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‘We owe everything to Everest and Hillary’

Jason Burke in Namche:
Adam Dickson is a big, sunburned farmer from northern England who last week climbed Mount Everest on his own, descended the 8,848-metre peak, negotiating the fearsome glacial icefall, and then walked down the long trail to Namche, the village 5,500m below the summit which is effectively the gateway to the highest mountains in the world.

At the same time, 19-year-old Tsering Sherpa was on his way up. A helicopter brought him most of the way from Kathmandu, 90 miles away, where he is studying accountancy. At a bar near the landing pad, Tsering, Ray Bans pushed back on his forehead, stopped to have a drink with some Dutch and Israeli tourists. Then iPhone in hand, he continued on foot, past scores of guesthouses and cafes on the well-laid, well-maintained path to Namche, where he was born.

“Carry my own bag? No way, I’ll get a porter,” he said.

This Wednesday will see the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest. Together, the stories of Dickson and Tsering narrate the recent history of the highest mountain in the world and the valleys and villages surrounding it.

It was from a radio transmitter at Namche that the news of Everest’s conquest on 29 May 1953 was sent. It arrived in London in time for the Queen’s coronation three days later on 2 June. The British had been trying to climb the mountain since the early 1920s. But competitors were pressing in on what had once been a British-dominated sport. The Swiss had nearly succeeded in 1952. The French looked likely to succeed in 1954. There was much pressure.

So joy and relief greeted the news that the ultimate prize in high altitude climbing – which for a decade or more had been as much about national pride as gentlemanly sport – had been won for Britain by a gifted, experienced climber from a valley near the mountain, called Tenzing Norgay, and a big, cheery beekeeper from New Zealand, called Edmund Hillary.

To millions jaded by years of austerity and conflict, to a country losing an empire, the victory proved that Britain – it was a British expedition after all – and its erstwhile colonies still had what it took. Hillary’s laconic delivery of the news of his successful ascent to tensely waiting teammates – “Well, we knocked the bastard off” – fitted the national mood perfectly.

Sixty years on, the transmitter that sent the vital message has long gone. Members of the 1953 expedition described Namche as “a cosy and comfortable place with its heavy wooden doors and crooked lanes”. Now, while it is still a small village, it has mobile phone coverage, dozens of hotels, internet cafes, outdoor gear shops and a pub with premier league football on a big screen. It feels like a rudimentary out-of-season ski resort, just with steeper streets, grubby children and yaks. High peaks, dusted with snow even in May, loom over the gorges that lie on two sides.

Namche is the heart of the high lands of the 150,000-strong Sherpas, a people originally descended from Tibetan migrants with a distinctive tongue, culture and taste for trade. The name has become synonymous with dogged, faithful, smiling hard work. It is less well known for describing a people whose transformation in less than three generations has been one of the most dramatic on the planet.

Sixty years ago, the Times journalist who accompanied the 1953 expedition, worried that “the Sherpa as we knew him will be a figure of the past, obliterated by fame, fortune and foreign innovations”. Now Namche is, thanks to the mountain just visible from a ridge above and to the tens of thousands who come to see it or climb it, one of the wealthiest communities in Nepal.

“We owe everything to Everest, and to Hillary,” said Kancha Sherpa, who was paid eight rupees a day for carrying loads up steep ice slopes to around 23,000ft for the 1953 expedition and is one of the last veterans alive. “Now we have schools, clinics, bridges. Once we ate potatoes and dreamed of rice. Now we eat what we like. The expedition [of 1953] opened our eyes.”

The wealth that springs from Everest irrigates everything below: the commercial expeditions which now throng the base camp the 1953 climbers occupied for two long months; the local high altitude guides who can earn $6,000 (£4,000, or seven times the annual average income) by taking a client to the top; the porters and cooks, and the shopkeepers of Namche. The wealth flows on, always down, through those who run the guesthouses and cafes that now line the main trekking route up from the airstrip which Hillary started building explicitly to aid development of the area in the 1960s, to Kathmandu and beyond.

Flowing back up are hordes of westerners. A blackboard at the new visitors centre at the gate of the national park records numbers: 8,100 in 1985, and more than 36,00 last year.

In this early monsoon season there are fewer trekkers and, as the most opportune moment to summit on Everest is the last two weeks of May, the village’s three bars are full of descending summiteers.

On 19 May, around 150 climbers reached the highest point in the world in a few short hours.

“I was one of the earliest up there but it was pretty crazy. There were long queues at places where it was technically more difficult. I took 12 hours, and a third of that was simply waiting in the snow in lines,” said Chris Longacre, a 31-year-old Alaskan banker who paid $40,000 for a place on a commercial expedition.

Many pay more. Some on Everest are effective climbing novices, “short-roped”, or effectively pulled to the top by teams of Sherpas. The fixed lines of rope that run, almost without break, from base camp to the summit have eliminated much of the risk. This year there was a brawl between Sherpas and “disrespectful” climbers high on the mountain.

