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Romancing Everest

Jul 21, 2013 :

To celebrate 60 years of the first ascent of the world’s tallest mountain, adventure enthusiasts anurag mallick & Priya ganapathy chronicle death, danger, dreams, and the lure of the Everest.

From travelling to the ends of the earth, going into outer space, or plumbing the depths of the ocean, man’s quest for exploration knows no bounds. One doesn’t look for logic in performing human feats that surpass perceived limits of physical and mental endurance. Grit, self-belief and a sense of purpose empower individuals to undertake death-defying journeys, often to places where no one has gone before. Mountaineering is no different. On being asked why he climbed mountains, British climber George Mallory famously quipped, “Because it’s there...”

But how can you climb a mountain unless you know it’s there? For years, Kanchenjunga on the Sikkim-Nepal border was regarded as the world’s tallest mountain. Though the quest to scale Mount Everest is fairly well documented, the attempts to locate and measure it are not so well known... Equally fascinating is the role a few Indians played in this epic adventure.


In 1802, the British began the Great Trigonometric Survey of India to determine the earth’s curvature by measuring the length of the country. The survey would also map out the world’s highest mountains. For measurements, Col William Lambton used giant theodolites, precision instruments that weighed 500 kg and took 12 men to carry! Lt George Everest, appointed as assistant to Lambton in 1818, succeeded him as Surveyor-General of India (1830-43). Starting from South India, the surveyors laboured their way northward over three decades to reach the foothills of the Himalayas. Wary of Britain’s imperialist designs, Nepal refused access and the British continued observations from the Terai region on the Nepal-Bihar border.

With Nepal and Tibet banned to foreigners, the British employed several natives in this enterprise. Syed Mir Mohsin Husain, an Arcot-born watchmaker from Madras, joined in 1824 as an instrument repairer and eventually became chief mathematical instrument maker. Nain Singh Rawat of Kumaon entered Tibet disguised as a Lama and carried out secret surveys for nearly two years. Aided by Mani Singh and Kishen Singh, the Pundit brothers surveyed the Tibet mountains extensively. To avoid suspicion, these ‘spy explorers’ masqueraded as monks or traders using ingenious methods.

Measurements were coded as written prayers. These scrolls were hidden in the cylinder of the prayer wheel while a compass was lodged in the lid. A thermometer was sneaked into the top section of the monk’s staff while secret pockets and false chambers in provisions chests held surveying instruments. Mercury, used to create an artificial horizon, was kept in cowrie shells and poured into the begging bowl when required. They were trained to take equal-paced steps and record distances using a modified Buddhist rosary with 100 beads instead of the standard 108. Every 100 steps would count as one bead, so a full rosary count represented 10,000 steps. Since each step was 31 ½ inches, a mile was roughly 2,000 steps.

Thus, Nain Singh became the first person to determine the exact location and altitude of Lhasa, map the trade route from Nepal to Tibet and the course of the Tsangpo river. Aiding the British was a battery of astute Bengali mathematicians led by Radhanath Sikdar, who joined the survey in the 1830s as a 19-year-old maths wunderkind and computor. In 1852, Sikdar informed Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, that Peak XV was the highest point in the region, and perhaps the world. After making sure, in 1856, Waugh recorded the first published height of Peak XV as 29,002 ft (8,840 m).

Behind the name

On Waugh’s recommendation the Royal Geographical Society gave Peak XV its official English name in 1865 after his predecessor Sir George Everest. The irony was that Everest never saw the mountain. He protested that his name, pronounced ‘Eev-rist’, was not easy on the native tongue and was a departure from the standard norm of using the mountain’s local name. Although Tibetans revered the mountain as Chomolungma for centuries, outsiders were not privy to this information. And so, the name ‘Mount Everest’ stuck and Sikdar was conveniently forgotten...

After the First World War and the Anglo-Afghan wars, the British again turned their attention to their original conquest — the world’s highest mountain. Access was either from Tibet to the north or Nepal from the south, but both the Himalayan countries were hostile to outsiders. After high-level diplomacy and an appeal to Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, the British finally secured permission to visit Tibet in 1921.

The first British Reconnaissance Expedition, organised by the Mount Everest Committee, explored routes up the North Col to produce the first accurate maps of the region. George Mallory was a part of this recce and returned in 1922 for the first true attempt, which saw the world’s first climb above 8,000 m. During the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition, Mallory and his young climbing partner from Oxford, Andrew Irvine, disappeared high on the North-East ridge, just 800 vertical feet from the summit. Mallory’s fate was unknown for 75 years, until his body was discovered in 1999 by an expedition to locate the climbers’ remains. Whether Mallory was able to summit Everest, decades before Hillary’s ascent, remains the world’s biggest mountaineering mystery.

