Author’s Note: This lament was written with a despairing pen in a mood of resignation in 2019, for my friends who practice, what the world has always known as mountaineering.
I am fully cognizant of the economic factors and how vital summit tourists are for the Sherpa/Porter community in general and Nepal in articular.
Nevertheless, my ‘raison d’ ecris’, is to show respect to those who really deserve it, and, with no offense premeditated, to elucidate ‘when a summit has been fought for, and when it has been paid for.’ (Corey Buhay, in Climbing June 2021)
Herzog, Maurice Andre Raymond – French mountaineer to first summit Annapurna in 1950; the first of the fourteen eight-thousanders to be summited.
Hillary, Edmund Percival – New Zealand mountaineer to first summit Everest in 1953.
Haridas, Pal – in Calcutta’s colloquial parlance, “to call someone by this name was simply a reference to grandeur. It later came to imply someone suffering from delusions of grandeur. And then, through generations of use, or abuse, the pejorative slant stuck.” (The Telegraph). Hereunder it is used as a generic name for eight-thousander summit tourists.
It is again the season for hackneyed clichés in prose and sound-bites, as yet another Himalayan climbing season gets underway in this part of the world.
Morbidity and mortality statistics do not show any discernible signs of improving, as lives and limbs continue to be lost, sacrificed at the altar of what is described as summit fever, but in reality, is nothing better than summit tourism. Mainstream media avoids asking relevant questions and resorts to sensationalism, aiding and abetting this annual tragedy.
The spring 2019 season is barely a month old, and we have already lost eight Indians, four on Everest and two each on Makalu and Kanchenjunga, and two more have suffered cold injuries. The season is yet far from over, and the death count in the Nepal Himalayas is already twenty-one.
West Bengal, India, is reputed for its festivals. In fact, an oft-repeated adage speaks of thirteen festivals in twelve calendar months. Over the last decade or so a new festival has been added – GoreTex 8K Himal, celebrated/lamented each spring. The venerated deities of this festival are the 8K peaks in the Nepal Himalayas. The devotees, nearly all barring a few, could be termed climbers but are in reality guided-summit-tourists.
The presiding head-priest is the Dept. of Tourism, Govt. of Nepal, who like heads everywhere, works from air-conditioned offices at a comfortable 21 degrees, composing the relevant mantras (read rules/regulations/stipulations), revised annually and characterized by their impracticability at minus twenty-one degrees and mostly honoured in their transgression.
The devotees throng the altar, literally in hundreds, not because they have been an apprentice under a mentoring guru learning suitable prayers and having performed the required penances (read learned the art, craft, and philosophy of mountaineering) to qualify their presence, but because they are customers with very deep pockets.
Free market economy and disposable incomes are the prerequisites for successful international marketing, and this festival has been marketed so effectively that even novices are now seen in hundreds being ushered up and down a slope, clipped to a rope, like so many GoreTex sheep. These ushers are the Sherpas, the ‘gate-keepers to some of the highest pieces of real-estate in the world’ (George Rodway), and altar-boys to these deities.
These altar-boys belong to (read employed by) different parishes (read agencies), who in turn are registered with the Head Priest. They all take a piece of the cake, the Head getting the biggest and the altar-boys the smallest for doing the most and potentially most fatal.
This is predominantly a Spring Fest, and if spring comes, as it does each year, can business be far behind? As the snows melt, and the paths become navigable, long trains of Sherpas, porters and pack-animals head up, to prepare the stage for the ceremony. Once everything is ready, the boarding and lodging in place, the route opened and fixed, the devotees are ushered in.
Who are these devotees without whom the ceremony would be a non- starter? Barring a very few the rest have come to earn either bragging rights or financial/material benefits or both. The devotees from my part of the world fancy themselves as mountaineers, a term earned by doing a few courses at an Institute and then having been on a few 6K guided expeditions. Some have been on quite a few, which makes their presence here an anachronism, for they at least should have learnt and known better.
Imagine a devotee who stops to take multiple photographs of a familiar fellow climber in dire straits, but does not even say hello let alone offer help! On reaching sea-level they revel in the glamour they have attained as an Everester. Imagine another devotee who has lost most of his fingers to frost-bite because he forgot to put on his mittens. Imagine a senior devotee, who is now considered by the local media to be an expert on such matters, planning to lead an expedition (much publicized but aborted at base camp) over a route that is out of bounds and illegal. He even talks about asking his team to practice 'jumarring'; the obvious inference being that the Sherpas would rope the route and the devotees will only need to clip-on and jumar up and down.
