Darjeeling on top - Everest summiteers fly 'symbol' of hills

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By VIVEK CHHETRI in Darjeeling
  • Published 1.06.07

Darjeeling, June 1: Tenzing Norgay put Darjeeling on top of the world over half a century ago when he stuck an ice axe into Mount Everest with four flags fluttering from it — of India, Nepal, the UK and the UN.

This hill town placed another symbolic foot on the peak of Everest when an expedition taken by a Darjeeling-based tour operator flew the green flag of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) on the 29,035-foot summit.

In the mid-eighties, this is the flag that had catapulted a 100-year-old demand of the hill people for self-governance onto the national stage.

Loben Expeditions, the tour operator which claims to be the only travel agent in India authorised to conduct its own Everest expeditions, planted the flag atop Mount Everest on May 15, in the same month Tenzing and Edmund Hillary conquered Everest 54 years ago.

“We decided to take the flag as it represents the aspiration of the hill people. An aspiration to make Darjeeling a better place and also because most of the hill people can relate to the flag.

“We, however do not have any political statements to make but we only want the world to know Darjeeling and the strong bonds it shares with Everest,” said Loben Sherpa, who conducted the expedition that returned to Darjeeling today.

The expedition has no relation to the GNLF and the decision to take the flag to Everest was taken independently by the tour operator. The only link to politics will be established now that the expedition is over — the team will send photographs of the GNLF flag atop Everest to Subash Ghisingh, the party’s president, tomorrow.

Deepak Gurung, the president of GNLF’s Darjeeling branch committee, congratulated the travel agent: “The flag represents the people of Darjeeling.”

Pema Chhoti Sherpa, one of the three guides with Pasang Phutar Sherpa and Phurba Temba Sherpa, placed the flag on top of Everest. The team had two Canadian climbers, Serge Dessureault and Maurcie Beausejour.

“The team left the base camp on April 3-4 and reached the top on May 15 at 9.10 am (Chinese time),” said Loben.

The home of mountaineering legends like Tenzing and Nawang Gombu, the first man to summit twice, Darjeeling was the starting point of all expeditions before Nepal opened its doors to the outside world in the early fifties.

“The objective was to bring Darjeeling in the world’s focus,” Loben said.

Guides like Pemba Chhoti have reached the top on four occasions, but for the tour operator this was the debut Everest expedition.

There is some debate over whether this was the first time a political party’s flag has been sunk into Mount Everest.

First, political statements have been made before, though not with the flag of any single party. Micha Yaniv, an Israeli member of a joint Israeli-Palestinian expedition, had placed the flags of both sides in a gesture that was seen as an act of great courage.

His Palestinian fellow climber, Ali Bushnaq, had collapsed on the way to the top and was forced to wait at 23,000 feet. Bushnaq had broken into tears when he heard of Yaniv’s feat.

Second, a website entry speaks of an Everest Expedition, where a seven-member Nepali team was to start on April 18, with the objective of hoisting the flags of the eight political parties involved in the country’s democracy movement atop the summit. It is not clear, though, if they made it.

Flags have a special relationship with Everest. Sherpas and most Western climbers bring prayer flags to the Everest base camp. Before the climb, the flags are strung from rock altars during the puja in which climbers show respect to the mountain and seek the gods’ permission to trespass on their heights.

Then there are the oddball climbers. The Japanese Hiroyuki Okouchi flew a Harley-Davidson flag at the peak to commemorate the iconic bike’s 100th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the first conquest of Everest.