High Himalayan hype
11 May 2012
Infatuation with Everest has inspired Everest-sized absurdities.
In the list of names that the highest mountain inspires are Everest toothpaste, a variety of hard red winter wheat, unaffiliated Everest colleges in Nepal and in North America, and, among others, Everest Affiliates, an investment firm in Canada with the motto ‘Making millionaires since 1997’. There is also Everest candy, whisky, computer software, and a brand of special underwear (don’t ask). Everest is even a popular name for baby boys. And, computer techies take note: a sophisticated solid-state drive called the ‘Everest 2 Platform’ is waiting for you to join the team.
The infatuation with things ‘Everest’ began with an obsession among British climbers in the early 20th century to summit the big one, and it ‘peaked’, so to say, after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay topped it on 29 May 1953. That towering event was, to use another well-worn cliché, a ‘titanic act’ of determination and perseverance. Continuing the play on words, following the death of Hillary in 2008, British actor and adventurer, Brian Blessed, who made his own three attempts on the mountain, described Hillary as “a kind of titan”.
Hillary, who was never one to mince his words, summed up the events of that day when he met his friend, George Lowe, during the descent. “Well, George,” he said, “we knocked the bastard off!” A week later, Hillary was knighted for this accomplishment. But despite the fame Hillary would enjoy for the rest of his life, he apparently did not hold much romantic affection for the big rock, or at least not for the shenanigans later perpetrated on and about the peak. In a 2003 interview for The Guardian newspaper, he made this blunt summation: “It’s all bullshit on Everest these days.” Hillary was, obviously, not referring to the ascent of Everest by his son, Peter, in 1990, nor to Peter’s follow-up ascent in 2002 with Brent Bishop, son of the 1963 American Everest summiteer, Barry Bishop.
According to statistics on Everest, over 3000 people have tried to climb the mountain, 700 of whom have made it. This season, Prakash Dahal, son of the chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda), is leading a batch to the summit. By conquering the ultimate challenge, the party of climbers intends to boost the peace process and drafting of the new Nepali constitution, which is due 28 May. On the trek to the mountain, the team might run into four servicemen sponsored by a British charity group called ‘Walking with the Wounded’ that helps injured soldiers get on with their lives. There are solo climbing attempts as well. Wasfia Nazreen, a rights activist, development worker and self-proclaimed mountain climber, wants to become the first Bangladeshi woman to scale the mountain. And Sita Rai, a Nepali woman, hopes to perform sirsasan, a type of head-stand yoga, on the top.
The Everest of…
About 300 people have died climbing Everest, and some of their bodies are still frozen up there. In spring 1996, 15 climbers died near the summit, in the ‘death zone’, the bitterly cold, last 850 meters where the amount of oxygen is one-third the amount at sea level. Eight of them perished within 36 hours of each other, including two experienced guides and six of their clients. ‘The Everest mess’ is what mountain writer Dave Roberts called it.
Despite the obvious dangers, however, Mt Everest has become the focus of a whole host of weird and wonderful achievements. In February, Apa ‘Super’ Sherpa, at age 50, broke his own record by summitting for a remarkable 21st time. But that’s not the ultimate ‘Everest of Mount Everest records’, is it?
In 1996 an adventurous Swede bicycled all the way from his home country to the base camp, climbed the summit without oxygen, and then pedalled back home. In 2001, a blind climber reached the top by following the sound of a bell jangling from the backpack of a companion in front of him. (By 2008, he had climbed the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.) In 2006, after 40 days of climbing, the first double amputee reached the top. In 2008, the aptly named Senior Citizen Mt Everest Expedition put a 76-year old Nepali climber on top. Three years later, in 2011, a former Nepali foreign minister, age 82, died while trying to break his predecessor’s record. The same year, a pair paraglided off the summit and kayaked to the Bay of Bengal, going on to win the National Geographic Adventurers of the Year 2012 award. A year earlier, in 2010, a 13-year old American boy became the youngest person on the summit. This season, a 73-year old Japanese climber is attempting to break her own 2002 record as the oldest woman on the top. And on and on – feats of skill, courage and ingenuity on a peak rising five-and-a-half miles into the sky.