Subsequent attempts of Everest were headlined by the top names of Britain’s climbing fraternity — Hugh Ruttledge, who did a parikrama of Mount Kailash with his wife (the first Western woman to do so), Frank Smythe, who discovered the Valley of Flowers on the Kamet expedition, and Eric Shipton-Bill Tillman, the first to gain access to Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Shipton also gave a 19-year-old porter from Darjeeling his first Everest opportunity because of his attractive smile! His name was Tenzing Norgay.

Citing the hardships of high altitude climbing, Shipton explained, “It would seem almost as though there were a cordon drawn round the upper part of these great peaks beyond which no man may go. The truth, of course, lies in the fact that, at altitudes of 25,000 ft and beyond, the effects of low atmospheric pressure upon the human body are so severe that really difficult mountaineering is impossible, and the consequences, even of a mild storm, may be deadly, that nothing but the most perfect conditions of weather and snow offer the slightest chance of success, and that on the last lap of the climb no party is in a position to choose its day.”

However, not all of Everest’s admirers were climbers. In 1933, Lady Houston, a feisty showgirl named Lucy-turned-British millionaire, funded the Houston-Everest Flight Expedition to fly over Everest for the first time. On a still April morning, two planes took off from Purnea’s Lalbalu Aerodrome in Bihar. The perfect weather turned the trial sortie into an actual flight and the planes soared 100 ft above the world’s highest mountain. They returned again for better photography of the terrain. The cables went wild — “Mount Everest has been flown over.”

Divine calling

Yet, Maurice Wilson’s story typifies ludicrous audacity. A decorated World War I British soldier, Wilson got the idea of scaling Everest after reading newspaper clips of British expeditions and the Houston-Everest Flight, while recovering at Black Forest. Cured of his long illness by a healer, Wilson was convinced that fasting and prayer were essential to his success and hoped to prove his mystic beliefs to the world. Climbing Everest was his divine calling, “the job I’ve been given to do”. His plan, if it can be called one, was to fly a small plane to Tibet, crash-land it on the upper slopes of Everest, and amble across to the summit!

Eccentric Wilson was neither an aviator nor a mountaineer, so he decided to take a crash course, literally. He bought a Gipsy Moth, christened it ‘Ever Wrest’, took twice the time to get a pilot’s licence, and crash-landed near Bradford. He earned a flying ban from the Air Ministry even before his expedition began! For climbing expertise, instead of learning technical skills using ice axes and crampons, he hiked in the moderate hills of Snowdonia for five weeks, before declaring himself ready.

In May 1933, Wilson flew illegally from Britain to India via Cairo, Bahrain and Persia, but his plane was impounded at Purnea. He spent the winter fasting and praying in Darjeeling, where he fortuitously met three sherpas from the 1933 Ruttledge expedition. In March 1934, they slipped into Tibet disguised as Lamas and reached Rongbuk Monastery. As per the grand plan, Wilson would reach the summit using his spiritual prowess and signal his mission’s success to the monks with a shaving mirror! Wilson’s body and diary were found wrapped in a tent by a British expedition in 1935.

After the Second World War, political developments changed the way climbers would approach Everest. Post-war, the Dalai Lama closed Tibet to foreigners. In 1950, China took control of Tibet, sealing access via the north face while Nepal relaxed its borders to foreigners, opening up the southern route. The Everest was no longer an exclusively British dream as it drew international attention from Canadian, Swiss and Soviet climbers. In 1952, the Swiss expedition managed to make the first climb to South Col. With each expedition, climbers inched closer to the summit, making it a fierce race to the top...

In 1953, the British launched their ninth expedition under John Hunt. With the French securing permission to climb in 1954, and the Swiss in 1955, the British would get another shot only in 1956. It was now or never. The first climbing pair of Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon achieved the first ascent of the South Summit 8,750 m (28,700 ft) and stopped 100 m short of the final summit because of faulty oxygen equipment and lack of time. Two days later, on May 29, 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the second and final assault. Climbing the South Col route, they negotiated a 40 ft rock face (later named Hillary Step) and summited at 11.30 am. They spent 15 minutes to click photos and bury sweets as an offering to the mountain before descending.

In John Hunt’s The Ascent of Everest, Edmund Hillary notes, “My initial feelings were of relief — relief that there were no more steps to cut, no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalise us with hopes of success... we shook hands and then Tenzing threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back until we were almost breathless.”

