YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Mt. Everest Littered With Dreams and Debris

The world's tallest mountain is far more accessible than it was to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. That's both good and bad.

June 01, 2003|Laurinda Keys | Associated Press Writer

KATMANDU, Nepal — The hundreds of people who attempt to climb Mt. Everest every year know one important thing that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay didn't before 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953.

It's possible to climb the world's tallest peak and survive.

Fifty years after Hillary and Norgay became the first humans to stand on the world's highest peak, at a height of 29,035 feet, some 1,200 people have equaled their feat.

"People ask, 'What was all the fuss about?' " Hillary, 83, said to Indian mountaineers last month as he made his way to Katmandu for the golden jubilee celebration of the conquest of Everest. A blind man has climbed Everest. A Sherpa named Appa has made it up a record 13 times. A climber without hands is making the attempt this year.

So what was all the fuss about 50 years ago when Hillary and Norgay came down the mountain to find that they had become world heroes?

"The major thing that Tenzing and I did was showing that it was indeed possible to reach the summit of that great mountain and survive," Hillary said.

"This question was hanging over our heads. We didn't know whether we would reach the top and just collapse," Hillary said.

Neither man ever went back, but it was enough. "The only footsteps in the snow were our own," Hillary said.

The conquest of Everest altered the face of Nepal. Today, up to 50,000 trekkers hike into the mountains each year, part of an annual wave of half a million visitors. Tourism is the country's top foreign currency earner, bringing in $160 million a year and employing 200,000 people.

Still, 40% of Nepal's 23 million people live in poverty, according to the World Bank, while the royal family and upper class in the Hindu kingdom live in splendor.

That gulf incited a Maoist guerrilla rebellion that has killed more than 7,000 people since 1996, although no foreigners have been harmed. Peace talks are under way.

Many Nepalis -- particularly mountain folk -- want the government to spend the $70,000 it collects from each Everest expedition, and lesser amounts for other peaks, to build schools, bridges and medical clinics in rural areas.

Mountaineering changed the face of Nepal's mountains too.

"Commercial climbing has developed, with many inexperienced enthusiasts, dozens of aluminum ladders, thousands of meters of fixed rope," Hillary said. "It is hardly mountaineering; more like a conducted tour."

The paths hacked out of the ice by the first expeditions are now littered with oxygen bottles, tents, food cans and old ropes.

Lower on the mountain, villagers are cutting down forests to provide firewood for visitors' campfires and hot showers in inns that line the trails.

Some climbers pay to be flown part of the way up Everest by helicopter. Trekkers can reach the base camp without ever sleeping in a tent.

The camp is a field of gray rock and often grayish snow -- stained by pollution and muddy boots -- dotted with bright red, yellow, green and blue tents.

There are 22 expeditions trying to put some 100 people on the summit this year, but high winds delayed most attempts until May 21 and the climbing season ends when the monsoon rains arrive early this month.

There are the dangers of altitude sickness, dehydration, hypothermia, disorientation, falls, avalanches and getting lost in blizzards. At least 175 have died over the decades trying to reach the summit.

When Hillary reached the snow-blanketed summit in 1953, he recalled focusing on "the feeling of satisfaction." He had little understanding that he was about to become the most famous mountaineer of all.

But as the British-led expedition headed back down to Katmandu, Nepal's capital, he gradually became aware of his gathering fame as runners kept bringing up newspapers and messages from around the world reacting to the accomplishment.

Now there is an Internet cafe on the shifting ice floes at base camp. For a dollar an hour, mountaineers send messages on how their teams are doing and get news from home. The cafe runs on solar-powered chargers and a fuel generator. The parts were carried up on the backs of yaks and human porters.

The cafe was set up by Tsering Gyalzen, whose grandfather was one of the 100 Sherpas who carried supplies for the 1953 expedition.

Gyalzen is an example of the success that the Sherpa community has enjoyed. Many are prosperous owners of mountaineering companies and educate their children abroad, with the hope that the next generation will not have to climb the dangerous mountain to earn a living.

"The Sherpas are the unsung heroes of the mountain," said Norgay's son Jamling, who climbed Everest in 1996, a decade after his father's death.

The Sherpas risk their lives more than the adventurers who later write books, because they must repeatedly climb up and down, setting up camps and laying out the climbing route. They fix ropes and ladders. They carry oxygen bottles and food to camps at various levels while the mountaineers take time to acclimatize before moving on.

While most Sherpas climb because it's their job -- and in the old days, few tried to reach the summit themselves -- more are becoming aware that a little fame is good for business and that the summit is a lifetime experience in itself.

Ang Karma, 44, a Sherpa who reached the summit in 1986 without bottled oxygen, said it was like a college degree to boost his mountain-guiding business.

But there was another reason, he said.

"It's the highest mountain. Everybody wants to be on the summit and see what the world looks like from there."

Los Angeles Times Articles