Longacre described “filth and rubbish” at the famous South Col, from where summit bids are launched, and said he had often thought of “how clean the mountain must have been” for the pioneers. Tashi Tenzing, the grandson of Tenzing Norgay, described climbing in the 1950s and 1960s as innocent. Ang Temba Sherpa, a veteran of 15 expeditions, said it was “no longer much of a mountaineering challenge” compared with 60 years ago.

Other mountaineers disagree. Any successful attempt on Everest involves at least 72 hours of more or less non-stop climbing at high altitude. Every year some die.

Alan Hinkes, the only Briton to have climbed all 14 mountains that are more than 8,000m high, said Everest was not for the ultra-wealthy or unfit.

“Whatever anyone says, it’s hard and there’s a risk. The climbers are often ordinary people from all over the world who have saved and worked hard to make a dream come true,” he told the Guardian.

The truth is that experience levels vary wildly. Nima Sherpa, who guided his sixth client to the summit two weeks ago, said that he taught many people the basics of mountaineering at base camp. “We pull half of them up,” he said.

However Dickson, though part of a commercial expedition, carried his own equipment and climbed without a supporting Sherpa. The 44-year-old cattle farmer from Bolton, Lancashire, said he would not judge anyone else, but for him “it needed to be different”.

“We can kid ourselves that [climbing] is not elitist but the knowledge that you’ve done that little bit extra means a lot,” he told the Guardian.

On 19 May, Dickson set out for the summit alone. There were few climbers aiming for the top that day and he reached the summit after 10 hours. On his return though, he failed to find a cache and ran out of oxygen. Soon he was hallucinating, sitting in the snow, waiting for a helicopter that he was convinced was coming to take him to a favourite restaurant.

“I don’t know how long I was sitting there, hours probably. I didn’t feel too well. I got up and somehow got down to the camp. I was pretty messed up actually. It’s the nearest I’ve come to getting killed as a climber,” he said.

For Dickson, who has climbed in Scotland, the Alps and taken part in several other Himalayan expeditions, the climb was about more than reaching the top.

“Some people on the mountain are just interested in the summit and that’s fine. But for me the history is a big part of it. I’m not a deep thinker or an emotional guy but it is like a pilgrimage. This mountain changes you, changes everyone. I haven’t told anyone about what I’ve done. I’d prefer to keep it to myself. Shouting about it diminishes it in a way, I think.”

Culture and history are also what has drawn Tsering Sherpa, the aspirant accountant walking up as Dickson descended, though in a very different way. The 19-year-old is the great-grandson of one of the Sherpas who assisted the 1953 expedition, climbing through the icefall to camp three. He will leave Nepal this autumn to continue his accountancy studies at the University of Montana but was summoned by his father back to Namche to attend Dumji, a festival held every year in the valleys around Everest.

“I’ve no idea what we are celebrating. I don’t like Namche much. In Kathmandu I come home every night at 2am. Here everyone is asleep by eight o’clock,” Tsering said.

Tsering’s father described how his own father, the 1953 veteran, had invested his earnings in his children’s education. Now a successful businessman and consultant on a project run by a US-based foundation to build a climbing school for the Sherpas, he stresses the benefits of the boom that has transformed the region, called Khumbu, at least on the major trekking routes, but says he is worried about the survival of the culture.

“This boom has brought us so much – sanitation, education, opportunities – but the Sherpa culture is fading fast. We are the last Sherpa generation,” he said.

Nima Sherpa, the six-time summiteer and guide, said local culture could sit easily with the development that has done so much to improve living standards. “Much has changed [since 1953] and I’m glad I wasn’t born back then,” he said. “We hope the foreigners will keep coming.”

Everyone here has a different Everest. Tsering Sherpa laughs uncomfortably when asked what the mountain means for him. Nima Sherpa, says Everest is “just a job” he hopes his own son will not have to do. For Apa Sherpa, who has climbed the mountain a record 21 times, it is a way to “work for my family and my country”. For Pertemba Sherpa, who climbed Everest by a new route in 1975 with a British expedition led by Sir Chris Bonington, the link is more spiritual. “I love all mountains big and small but I grew up here. Everest is very beautiful. It is our god. It is very close to me.”

In some western mountaineers, Everest inspires understatement. “It’s the top of the world, but its no big deal”, said Dickson, shortly before heading down the steep track through the cliffs and the high fir forest beside the rushing Dudh Kosi river to Lukla, the airstrip, and eventually back to Lancashire.

But for Hinkes, the British mountaineer, “Everest is Everest”, whatever the commercialisation or the crowds.

“It’s the moon. The north pole, the south pole. It’s the highest. It had to be done and it still has to be done.”
(Source:The Guardian)

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