement, along with surviving the unplanned highest overnight bivouac on record, remains an extraordinary feat of high-altitude mountaineering.

Back in the 1950’s, Nepal allowed just one climbing expedition on Everest per year. Now, of course, it is a very different picture. Expeditions to Everest produce a hefty chunk of Nepal’s tourist income. The South Col route up the mountain taken by Hillary and Tenzing is these days known as the “tourist route”, and while you still need to be fit and have plenty of stamina to climb the mountain, if you can afford it, you can join a guided expedition with minimal mountaineering experience. As ever, you also need to be incredibly lucky with the minute weather window, but these days, you also have the added problem of crowds. Yes, crowds! The only bit of technical climbing is a couple of hundred feet below the summit, a 40ft rock face known as the Hillary Step, and it’s here that a bottleneck can occur with climbers waiting their turn to go up also having to fit in with those coming down. Queues can sometimes be two or three hours, and people have actually died while waiting. When the temperature is minus 20 and your oxygen supply is limited, you don’t want to be standing around for hours getting exhausted and frostbitten.

Now there is a proposal to install a ladder on the Hillary Step so that tourists can descend without impeding the progress of those climbing up, hopefully reducing the traffic jam. Of course that might alleviate the problem, but it still doesn’t get round the fact that Everest has turned into a circus, and that these days, the majority of people climbing it aren’t even mountaineers, and think it’s just something on their “bucket list” to tick off. With thousands of feet of fixed rope and now possibly a ladder, it’s no longer a mountain for purist climbers.

Ten years ago I interviewed Doug Scott for a piece in The Times’ Everest 50th anniversary supplement, and he was scathing about the fashion for people coming to Everest to claim all sorts of spurious records, and the way people joining commercial expeditions expect the guides to be able to bail them out when something goes wrong. Since then, things have only got worse, but one thing remains the same – when you’re in the death zone above 26,000 feet, no matter how many people there are around you, when the chips are down you’re on your own!

Click here to read my feature in The Times’ Everest 50th anniversary supplement.

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