Despite human endeavour and courage, in a profound philosophical sense Everest remains unconquered
A small sign on the survey map of the Himalaya which says Peak XV has captured the imagination of mountaineers ever since the first expedition reached the mountain in 1921. The reason for the fascination is simple: Peak XV is no other than the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest. From 1921 to 1952, 13 expeditions attempted to climb the mountain but with no success. The 14th expedition put two men on top of the mountain on May 29, 1953. The names of the two climbers have become the stuff of legends, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. It was the fulfilment of a dream that began with the great attempts of the early Twenties to open up routes to the mountain and then to climb it. One of these, the 1924 expedition, has become part of the many mysteries and lore that surround Mount Everest. In the course of the expedition, E.F. Norton reached a height of 8,580 metres without oxygen and G.H. Leigh Mallory and A.C. Irvine were seen above 8,450 metres and were never seen again. Did they reach the summit' The mystery remains even after the discovery of Mallory’s body on the North Face. The Mallory-Irvine episode has deflected attention from the achievement of Norton. He, like Mallory and Irvine, climbed with primitive equipment and ordinary woollen clothes, but unlike his comrades, he climbed without oxygen. It is important not to overlook these and the achievements of other pioneering climbers in the inevitable celebrations during the silver jubilee of the first successful ascent.
Hillary and Tenzing approached the mountain from the southern side through the Western Cwm. This has now become the commonest route to the mountain because it is relatively easier than the other known ones like the North Face, the Kangshung Face, the West Ridge and so on. This is not to belittle the first successful climb, but to highlight the enormous hazards that mountaineers face on the Everest massif. Hillary and Tenzing — the classic combination of sahib and sherpa — broke the trail when Hillary climbed the last awkward pitch, known since then as the Hillary Step. Their methods of climbing, however, were time-tested. The expedition laid siege to the mountain and the climbers went tied together by ropes, setting up camps on the mountain face with the help of sherpas who ferried supplies. All climbers used artificial oxygen. This mode of meeting the challenge of Everest was completely overturned by the arrival of Reinhold Messner, who not only climbed without oxygen but also made the first solo ascent. Messner climbed light, Alpine style, and his mastery over icecraft was near perfect. He believed in giving the mountain a chance.
The great Everest adventure has not been without its downsides. The principal of these is pollution. The mountain is littered with corpses, oxygen cylinders and other kinds of debris. The South Col is perhaps among the most polluted places on the globe. It is time the mountain had a rest. This is unlikely to happen. Men and women will want to climb it because, in the memorable words of Mallory, “it is there’’. Despite human endeavour and courage, in a profound philosophical sense Everest remains unconquered.