On May 21,Arunima Sinha became the first woman amputee to scale Mount Everest. Earlier that day,a team of Indian school students,all between 16 and 17 years,posed for pictures on the top. A few days later,80-year-old Yuichiro Miura would climb the 29,000 ft peak,becoming the oldest man to get to the top. This years climbing season the sixtieth after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set foot on the peak for the first time saw 1,040 climbers start uphill from the base camp. A record 697 people reached the highest point on earth (8,848 m).
While the forbidding peak remains a test of endurance and the ultimate prize for mountaineers,it has become far more accessible. The success rate of climbers has more than tripled since 1990 when you had less than 20 per cent chance to summit (it is 67 per cent now) and a higher chance of dying in the attempt. Fixed ropes laid out by Sherpas,access to better,lighter equipment,accurate forecasts and more guides have all contributed. Just a few days ago,a proposal was made to place a ladder up Hillary Step,a rocky outcrop a few hundred metres below the summit,which is the last technical challenge before the summit.
In the past decade,a blind man,a diabetic,and a 13-year-old (a record likely to stand after Nepal and China increased the minimum permissible age to 16 following reports that a nine-year-old would attempt the peak) have all become Everesters. In May 1953,Hillary and Norgay conquered the peak; the numbers clambering up its slopes like ants seem to suggest that it is close to being tamed.
You dont have to be a climber any more to climb a mountain, snorted Italian Reinhold Messner,who was the first to climb the peak without supplemental oxygen in 1978. You pay and someone prepares the mountain for your climb, he was quoted as saying a couple of weeks ago. But while Messners views may seem extreme,they find some resonance with pioneering climbers.
Major (retd) HPS Ahluwalia seems conflicted. The first Indian to climb Everest in 1965 at the age of 26,he is full of praise for Arunima Sinha. Her fighting spirit is incredible, he says. Yet,he is not sure if the Everest is still a formidable adversary. A part of me wonders whether the challenge of Everest remains. In 1965,the route was still uncharted. Only four expeditions had gone before us. So,we had to do everything from scratch. Now you have 20 expeditions and a hundred people climbing with you, he says. While the Sherpas now chart the route and set the ropes from the base camp past the treacherous Khumbu ice-fall,Ahluwalias team had it tougher. We took turns opening out the routes. When we had to cross a crevasse,we used wooden logs! In bad weather,we had a little flashlight to help us see two feet ahead, he says.
In such conditions,anything close to present-day triumphs was impossible. The successful 1965 attempt was Indias third on the peak. Captain (retd) MS Kohli,team leader on the victorious ascent,recalls how,during Indias second attempt in 1962,he and two others were caught in a blizzard while resting in a tent a few hundred metres from the summit. We said our prayers because we were sure we would die. We were without oxygen. If I recall correctly,the newspapers even reported our death, Kohli says.
The reason Kohlis 1962 expedition ran into failure a lack of accurate weather forecasts would continue to dog mountaineers until the late 1990s. Magan Bissa made three unsuccessful attempts in 1984,when Bachendri Pal climbed the summit,becoming the first Indian woman to do so,and again in 1985 and 1992. The strategy then was to get as many teams as possible close to the summit and then go on the final march,when the weather was favourable. From then on,it depended on your luck.
Many perished in their attempt to claim the peak while others barely survived. Bissa couldnt make the final push to the summit in 1984,opting instead to stop 200m from the summit to rescue climber Sonam Paljor,who had scaled the peak but ran out of oxygen on the way down. I should have gone to the top with Pal. But because my wireless set wasnt working,Sonam Paljor went up instead of me. He knew that it was my chance but the desire to be on top was so great that he didnt tell me. While Pal managed to return safely,Paljor consumed his oxygen too quickly and was in a bad shape. I went to his rescue and till 28,000 feet I shared my oxygen with him. I felt good that I saved his life,but at the same time I was angry because I felt he had cost me a chance to reach the top, Bissa says. In the same expedition,Bissa would become legendary in Indian mountaineering with another rescue,bridging a crevasse with his body to allow the evacuation of another injured climber. Bissas subsequent attempts would also end in tragedy. Five members of the 1985 army expedition perished while the 1992 expedition was called off after the death of two members.
