Tuesday, May 28, 2019
"Some of the last mystery in the world will pass"
Twenty-five years ago, when I was writing a book on failure, I wanted to focus on an achievement which many people tried to accomplish and failed before it was finally done, and settled on the conquest of Mount Everest.
The chapter, called "Were the Mountain Smaller," examined all the expeditions that didn't make it up Mount Everest, named "Chomolungma," by the locals, before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay managed the feat in 1953 (one analysis of a British failure in the 1930s determined that success would certainly have been theirs "were the mountain smaller.")
My research gave me a lifelong skepticism, if not contempt, for attempts to scale Everest, an attitude that tends to flare each May, when conditions are right, or as right as they get at least, for summiting. This year's was particularly deadly and ludicrous, which prompted me to re-read the chapter, and remember that while the situation gets worse and worse, none of this is new, alas. The chapter ends this way:
Some six hundred people have climbed Everest and the number is constantly growing—sixty-one people reached the summit in 1993 alone, forty of them on a single day, May 10 (climbers savoring their moment of personal triumph at the summit, heard shouts from below to hurry up, that others were waiting).
As many as one hundred people making the attempt have died, thirty-four in the past five years—in falls, from exposure, from hypothermia and, in attempts to duplicate Messner and Habeler's 1978 climb, from causes related to oxygen depletion, such as cerebral edema.
For a while, mirroring the atomization of society, climbers attempting Everest sought to be an ever more specific first something atop the mountain—first American, first woman, first person over fifty, first American woman over fifty. Attention also shifted to which route was taken up Everest. Hillary and Tenzing, it turns out, not only cheated with oxygen but took the easy way up. So the more difficult routes had to be conquered.
Stacy Allison, the first American woman up Everest, spent forty-five minutes at the summit photographing herself with the logos of her numerous corporate sponsors. Later, appearing on "The David Letterman Show," she took a stone from her pocket, explaining that it came from the top of Everest, and asked permission to heave it through Dave's famed studio window. "Of course," said Letterman, and she threw the stone, accompanied by the usual breaking-glass sound effect.
Today Everest is climbed so frequently that trash is a problem—the Nepalese government has had to require that expeditions carry out all their garbage, lest the slopes become an utter junkyard of discarded oxygen cylinder and mint cake wrappers.
From a vantage point of forty years, comparing the end result of the dynamic, peakward-yearning philosophy of the British mountaineers to the austere, mountain-fearing mysticism of the Sherpas, one doesn't have to be a devotee of Eastern religion to wonder if perhaps the world might be a more appealing place had Everest been a little higher, the winds a little stronger, the cold more harsh and the highest mountain in the world remained forever beyond the grasp of the humans living below.
"The mountain appears not to be intended for climbing," noted Mallory in his diary in 1921. He was speaking of the physical challenge, but oddly enough, at least some Western contemporaries also found philosophical obstacles. When the first expedition was being organized, a few London editorialists wondered about the wisdom of making the effort. "Some of the last mystery of the world will pass when the last secret place in it, the naked peak of Everest, shall be trodden by those trespassers," on prescient critic wrote.
in early June 1953, on their way down the mountain toward fame, the British expedition stopped at the Thyangboche Monastery to pay their respects. John Hurt told the elderly abbot that they had just climbed to the summit of Everest. "He was plainly incredulous and nothing would shake his unbelief," wrote Hunt, oblivious that if you thought God was on top of a mountain, you couldn't every well imagine a bunch of haggard bearded foreigners tramping up to visit Him. "But his natural courtesy forbade him to give expression to this in so many words, and when we left he graciously congratulated us on 'nearly reaching the summit of Chomolungma.'"