Climbing Mt. Everest is the supreme symbol of man's personal struggle to achieve. As a metaphor; Everest is simple and pure, man versus nature, it approaches a universal understanding of our primal desire to conquer and will eternally stand as a symbol for triumph and failure. As long as Everest and man exist, it will draw adventurers without mercy, leaving no culture nor people untouched. Those who have summitted the mountain seem unable to forget it for a moment, as if the mountain has seeped into their genetic fiber. Others who attempt or merely visit Everest are often equally affected.
Shrouded in mythos and legend, certain peaks reign over a landscape with such dominance they become inseparable from the land and people. While Denali is inseparable from Native Alaskan lore, Everest has dominated the cultures of Tibet and Nepal, long before it was 'discovered' to be the world's highest mountain. Tibetans call it Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the Universe and to the Sherpa people of Nepal it is Sagarmatha, The Churning Stick in the Sea of Existence. These reverences, add to the magnetic nature of the Everest and the Himalayan Range.
There is something about Everest and its neighboring cultures that intensify our desire to better understand it. The more we learn, the more we need to know. Its profound presence, geography, glaciology, Sherpa tradition, Buddhism, the mighty Yak and even legend of the Yeti draw us deeper into Everest's mystique. By the time most people attempt to climb or visit base camp, they are so obsessed with Everest, the physical challenges are almost forgotten, until of course they reach the Himalayas. It is truly the stuff dreams are made of.
Mallory and the Statement:
When George Mallory responded "Because it is there" to the 'Why climb Everest question', he passed on a sort of permanent approval to those who wished to risk their lives climbing. But one should really have asked Mallory and his predecessors, "How did you know it was there?" Possibly "Why climb Everest?" is best answered, "because we found it."
By the end of the 18th century, the world did not know where the highest mountain lay. Historically, it was prime time for the 'Great Game' and the struggle to conquer Central Asia. While the British developed their stronghold on the Indian sub-continent, Czarist Russia, was intent on dominating the relatively uncharted landscapes of mountainous Asia. To control these areas, one had to overcome ruthless thieves and unfriendly kingdoms, as well as cross the seemingly un-passable and hostile ranges of the Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Karakorums, Garwhals and Himalayas.
To map these areas around India, one traveled as a spy or pundit, often changing disguises as the communities warranted. These cartographers cum spies also needed incredible strength and climbing skills while crossing the barren terrain and hence an explorers renaissance was born. These explorers would often quick change from Muslim Cleric to Buddhist pilgrim replete with an understanding of language, culture and local idiosyncrasies, those minute details of movement which are a delicate part of Asian culture.
Even these skills were only a prerequisite to the goal of the journey which was to survey the regions with precision. For these explorer chameleons, it was not uncommon to hide surveying tools in everyday objects. (The most famous instance of this was a surveyors kit and records hidden inside a Tibetan prayer wheel. Another pundit logged thousands of miles by counting every individual step.) While noting what progress could be made in a day or week, observing difficult crossings, natural defenses and watering holes for pack animals, they traveled in expedition style (a common term for a style of mountain climbing in which a series of camps are set). Expedition teams approached the surveying journey in the same way modern climbers think about a mountain.
These explorers became legendary heroes who bridged the gap between older explorers and modern day climbers.* They were in fact, the first Himalayan climbers, as surveying the mountains was often the cited raison d'etre for an expeditions approval and funding. The heroes became fabled characters in Kipling's Kim and provided a century of literature for the Great Britain's Royal Geographical Society.
* The mapping of Everest is a sub history in itself with Indian Surveyors of the 1950's taking accuracy to new levels. Even with satellite methods of the 1980's, the older figures held. Most recently famed climber, photographer and cartographer Dr. Bradford Washburn made updated calculations. Nearing 90 years of age, Dr. Washburn still conducts experiments with Everest climbers, using GPS systems and a prism placed on the summit. Everest climbers Burleson, Athens, Berg and Tejas have all worked with Washburn.
It was not until 1808 that the British fully embraced the single goal of finding the world's highest mountain. (It was nearly 100 years later that the British dispatched Colonel Younghusband to cross the Himalayas to secure Tibet as an ally.) Charting territory from British India, they did not reach the Himalayan foothills until the 1830's. Movement was slow in Himalayan terrain and Everest was not proclaimed as the world's highest peak until 1852. Thirty years later Clinton Dent raised the first serious proposal for a full-on attempt to summit Mt. Everest.