Imagine another whose Wiki page eulogizes her as one who has climbed Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Elbrus and Kosciuszko without oxygen. Little does she realize that it would have been a record if she did them with oxygen. Imagine another who reportedly fights with his Sherpa and forces him to go down to base-camp to fetch his cigarettes. Imagine yet another on her crowd-funded second 8K, having to be heli-rescued after bragging that she could even do it without oxygen. And there is another Indian lady Everesteer who failed to recognize the iconic Nanda Devi and thought it was Everest.
You find hundreds of such devotees on the slopes during the season. Untrained and unqualified, they are not only a threat to themselves, but to others on the rope, and more importantly to their usher Sherpas. One can recall, a few years ago, a lady climber on her second 8K, who, after having done the main peak, over-ambitiously went for the west peak and disappeared with two young Sherpas; two bread- winners for their families, falling prey to the lure of dollars. Even this season a Sherpa perished trying to recover the body of a dead climber; a gruesome example, so to speak, of adding insult to injury.
To these devotees, alpinism—mountaineering as the world has always known—freedom of the hills—purity of the line and climb—are alien concepts. They don’t understand that self-reliance is a paramount prerequisite for adventure. They have paid a tidy sum of about thirty lakh Indian rupees, and expect commensurate service. Their tents are pitched and ready, warm food cooked and served on time, water and hot drinks readied in flasks and most importantly the route is opened and fixed.
And when the Sherpas decide that the time is auspicious for the final ceremony, they get the devotees ready and usher them up and down again.
If lucky, they make the top, they get a photograph to prove it, and the Sherpa endorses the claim and finally the Head Priest issues a certificate.
Hallelujah! Now they have got what they had come for in the first place. Mr / Ms X (hereunder pin-flagged as Haridas Pal) is added to the list that started with Herzog and Hillary!
Most of them maybe aware of Herzog and Hillary, but only as dim figures in the annals of climbing history. Their ethos and philosophy have eluded these ‘climbers’ completely. Most main-stream media, English and vernacular, contribute to perpetuating this tinsel narrative, thus helping to market a product/service which is a sham; a shiny but fake duplicate of the original.
A few years ago, a leading English daily reported, “Lost Everest Climbers Safe...are on their way down, escorted by Sherpas”. The next day the same daily reported, “Everest takes its toll...one presumed safe is dead...another in Kathmandu hospital...two missing”. This is a textbook example of un-corroborated reporting without a single word of apology for raising and dashing the hopes of families waiting for news.
One local media relocated India’s highest peak Kangchenjunga in Nepal. Another reported the first Indian climb of Mt Moebius in the Rwenzori, and captioned the summit photo as Mt Kilimanjaro. Yet another, which the Royal Geographic Society may have missed, reduced the number of 8K peaks from fourteen to a less challenging nine.
If the climbers do not need to qualify to be on Everest, why should the journalist reporting it have to be qualified? Thus, this vicious cycle feeds on itself.
Reports annually follow the same pattern. Before they actually leave town it’s about the conquering hero leaving for another conquest, and how difficult it is to raise funds and how he humbly acknowledges his well wishers. The word conquer is used consciously every time, in ignorance or deliberately, though it has long become obsolete with the death of colonialism, and no self-respecting climber ever uses it now. The hero part is important to varnish the climber’s achievements and to give him star status. You cannot ask a star details of his route, like how he plans to tackle that infamous chimney, the crux, between camps 3 and 4. He is probably unaware of its existence and couldn’t be bothered about it, for a Pasang or a Dawa has been paid to rope it.
The reporting then moves to the actual ascent, summit and descent to everlasting glory. Our hero struggles valiantly through snows and ice, yawning and hidden crevasses, fierce winds and blinding storms, insurmountable slopes, sub-zero temperatures and unquenchable thirst followed by the conquest of the summit, then the more painful descent to a hero’s welcome when he/she reaches home. The media, scrupulously avoids asking technical details of the climb or the terrain, but projects the devotee as an icon to be taken seriously and more importantly to be emulated.