Everest continues to claim lives but
not nearly as before. In 1990,before the start of commercial guides,the death rate (percentage of casualties to successful ascent) on the Everest was 37 per cent. As guided expeditions became the norm,and an increasing number of inexperienced climbers began to aim for the peak,the death rate could have soared. Instead it steadily fell,dropping to 5.56 per cent through the 1990s to 1.5 per cent in the 2000s and just 1.3 per cent this season.
The reasons mostly relate to the commercialisation of the climb. There are almost no new routes attempted on Everest,with the overwhelming majority following either the southeast or northeast ridge. The two paths have been used for nearly 60 years,with dangers identified and avoided. Different agencies share the workload of charting out routes and fixing ropes higher up. The fixed ropes have now been reinforced with bolts hammered into the mountain face,making the lines far more stable. Climbing gear has improved. Captain Kohlis heavy wool-and-poplin outerwear has been replaced with full down suits that do a much better job of protecting climbers from the minus 20 degree winds. Oxygen cylinders are now made of titanium rather than steel,about 10 kg lighter. The unreliable wireless system which cost Bissa a place on the peak have been replaced by satellite phones. NatGeo climber Emily Harrington even Instagrammed a self-portrait on the summit.
Weather is less of a surprise. Forecasters have access to weather satellites and multiple models of weather patterns which allow climbers to know when the best time for an ascent is. The downside is that with a thousand climbers at base camp all looking for the perfect window,climbers often walk bumper-to-bumper to the top.
Ahluwalia scoffs at the notion that climbers today are better trained than in the past. Its now event management, he says. The advent of commercial teams has provided climbers with the expertise of highly trained Sherpas. Says Loveraj Dharamshaktu,a five-time Everester who was the team leader for an agency that arranged a climb to Everest this year,The credit for most of the success and the safety of the climbers goes to the Sherpas. They help you swap your bottles and sometimes even carry your oxygen cylinder for you.
Climbers are limited by cost more than ability. A climbing permit for Everest costs a minimum of $10,000 and expenses for food,kit and support,add up to around $35,000-40,000 dollars for the 50-day attempt. More Sherpa support can be bought,as can creature comforts. One agency,Peak Freaks,lures clients with the promise of a sushi chef at base camp. Himex provides,for around $60,000,stereos and flat-screen TVs
with DVDs. Surrounded by rock and ice at 17,598 feet above sea level,you can sip a glass of wine at an open bar or hit one of the espresso machines.
While commerce may have made the mountain safer,it often means that those without the skills expect to be ushered up. Bhagyashree Sawant,21,from Mumbai had no mountaineering experience before she attempted to climb Everest in 2010. Her Sherpa had to teach her the basics of rappelling on the nearby Island Peak (6,200m). Would you call someone who doesnt know how to tie his football boots a footballer? says Loveraj. In the past,it was the natural geography and topography of the mountain that took a toll. But several deaths in recent years have come as a result of exhaustion,frostbite as a result of climbing too slowly,ignoring serious altitude sickness,and refusing to turn around all basic human error.
The mountain also runs the risk of becoming a tourist trap. Large crowds and the difficulty of removing waste has left parts of the peak horribly polluted,with reports of human excrement,torn tents and used cylinders lying around. While a few agencies have policies that encourage bringing down waste from the mountain,agencies which offer bargain rates do not. (In contrast) after the 1965 expedition,the Everest was sealed off for four years because there was a desire to keep the mountain pristine, says Kohli. Its unlikely things will or can change anytime soon. The expeditions are vital to the local economy; reports suggest agencies spend nearly $12 million each season,while the Nepal government earns nearly $3 million in permit fees.
But Everest continues to draw hardened mountaineers. After three failed attempts,Magan Bissa attempted the summit in 2009 as a part of an 11-member squad. He was 58. There was a sea of tents at the base camp,it was a mela, he recalls. I almost cried when I strapped on the oxygen cylinders. They were so light. If I had these in 1984,I would have run all the way to the top of the mountain, he says,laughing. But his journey was jinxed. A freak avalanche,while missing the group,sent a small stone smashing into Bissas abdomen. He developed an internal clot which led to gangrene in his intestines. He was choppered another recent safety feature from the mountain to a hospital in Kathmandu where doctors removed most of his intestine. The 10 members of his team reached the summit. In spite of his injuries,Bissa isnt ruling out another shot at Everest. Ive been so close,so many times. How can I? he says.
