#432 Climb Every Mountain

10 May 2013 Patrick Witton

#432 Climb Every Mountain

Firstly, let me say what an honour it is to be writing this Editorial. Rest assured there hasn’t been a coup at The Big Issue: Alan Attwood, who co-wrote the cover story (p14), deemed me worthy of the job not because I am an insightful and engaging writer – as I like to think – but because, of all the people in the office, I was the only one who had actually seen, in person, the focus of this edition: Mount Everest.

My family took a trip to Nepal in 2005, during which we trekked around Himalayan Ranges. We were not there to conquer the peaks; we had heard enough about the litter-strewn state of Everest Base Camp to put us off. Instead, we spent time exploring villages in the lower reaches. Even so, the effect of strolling around at altitudes of 4000m was debilitating enough: although moderately fit, we coastal dwellers were at times reduced to shuffling around like penguins with emphysema.

On clear days we could see Everest, yet I found there were less famous peaks around that were far more breathtaking (yes I’m talking about you, Mt Ama Dablam). The idea of actually climbing all 8848m of Everest didn’t even register. And why would it? British mountaineer George Mallory’s retort “because it’s there” doesn’t really cut it, as he died high on that mountain in June 1924 and his body was only found 75 years later. Those who do reach the top talk of a sense of fulfilment and contentment, which does sound appealing. But then you think of those 235 people who don’t talk anymore at all, due to death by cerebral oedema or loose footing or other mishaps.

Of that hapless group, almost a third have been Nepalese. For citizens of such a poor nation, cold hard cash for a cold hard trek can be worth the risk, even if some are not Sherpas in the traditional sense. (‘Sherpa’ has become synonymous with ‘porter’, although it is, in fact, the name of the Tibetan people living on the south side of the Himalayas.) Although many climbers respect the experience of their Nepalese guides, there are always stories of those who insist on continuing an ascent when conditions are less than favourable, due to the time and cost invested in an expedition. One incident occurred earlier this month when local guides allegedly asked climbers to wait while they fixed ropes, but were ignored. The climbers continued their ascent, knocking ice chunks down onto those below.

Such behaviour would surely sadden the late Edmund Hillary, whose ascent 60 years ago is celebrated as one of the greatest feats of endurance. The famous Kiwi’s respect for, and gratitude towards, the people of Nepal became a lifelong focus. The organisation Hillary founded, The Himalayan Trust, continues to support health, education and other projects. Likewise Brigitte Muir, the first Australian woman to climb Everest (whose feat is chronicled in this edition; see p17) has devoted much energy to women’s literacy programs in Nepal.

But back to Hillary: he only made it to the summit because his partner on the climb was an experienced local mountaineer, Tenzing Norgay. Such was their bond in the feat that the fact of who actually made it onto the summit first wasn’t revealed until years later, in Tenzing’s autobiography Tiger of the Snows. (Hillary was first, for what it’s worth.)

Although their climb was soon talked about across the globe, neither climber imagined Everest would become such an industry – since 1953, more than 3000 people have reached the peak. As Hillary said in 2003, “Both Tenzing and I thought once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt. We couldn’t have been more wrong.”