An Australian mountain climber, Jason Kennison, died while descending from the summit of Mount Everest. His death is sadly not an isolated incident. The number of climber fatalities on Mount Everest has increased over the years. Why is summiting Everest such an important target of mountaineering accomplishment?
The goal of reaching the summit of Everest – the rooftop of the world, as it has been called – has its origins in a combination of great power politics and the growth of mountaineering/adventure tourism. May this year – May 29 to be exact – marked 70 years since the successful summiting of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay. Everest, known as Chomolungma in Chinese, or Sagarmatha in Nepali, is 8849 metres above sea level at its peak. Hillary’s expedition was sponsored by Britain.
British political elites in Whitehall understood the summiting of Everest as a crucial soft power achievement. Britain had given up its long term colony of India in 1947 – the empire was declining and losing prestige. British officials grasped the importance of conquering Everest as a symbolic, yet culturally powerful, objective.
Everest, straddling the border between China and Nepal, was viewed as a strategic consideration. If London could organise a climbing team to reach the rooftop of the world, that would be a huge boost for the flagging great power credentials of the decrepit British empire. Way back in the 1920s, British foreign office officials wanted to conquer Everest, worried lest it fall into ‘foreign hands.’
Richard Woodward, of Coventry University, wrote that the Himalayas represented the last earthly frontier to be conquered. The ultimate mountaineering trophy, the British organised the 1953 expedition – even though technically, Hillary was a New Zealander and Norgay was Nepalese. However, the message that Everest’s summiting by a British team was unequivocal – the empire was still resilient, technologically capable and relevant. And a few days later, on June 2, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II occurred.
The members of the successful expedition, including Hillary himself, were widely promoted in the media, in an early version of celebrity diplomacy. The Foreign Office used its connections to facilitate talks, lectures and appearances by the team, broadcasting the achievements of these mountaineers worldwide.
Cultural soft power is a technique deployed by empires – the United States, during the Cold War, sent Louis Armstrong on tours of East Berlin and Budapest to counter claims of racism and discrimination in the larger American society. Cultural soft power is sometimes more powerful than bombs and bullets.
The Sherpas, the small tribe inhabiting the Himalayan borderlands between China and Nepal, are the true unsung heroes of the Everest story. Taking huge risks for their wealthy clientele, they are the ones who ensure the safety and security of the non-Sherpa climbers. Unlike the Sherpas, the well-to-do climbers are paying to take risks, and then offloading the heavy lifting to the poorer Sherpas. In 2018, the NPR media outlet noted that one third of all Everest climbing deaths have been Sherpas.
While Hillary’s triumph is remembered around the world, the Sherpa climbers have set records for the number of times Everest has been summited. Lakpa Gelu, a Sherpa, currently holds the record for the fastest summit of Everest, making it to the top in 10 hours and 56 minutes. Mountaineering may be a lucrative business for the Nepali government, but it is dangerous for the Sherpas.
Back in 2014, The Conversation published an article entitled “Everest tourism is causing a mountain of problems.” The author of that article makes the following important points:
Mountaineering in Nepal is now a commercialised operation that primarily consists of two main goals: profit for the government and an ego-boost for the participants. The true spirit of mountaineering adventure has long disappeared. This is why the government has lowered the climbing permit fee, to encourage more climbers who can buy into the Everest franchise.
Adventure tourism and extreme sports have grown exponentially over the recent decades. Mountaineering requires a specialised set of skills and physical stamina. Yet, with the rise of adventure tourism, for a fee, anyone can ascend the highest mountaintops in the world. Since the 1980s, there has been the Seven Summits challenge, where climbers attempt to summit the highest mountains on all continents.
Recreational climbers, increasing in numbers, have taken to Everest. It is not difficult to find pictures of the queues of climbers waiting to ascend the various stages of the climb to the ultimate summit on Everest. Let’s not forget the mounds of rubbish left by wealthy tourists at base camps and tent encampments on the way up the mountainside.
Indeed, waste management has emerged as a serious concern on Everest. The garbage left behind by recreational climbers consists of empty oxygen cylinders, food scraps, torn tents, and corpses. That’s right – the dead bodies of what were highly motivated, determined adventure climbers are left abandoned on Everest.
If you wish to climb Mt Everest, please go for it. If the thrill and excitement of ascending the world’s highest mountain is worthwhile goal in your estimation, then please do not let anything stand in your way. However, before you do so, take the time to understand the impact of commercialised mass mountaineering on Everest.
As Yana Wengel and her colleagues have explained, do not allow social media images, and the alluring ‘romance’ of past mountaineering achievements lull you into a false sense of security. While sleeping in a heated tent, and having your food prepared for you, think of the Sherpas.