Times reporter James Morris descended from 22,000 ft to send a coded message through a runner, who walked 20 miles to the nearest radio at Namche Bazaar. The message was sent in Morse code from a bicycle-powered radio station to the Indian and British embassies in Kathmandu. A wireless transmitter relayed the news to London, just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Everest conquest was perhaps the last major news delivered to the world by a runner.

Soon, others followed suit. The Swiss expedition succeeded in 1956. Tenzing Norgay’s nephew Nawang Gombu became the first person to reach the summit twice. He was part of an American expedition in 1963 and the 1965 Indian expedition, the third attempt after two failed missions. Led by Lieutenant Commander M S Kohli, nine of the 21-man Indian contingent scaled the summit, making India the fourth country to do so. Captain Avtar Singh Cheema was the first Indian on Everest. In 1966, the Nepal government banned climbing in the Nepal Himalayas and when it reopened in 1969, the Japanese were the first to leave a mark.

Skiing adventure

On May 6, 1970 Yuichiro Miura became the first person to ski on Mount Everest. He descended nearly 4,200 vertical feet from South Col (25,938 ft), a feat documented in the 1975 film The Man Who Skied Down Everest. It won the Academy Award for best documentary, the first for a sports film. In 2003, Miura became the oldest person to summit Everest at 70, accompanied by his son Gota Miura.

When a fellow Japanese broke his record by three days, Miura reclaimed his title in 2008 at 75 years and 227 days. It was later found that Nepali Min Bahadur Sherchan, aged 76 years and 330 days, had summited a day earlier. So, at the age of 80, the inexorable Miura returned with his son to regain his title on May 22 this year. Having nearly died on the descent, Miura says he will not challenge the mountain again. “Three times is enough!”

They weren’t the first father-son duo on Everest. Befittingly, Sir Edmund and Peter Hillary set that record in 1990. In May 2002, Peter returned with Tenzing Norgay’s son Jamling as part of a historic National Geographic Society expedition to mark the 50th anniversary of the first ascent by their fathers. In 2008, Lukla, counted among the world’s most dangerous airports, was renamed after Tenzing-Hillary who helped develop it. People start their climb to Mount Everest Base Camp from Lukla, taking two days to reach Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the high Himalayas.

In the last six decades, over 3,000 people from 20 countries have climbed the Everest with 5,654 ascents and 219 casualties. Most who reach the summit die on their descent, often in the Death Zone or heights over 8,000 m. For every 10 successful ascents there’s one death, but armed with better equipment, technology and knowhow, climbers now succeed with relative safety. On one day alone in 2012, 234 climbers reached the peak. Such unprecedented access has raised concerns of over-commercialisation, climbing protocol and environmental impact.

Anniversary celebrations

This year, the 60th anniversary of the first ascent was celebrated in Nepal with a high-altitude marathon, a clean-up operation at Everest Base Camp and colourful processions in Kathmandu featuring Kanchha Sherpa, one of the last surviving members of the 1953 expedition, and mountaineer Reinhold Messner, the first to climb Everest without oxygen, the first to do it solo, and also the first to scale all the 14 eight-thousanders in the world!

Meanwhile, records continue to tumble — this year, Phurba Tashi equalled Apa Sherpa’s record for most summits (21 times), Arunima Sinha became the first female amputee to scale Everest, and Russian extreme sports legend Valery Rozov did the world’s highest BASE jump from Everest’s north face at 23,680 ft. Besides climbing feats, Everest has hosted the world’s highest concert, the first 3G call, first descent by paraglider, and perplexingly, the world’s highest fight at 23,000 ft, with an ugly brawl between Western climbers and sherpas in May 2013.

High-altitude mountain guide Adrian Ballinger summed up the incident well. “The constant pressure to break records, attempt new routes, and be the strongest, whether for personal pride, sponsors, future job offers, or media, can cloud the purity of our climbing here. And these pressures can lead to disagreements, arguments, and hurt feelings. But none of these pressures should be allowed to lead to violence, or to breaking the essential bonds that tie climbers to each other.”

Last heard, 81-year-old Min Bahadur abandoned his attempt to become the oldest man on Everest due to bad weather and bureaucratic delay by the Nepal Government to allocate funds as he waited at Base Camp. Yuichiro Miura can breathe easy while Everest patiently awaits the next wave of those who dare…

Mounting costs : Climbing Mount Everest is an expensive proposition. The permit costs $10,000 to $25,000 per person, depending on the team’s size. Climbing gear can cost US $8,000 and bottled oxygen adds around $3,000. Transferring equipment from airport to base camp, 100 km from Kathmandu, can add $2,000.



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