Now discovered as the highest, it was Mallory's 1922 expedition that brought Everest and its mythos to the masses. After 114 years of mapping, Mallory could now state "because it is there." When Hillary and Norgay were the first to summit Everest in 1953, Hillary stated, " I really believed the story had finished. I supposed it would be recorded in Alpine journals but that was all. How wrong I was. The media and public reaction was far beyond anything I naively expected."
Back in Vogue The media attention to the disasters of 1996 has brought Everest renewed popularity. Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air , has made Everest household talk from the Oklahoma plains to the shores of New Foundland. While the tragedies of 1996 were unique they were certainly not odd. Climbers do die on Everest most every year, but the 1996 tragedy offered a reporter at the ready, satellite phones, internet access to events and a cast of characters that intrigued arm chair climbers and the common man. It was practically a ready made news event and unfortunately the actual climbing was often presented with journalistic simplicity.
Most recently the Everest IMAX film has reached theatres around the world and has given an alpinist's view of the mountain and a chance for us catch a glimpse into the incredible beauty that seduces climbers. We may ask ourselves why a few deaths on Everest evoke more empathy than other natural disasters and grade school killings? It is because we all relate to adventure in some form; the predetermined, articulated goal of a climber, sailor or balloonist will naturally capture our human emotions.
As the West decides who are the Everest heroes and goats, the Sherpa of Nepal go about their business of climbing Everest in un-celebrated glory. While five summits is the record for a westerner, Ang Rita Sherpa has summitted the mountain 10 times. For most Sherpa, climbing is one of a few possible occupations. Their reputation as climbers is nothing short of historic and their local Buddhist, animist and cultural traditions have nurtured and impacted a fascinating relationship with westerners and western thought.
Why Guide Everest?
We crawl into our tents and secure Oxygen masks in a futile attempt to get a nights sleep. The team climbed from 23,500ft to almost 27,000ft with air so thin it's like breathing through as first grader's paper straw, says Todd Burleson who has been a team leader for more Everest expeditions that any other climber. Whether for love of the mountains or simply an occupation, the added difficulty of getting others up Everest has brought the challenge to a new level. Of course, guiding like other forms of teaching has innate rewards, but the severity of the climb, the level of difficulty and intense emotional pressure, leaves us bewildered as to who would take on such a task. Most of us will never experience, the 40 below cold, the 100 mile per hour winds, the excruciating pain of moving your body up 3000 feet in a day and trying to breathe (much less eat, sleep and drink) at the 29,000ft mark.
It should be noted, not all guides are drawn to this type of climb. Barbara Winkler, a leading US instructor recalls the first time she guided others, "the climbers were so excited when they got to the summit, I was overwhelmed by the experience and the sense of teamwork. I grew up in Switzerland where climbing was easily accessible, but as I developed I never thought about climbing Everest, I was more attracted to certain types of climbs and regions of the world. I was never really focused on climbing a particular mountain."
Everest or not, the concept of guiding has long been a part of mountaineering. "Whether through a guide service or other type of apprenticeship, we learn to climb from others" says Burleson. "It's really absurd how the media portrays the Everest climbers we guide, our teams are technically suited for the challenge and are really qualified to make an attempt. Although guiding is extremely different than straight climbing, you are no more or less a part of the mountain". Speaking about Everest, Burleson continues, " I certainly wonder why I would put myself through this again and again, the winds are howling at 75mph, we're exhausted and the only thought is the excruciating and dangerous climb that awaits us after a few hours of sleep. Yet in the middle of the night I walk out of my tent, the winds have died down a bit and as a full moon sits on Lhotse the 4th highest peak in the world) it is so awesome and stunning that I cannot imagine never returning."
Modern Day Adventurers
Like the travelers of the eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, modern climbers continue the legacy of exploration. The great adventurer Ned Gillette who was recently killed in Pakistan said, "Adventure is looking at an old subject in new ways, the biggest challenge could be finding a challenge and there are plenty of challenges if you are willing to use your imagination". Adventure is intrinsic to our nature and we each explore and test our limits in different ways, each of us have our own Everest.