George Mallory famously declared that he wanted to climb Mount Everest because it was there. There is something inexplicable about why mountains, especially the world’s highest one, beckons to some people. For most serious mountaineers, it is a challenge to their stamina, their skills and their snowcraft. Within that small group, there is an even smaller subset that wants to make the climbing of Everest even more difficult by using minimum equipment, by doing away with the help of artificial oxygen and by going solo on the mountain’s slopes and cwms. But within the mountaineering community, there is the pull in the other direction as well. Climbing the world’s highest mountain has become a tourist sport. People are willing to pay considerable sums of money to be put on top of the mountain. Such people want the route to the top to become more easy, not more tough. There is a pressure to make the process easier because for the landlocked state of Nepal, Mount Everest is a lucrative source for earning hard currency.
Thus it is not surprising to learn of the proposal that a ladder is to be installed at the Hillary Step, which is the last major hurdle for climbers to the top of Everest from the south side. It is 300 feet from the summit and is 40 feet of sheer rock. It was Edmund Hillary, as the name suggests, who, during the first ascent, demonstrated that this wall could actually be conquered. Just below 29,000 feet, it requires tremendous skill and athleticism to overcome this hurdle and then to proceed on the last bit on a razor’s edge to the highest point in the world. Climbing the Hillary Step takes time and effort, and every year, given the popularity of ascending Everest, there is a traffic jam on the spot as mountaineers queue up to wait their turn on the ropes and then go over the Step. The placing of a ladder, it is argued, will ease the crowding at the bottom of the Hillary Step as the ladder would make for quicker movement. It would also make the climb less hazardous. More people would climb, there would be less accidents and hence there would be greater earnings. The logic seems flawless.
The proposal and the logic behind it make a mockery of the spirit that drives high altitude mountaineering. The whole idea is to pit man against nature at its rawest. The dangers, the difficulties and the uncertainties are all part of the joys of mountaineering. Mallory, even though he lost his life on the higher slopes on the north side, had no access to ladders and so forth. He and his partner, Andrew Irvine, climbed on the basis of their skills and strength of mind. So did Reinhold Messner when he climbed solo without oxygen. Hillary had to work out with the help of Tenzing Norgay how best to overcome the 40-feet wall that stood before them. They had no artificial aids. Leave the mountain alone and those that can still climb Everest, will climb the mountain.