What, at best, should have been minor news on an inside page becomes a banner headline. And if one or more fail to get back, as is increasingly happening now, the media has a field day. A panel of experts, former 8K tourist summiteers, is constituted to give their learned opinions and verdict on the tragedy that has befallen the latest tourists.
Recently, the region’s largest English daily had a huge biographical article about one such devotee. She had to return from Everest short of the summit because she ran out of oxygen, and apparently did not have the funds to buy more so she had to be heli-rescued. Before leaving, she had claimed that she could do it without oxygen! Besides, I wonder what would be cheaper, a couple of cylinders or the chopper flight? In the same article, the journalist tells us how this lady, a few years ago, had to abandon her summit bid on Kamet because she ran out of food, had poor gear and tents, and recycled oxygen cylinders. The journalist was obviously not even aware that if oxygen were ever used on Kamet it would only be for a medical emergency and not to aid the climb.
This media-generated false narrative becomes the best advertisement for agencies as it generates more devotees. I therefore wonder, do some journalists also get a slice of the cake for this service?
The next chapter, of this adventure involves the common man, other climbers and the local administration/government.
As soon as our star Haridas Pal has confirmed his return flight from Kathmandu, arrangements are put in place for a grand reception starting at the airport. News of it is viral on social media. What follows, and justly so if you believe media reports, are celebrations and receptions akin to that of a famous soldier returning home after winning a famous battle against overwhelming odds. Let’s not grudge him his moments of glory; thirty lakhs is a huge investment after all and must have an assured return on investment.
But it is the official (read government/administrative) recognition that actually legitimizes, and, perpetuates the myth of this star mountaineer. It seems to be in accordance to a well laid out plan; deity, devotee, head priest, usher, altar boys, media and officials, all links of the same chain.
A socialist democratic welfare state is expected to promote and encourage sports and allied activities. Thankfully West Bengal's government actually does so. The Minister and his administrative offices are not expected to be experts on mountaineering and allied sports, but an official advisory body has been constituted to advise them. As part of its promotional activities, the Ministry presents, annual cash awards and medals for excellence in mountaineering. They also provide monetary help to clubs going on expeditions and to those individuals who go for 8K peaks.
Since the Minister and his offices do not know Club A from Club B, they rely on the advisory committee to vet applicants and choose the most deserving. So, it serves the Clubs’ purposes to be in the good books of this committee. Besides why only those aspiring for 8K be given a sum of Rupees five lakh and that too after they return is a question that has never been asked or answered. It is obvious that the advisory committee advises the minister that the height of a peak is the only deciding factor.
In this manner guided 8K summit tourism gets priority and official validation. Authentic climbers and their impressive unguided achievements remain unaided and unrecognized by this committee, though some of these climbs are acclaimed, and awarded by the international community, because the real climbing world knows, how and what you climb is more important than how high you climb. A realistic recalibration of the selection criteria of these beneficiaries is needed, if the sport has to progress in the right and safe direction.
One would ask–why should the common man / real adventurer / mountaineer be bothered about this? A few reasons come to mind:
We cannot allow the perpetuation of a false narrative when we are all aware of the true one.
This falsehood though good for business, leads to unacceptably high mortality and morbidity.
It creates fake icons and role models who must not be emulated.
Increased mortality will increase insurance premium rates, and the true mountaineer will suffer.
Just as all Sherpas are Sherpas but not necessarily Guides, so too, all self/media/DoT Nepal certified ‘mountaineers’ are not necessarily mountaineers.
It is high time that all stake-holders introspect, collectively conduct a reconnaissance and only then fix the route forward; a route which promotes safe climbing and also ensures that the sport progresses along the path epitomized by its true practitioners down the ages to the present times. One eagerly waits for honest and safer times in the not-too-distant future.
This is a scathing, often times, tongue-in-cheek look at climbing trends, peak bagging and the collusion of agencies, media and the State in aiding the rich to reach the top of 8000ers, Everest in particular. Rupak calls their bluff, without blunting his pitch and although The Himalayan Journal is a mild-mannered middle-aged lady, she gets to say, in her disclaimer that the thoughts expressed in this article are exactly the opinion of THJ and the editor takes full responsibility for its content.
Although a trained mountaineer, Rupak Bhattacharya likes to describe himself as a non-mountaineer mountaineering fan and is professionally a doctor. He loves to read and tries to stay abreast of mountaineering activities in the Himalaya and Karakoram.