In the land of the Sherpas – the buildup

The preparation

In the year 1852, at the survey headquarters in Dehradun, Radhanath Sikdar, a Bengali surveyor mathematician, made an interesting discovery. His calculations revealed that he had identified the highest mountain in the world. It was then referred to as peak XV, but the official announcement was not made until 1856 as the numbers were being repeatedly verified.

When it came to naming the mountain, the survey office normally preferred to keep local names as was done earlier in cases of KangchenJunga (which was considered to be the highest before peak XV was discovered), Dhaulagiri etc. However, in this case, Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, argued that he couldn’t find a local name that could be universally accepted. He proposed the name Mt Everest (named after Sir George Everest, Waugh’s predecessor as the Surveyor General). Findings revealed later that Waugh’s claims weren’t entirely true as there was a mellifluous name for the mountain prevalent among the Tibetans who inhabited its foothills in the north. They called it Chomolungma (holy mother). However, after a lot of debate, the name Everest stuck to the mountain and it still does.

Mt Everest from Everest view hotel, Namchebazar

In the race of being the highest (or rather, measured as highest), the baton passed from Dhaulagiri to Kangchenjunga (now known to be the 3rd highest) and finally, Everest.

Everest has attracted its share of admirers, enthusiasts, passionates (often bordering with madness) ever since it’s discovery as the highest mountain in the world. After that, it was only a matter of time for humans to think that it had to be climbed. The first organized expedition was conducted by the British in 1921. It was the first time, George Leigh Mallory (whose mysterious disappearance on the flanks of Everest, a few years later, would start debates in the mountaineering world) was in an expedition to the mountain. They climbed the North col up to 7005 m but were forced to descend. The British returned to the mountains in 1922, but were unsuccessful again. On their way down, Mallory and co. got caught in an avalanche but escaped. However, the same avalanche claimed the lives of seven Sherpa porters (possibly, the first recorded deaths on the flanks of Everest). The next expedition was in 1924, which became famous for the summit attempt of Mallory and Irvine. They were last seen to be climbing via the North col-North ridge-North-east ridge route in clear weather, apparently making good progress (as watched by their team member Odel, down below) only to be engulfed by a cloud surrounding the summit, never to be seen again. Years later, another research expedition discovered Mallory’s body at a site higher up on the mountain that triggered a debate in the mountaineering community about whether they were the first to summit the mountain rather than the first confirmed ascent in 1953.

No matter how well you plan or how lavish your resources are, as the mountaineers say even today, “It’s the mountain who holds the last card”. However, not every attempt at the mountain was as well organised as the Britishers’. In 1947, a Canadian named Earl Denman, who didn’t even have much experience in high altitude climbing, landed in Darjeeling (which is where all the expeditions in those days started from). His attempts to get a permit to enter Tibet were unsuccessful but he refused to back down. He hired a couple of Sherpas (one of whom was Tenzing Norgay) to embark on a long journey on foot, fraught with danger, all the way from Darjeeling to the foot of the north side of the mountain. They had every risk of getting captured en-route (and hence, jailed, as they were travelling without a permit), but kept moving. They reached upto a certain height (quite remarkable considering their resources and prior experience) but were forced to return. Fortunately for them, they were able to return to Darjeeling safely. Later, in an interview, Tenzing said that he knew that the plan was “foolhardy”, but even then, he couldn’t resist the invitation of Denman, mostly because of his own urge to climb the mountain!

There were two other unsuccessful expeditions in 1933 & 1936 and then the second world war put a stop to all that. Access to the mountain from the north was closed after Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950. Round about the same time, Nepal opened its doors to the foreigners and all the focus shifted to the southern flanks of the mountain. Back then, unlike today, every year, only one or two expedition permits were granted by the Nepalese government. In an exploratory expedition from Nepal, a British team reached the southern base of the mountain but were daunted by the Khumbu ice fall. The ice fall is a moving river of ice and snow fraught with numerous crevasses and towering seracs (monuments of ice that can riseI as high as 17-18 storeyed buildings). One had to cross the dangerous ice fall in order to gain access to the higher mountain and some concluded that it was impossible to cross it. In 1952, the Swiss beat the Britishers to bag the climbing permits. Tenzing Norgay, for the first time, was considered a full expedition member (not just a porter as in some earlier expeditions). He struck a lasting friendship with the Swiss. He and Raymond Lambert were able to climb till 8595 m (the highest by humans back then) but were forced to return due to bad weather. However, this expedition is considered extremely important in the history of Everest. This is the expedition (and the 1951 expedition by Eric Shipton, to some extent) that established a route through the Khumbu ice fall to the upper mountain which gets used even today by the climbers climbing the South col-South-east ridge route. Tenzing’s experience on the higher mountain in the 1952 made him a natural choice for the 1953 British expedition led by John Hunt, as a climbing sirdar (the Sherpa leader who leads all other Sherpas in an expedition). It was a race among the nations to install a man on top of the world. After theL failure of the Swiss, the British felt it was their last chance in 1953 before anyone beat them in the race. A huge number of porters and Sherpas were employed in the expedition to ferry loads & to establish a route up the mountain. Tenzing was employed as the climbing Sirdar because he was the sole person in the team who had reached the highest reaches of the mountain previously. The expedition also included members from commonwealth nations. One of them was a beekeeper from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary, who initially thought about refusing to join the expedition, but later joined it reluctantly.

