| Edmund Hillary with wife June in Kathmandu. (AFP)
Kathmandu, May 27: For four centuries or more, kings were coronated and held court there. This morning, though, the old palace courtyard at Hanumandhoka belonged to mountain legends from all over the world.
It was a bright, sunny morning under a blue sky — a far cry from the thin air, the icy winds, avalanches and crevasses that made Mount Everest the world’s best-known Death Zone.
They arrived in horse-drawn coaches, escorted by a military band playing a ceremonial tune, and greeted and followed by hundreds of schoolchildren and other mountain men and common people waving little flags to the glory of Mount Everest and its victors.
The curtain thus went up on Nepal’s weeklong celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest.
Sitting in the first coach with his wife was Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the two men of the first ascent. Pictures of the other man — Tenzing Norgay Sherpa — who died in 1986, adorned the banners that hung atop the pagodas in the courtyard.
Accompanying Hillary was the oldest surviving member of the historic 1953 expedition, 85-year-old Gyalzen Sherpa, who defied the Death Zone but failed to make it to the summit.
Tenzing’s son Jamling and grandson Tashi, both Everesters themselves, sat in another coach, along with Japanese Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb the world’s highest mountain.
In the third coach sat Reinhold Messner, the legend who dared the toughest and tallest of mountains with his assaults without oxygen at a time when even the most accomplished climbers considered it the height of mountain madness.
For two hours after a brief ceremony in the courtyard, where the heroes were felicitated, a procession meandered through the narrow alleys of Old Kathmandu.
As the Everesters greeted the people with folded hands, smiles and waving hands, confetti were showered on them from rooftops and balconies of the centuries-old houses that lined both sides of the passage.
Winding its way through Thamel, the hub of foreign mountaineers and tourists in Nepal, the procession hit the roads of the modern city and ended at a hotel near Narayanhitti Palace, the home of Nepal’s present-day monarchs.
For the mountain men, though, it was also a time of introspection. The unending crowds of climbers and mounting litter on the mountain have saddened many Everesters. And, who would be the saddest -– and angriest -– of them all but Messner who loved to climb in solitude better than most of his peers.
“I see no future for Everest if this isn’t stopped,” he said. He thought Nepal needed new rules to curb the unchecked chase for Everest fame and planned to talk to King Gyanendra about it when the monarch met the mountain heroes during the celebrations.
“I understand the country needs the money they make from the mountains -– see the Maoist problem it is facing because of poverty and inequality-- but they must first retain the lure of the mountains.”
The sadness in his tone suddenly changed to anger. “But it’s no use just chatting about this. You journalists must write more about this.” Sitting in the next coach, Jamling agreed.
Right now, though, neither the government here nor many climbers themselves seemed to be swayed by Messner’s fears and anxieties.
The 50th anniversary rush for the roll of Everest honour continues at a frantic pace. Yesterday evening at Hanumandhoka, the city administrators felicitated Pemba Dorjee, who was basking in the glory of his record of the fastest (12-and-a-half-hour) climb to the mountaintop from the base camp.
Little did he know that only a few hours earlier, Lakpa Gelu Sherpa broke his record and set a new one with an 11-hour climb.
But the day belonged to another fellow-climber from Nepal, Appa Tshering Sherpa, who yesterday climbed Everest for the 13th time.