Typing ‘the Everest of’ into Google, the veritable ‘Everest of Internet search engines’, returns, in less than a half second, close to 300,000 links. There is an ‘Everest’ of everything imaginable, to mean the most daring, towering and absurdly fascinating. Here is a very small sampling:
‘The Everest of Cycles’ is a charity ride from London to County Roscommon in Ireland, covering 327 road miles and a ferry boat crossing. ‘The Everest of Cricket’ is India’s Sachin Tendulkar. In literature, ‘the Everest of Translation’ refers to a new version of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in which translator Adam Thorpe uses period language to make this 1856 masterpiece, according to The Guardian, ‘searingly radical again’. The honour of being ‘the Everest of Literature’ itself, however, goes to Homer, the ancient Greek who wrote the Illiad and the Odyssey, two Everest-class adventures.
In the ocean, ‘the Everest of the Deep’ is a nickname given to the luxury liner Andrea Doria, lying on the seabed of the Atlantic since 1956. The ultimate ‘Everest of the Sea’, on the other hand, is the Bass Strait expedition, where kayakers paddle the treacherous open water between Australia and Tasmania, a stretch of 186 miles in 10 days, bucking 20-knot winds and 2-meter swells.
The hallelujah summit
In mountaineering, the ‘Everest of Himalaya Judges’ is the title the Rock and Ice magazine has given to Kathmandu’s own Elizabeth Hawley, as ‘maybe the most important Himalayan climber of all time’. The founder and keeper of the comprehensive Himalayan Database, a digital record of all climbs and climbers in Nepal, Hawley is the expert on the Nepalese Himalaya. But rather than go climbing, for over 30 years she has kept detailed track of everyone else’s high Himalayan exploits. As the world’s documentary-historian on the Himalayas, Hawley judges the authenticity of each ascent, categorising some as ‘disputed’ or as out-and-out ‘false’. If a climber cannot convince her with appropriate photos or eye-witness accounts to prove the claim of ascent to the top, she will not credit the person with the summit in her Database.
In religion and philosophy, ‘the Everest of Ethics’ is what a scholar has called the Bible verse, Matthew 7:7-12, from the famous Sermon on the Mount. It begins,
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
Duly inspired by this verse, I went seeking and foundeth my choice for ‘the Everest of all Mount Everest Spoofs’. It is a very tall tale, a bold declaration by a fundamentalist Christian woman named Ana Mendez, who claimed that she and her three equally inspired companions climbed Everest during their 1997 ‘Summit for Peace’ expedition. And on top of that, they claimed to have annihilated ‘the great Satan’ in his abode on the summit.
Their story has been critically attacked by a rival group, which calls itself the ‘Let Us Reason Ministries’ (Yes, let’s do that). The final truth of the matter, however, came from Hawley through a brief statement entitled ‘The Hallelujah Summit’ in the 2007 book The Himalaya by the Numbers, which she co-wrote with Richard Salisbury. In that statement, Hawley makes it very clear that Mrs Mendez had no permit to climb the peak and that no one in her party went beyond the base camp. Anything else is Everest-sized bunkum.
Finally – though we have barely scratched the surface – to cap the whole, long, strange history of high Himalayan hype and happenstance, back in 1856 when the great mountain (previously called the ‘Peak XV’) was finally determined to be the world’s highest, the name ‘Everest’ was proposed for it, in honour of the recently retired Surveyor General of India, George Everest. It was hoped ‘that Mt Everest would become a household word among civilised nations.’ But the proud Sir George, whom the colonial historian John Keay once described as ‘the most cantankerous Englishman ever to have walked the Indian stage’, emphatically pointed out to one and all that the name is pronounced as ‘Eve-rest’, not ‘Ever-est!’ Was anybody listening?
Oh, well. Too late now, unless we scrap the name ‘Everest’ and adopt ‘Chomolungma‘, Tibetan for the ‘goddess mother of the world’, or ‘Sagarmatha‘, Nepali for the ‘forehead of the sky’.
Can you imagine a ‘Sagarmatha’ of hype?
~ Don Messerschmidt is an anthropologist who has spent many years in the Himalaya and has a passion for mountain research and writing.