Base camp tents with the Khumbu ice fall in the background.

The first party left for Everest on 10th March, with other batches following them. After the initial set of people reached the base camp, they established a route through the ice fall. Once this was done, different teams of Sherpas ferried tonnes of supplies to camp one. In the days that followed, repeated forays were done by the expedition members up and down the mountain. It was 17th of May already. The expedition members kept an eye on the weather forecast and it turned into a race against time. They had to complete all this business before the monsoons hit the Himalayas and that wasn’t very far. By this time, the expedition leader John Hunt set up two summit teams who would make successive attempts. The first of the two selected pairs, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans started on 26th May from the South Col (26000 feet) for the summit. They were able to reach the south summit (about 100 m below the actual one), but had to return due to exhaustion. Problems in their oxygen kits didn’t help their cause either. The ridge that lay after that, was considered extremely unsafe to climb as it was highly exposed to the gale of winds that dashes the summit ridge. A single wrong step on that narrow ridge can send one tumbling down the steep Kangshung face into death. On 27th May, the second pair comprising Hillary and Tenzing set out for the final attempt at the summit for this expedition. On their way, they came across a 40 feet high vertical rock face, which would later be known as the ‘Hillary Step’. They had to climb the face to reach it’s top. After that, it turned out to be a series of low bumps of snow and ice. They kept crossing them one after another till they reached a point where there were no slopes higher above and they could have glimpses far into the dry Tibetan plateau on the Northern horizon. It was 29th May, 1953.

After their successful ascent, Hillary returned to Kathmandu to know he had already been bestowed with the KBE of the British empire. Here too, amidst success, it was apparent that the color of skin probably had played a role as the same title wasn’t showered upon Tenzing. In the years that followed, immense speculation ensued around who, among the two, actually set the first foot on Everest’s summit. Different camps had their own opinions and they put forward reasons to support that. The immense pressure of media coverage led to a point where Tenzing almost repented the act of climbing the mountain, which the Sherpas regarded as Goddess mother of earth (this is supported by words of Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay). Finally, Hillary and Tenzing signed an agreement that said that no one would ever disclose who, among the two of them, actually was the first to set his foot on the summit.

Coming back from the pages of history, its not only mountaineers that Everest cast it’s spell upon, but also on mortal beings like me. So far, even after visiting so many places in the Himalayas, I haven’t seen “the mountain” with my own eyes. I haven’t even visited the country that is the home of about half of the 8000-ers (peaks above 8000 m) of the world, Nepal. The name “Everest” fascinates almost everyone in this world at some level. The countless romanticism, adventure, awe & mystery that surrounds the mountain, makes it a favorite destination for climbers, trekkers & normal tourists alike. “Because it is there” said George Leigh Mallory, when asked by someone that why was he obsessed about climbing Mt Everest. That explains why the swarm of climbers and trekkers that head for it every year, embarking on what can be called the international Himalayan highway – aka the Everest Base Camp trail.

Though Everest hogs the limelight and is the center of discussion in everything about this route, it would be unfair to say it is the only attraction. Truth be told, Mt Everest gets to be seen the least in this entire trail. The best view of it comes from Kalapathhar, only peeping from behind the ridges of other mountain peaks that are in front. But the beauty of this route is the trail itself & the varying surroundings it leads you through with flora and fauna that changes drastically with altitude. The splendid colors of Rhododendrons in the forests of lower reaches, the dancing waters of Dudhkoshi that has its origins in the glaciers in the upper reaches of the Everest region, the magnificent view of the mountain peaks of Ama Dablam, Thamserku, Lhotse, Nuptse, Kangtega, Kusum Kangru and countless others, the monasteries dotting the valley & the Sherpas.

Everest calling – the Doodhkosi river flowing through the gorges

Hence, the preparations started – both physical and mental and it was a long one. In a series of blog entries that will follow, I’ll try to tell the story of getting to the feet of the mountain, the glorious views along that trail, the thicks and thins of that journey. Stay tuned.

The preparation

3 thoughts on “In the land of the Sherpas – the buildup”

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