It’s peek climbing season here in the Khumbu region and the focus is largely on Everest. Along with the hordes of trekkers, (and there are hundreds of us plying the route – a crowded walking highway – between Lukla and Base Camp) are also many of the ever-so-serious mountaineers. No flabby porches lapping over pack belly bands on these guys. Certainly no soft thighs causing shorts to do that weird bunching between the legs thing! More on that subject until later. OK maybe not, it’s just too gross to discuss in public. For now let’s just focus on the taunt lean bodies of the climbers. They are largely a breed apart and are fairly easily identify-able by the large packs they seem to carry and the easy confident way they slide along. Not too much panting from the climbers. They are a pretty fit bunch!
The Oxford dictionary defines conquest as the subjugation and assumption of control or a place or people by military force.
When people refer to successful summits of Everest as conquering the mountain, I find it odd. Alexander the Great was a conqueror. He set about overwhelming vast regions and subjecting the people of those areas to his governance. The Romans were effective conquerors as well. They too subjected numerous other nations to their rule and ideologies. Then there was the English conquest of vast expanses of this world. The creation of the Canada we know is but one example of their subjugation of a vast territory and many nations.
So why, pray tell, does the concept of conquering enter the realm of climbing a mountain?
We don’t know if Mallory managed to summit or not as he died either on the way up or down. Only Everest herself has the answer to that mystery. It is widely accepted that Hillary and Tensing were the first humans to successfully summit. They did this in 1953. Since then numerous men and women from nations around the world have paid significant sums of money to outfit their expeditions and to the Nepali government and given much of themselves to climb this highest of high mountains. Many have succeeded, more have not, some have died in their quest. Successful summits are often regarded as conquests.
I argue that Everest has been subjugated by no one. No one has control of this mountain. She creates her own weather patterns which can either enable a successful climb or spell disappointment or disaster. She produces avalanches which may or may not kill anyone in their path. She has a capricious nature, and she either permits or denies a summit. She ladles out death at a whim.
Those who climb her might consider thanking Everest for her grace should they be successful in reaching her summit, rather than boasting of their conquest. Perhaps the concept of conquest is more suitably applied to individual climbers conquering their human frailty in that they have perhaps subjugated the real possibility of their own death in search of that glorious moment on the highest place on earth.
Everest’s real name in the Sherpa language is Chomolungma. In their culture she is “Goddess Mother of the Universe.” There are many people who live here who would not be upset should Chomolungma be closed for climbing. Of course she’s too great a cash cow for the government to likely consider that option.
This mountain has taken many lives. Probably most of us can name one or two foreign climbers who died while trying to summit or during their return. How many of us can name any of the Sherpas who have died there while setting ladders and routes, portering masses of support gear, setting up camps, or otherwise helping their clients climb this mountain. An even more tricky question is – What compensation do injured or killed Nepali support staff and their families receive? I’ve listened to enough conversations about this to realize it is a double edged sword. There is glory in being a climbing guide and the pay is really good by Nepali standards. Being a high altitude porter is also well paid work. There are more people lining up to do these jobs than there are positions to be filled. What is the ethical, and moral responsibility of the international climbing community? If the international climbers are driving this economy, should a decision to no longer attempt to “conquer” Everest come from the foreign climbers themselves?
One thing I know for sure is that I don’t have the skill or stamina to consider climbing this or likely any other mountain in this part of the world. Being immersed in this Sherpa culture for the past few weeks has simply given me food for much thought. One gets lots of thinking time when trudging the trails for hours at a time. It’s been cathartic sharing these puzzlements with you. Thanks for reading.