Ahluwalia says he understands the emotion. Anyone who has been to the Everest cannot come away unmoved. It is a mighty mountain. Five thousand people may have climbed it but even if 10,000 reach the summit,its majesty will not dim, he says.
The first thing that Raghav Joneja did when he climbed Mount Everest,was to stop his watch at 8 am,the time when he and five other students from Sanawar School,Kasauli,climbed the worlds highest peak. Becoming the youngest Indian to climb the peak at an age of 15 years and eight months last month,Joneja surpassed Arjun Vajpai,who was 16 years and 11 months old when he climbed Everest in May,2011.
Initially,I thought I could not be a part of the expedition as the Nepal tourism ministry does not allow climbers below 16 years to climb Mt Everest. But then our leader Neeraj Rana,former principal of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute,Darjeeling,took special permission for me. As I was a part of the school team,I did not think much about the age factor, says Joneja,whose father Ajay runs a lighting business in Moradabad.
Joneja and his team were among the 12 students shortlisted for the expedition. The team underwent training in Leh,where they trekked to Khardung La,the highest pass in the world. They also took part in a 1,000 km cycling trip in Rajasthan,besides scaling BC Roy and Frey peaks,in their run-up to the base camp. From playing chess to meeting legendary climbers,Joneja says the training covered both their physical and mental conditioning. The Class X student,who is yet to go back to school,says the experience has given him a tremendous high. Before we met Colonel Rana,we had no idea about mountaineering. Now,Id like others to know about it too, he says.
Sisters on the summit
On May 19,21-year-old sisters Nungshi and Tashi Malik became the first twins in the world to scale Mt Everest. Daughters of Col (Retired) Virender Singh Malik,who live in Dehradun,they were encouraged in mountaineering by their father. In 2011,they scaled Mt Kiliminjaro in Africa but it took them time to convince their mother Anju Thapa Malik about their plans to climb Mt Everest. We used to do small treks around Mussoorie and mom would always accompany us. But about Everest,she was a little apprehensive, says Tashi.
The twins undertook the climb through a private firm and their group also included Saima Baig,the first Pakistani woman mountaineer to climb Mt Everest. She is like a sister to us. It was our idea to hoist the Indian and Pakistan flag together at the summit, says Tashi.
I let out a scream
An account of the ultimate adventure
7.45 PM,May 19,2011
Everest South Column
I am struggling to put on a bulky down suit in a packed tent with five people crammed in like sardines. The detritus of living in the death zone (the 8,000 m altitude above which no life can exist) is scattered all around the tent. I lace up my double-layer boots and then zip them up. Two small bottles of water are tucked into pockets inside the suit to avoid freezing and a handful of sweets go into other pockets with spare batteries for the head torch,spare mittens and spare goggles. Everest isnt very forgiving if equipment fails.
I step out of the tent to meet Padawa,my Sherpa guide who has climbed Mt Everest 14 times. I am in safe hands. After a cursory exchange and a check of the oxygen tank,we head towards the long line of bobbing head torches. It is to become a familiar scene as the night engulfs us.
Summit night is a solitary affair. Despite the queue of aspirants,who have started even earlier to beat the rush,we are cocooned in our own little worlds of single head-torch beams and the roar of our breath through the oxygen mask.
As we reach the base of the climb,we clip ourselves to the fixed rope,our lifeline for the next 18 hours. My heart is racing. This is not the time for mistakes. Each footstep,each changeover at fixed points on the rope requires focus.
The queue is moving interminably slowly,if at all. We stop way too often for those ahead of us to draw breath or adjust their kit. Padawa communicates with urgent gestures that he wants me to unclip from the rope and overtake the slower climbers. Im unwilling to let go of the lifeline and stress my over-taxed body just to get in front.
We reach the Balcony at last (a flat piece of snowy ground overlooking the barren wasteland of the South Column at 8,400 m),change over oxygen tanks,turn abruptly left,and start the real climb.
In the three weeks since arriving,there have been many rotations between the base camp and Camps 1,2 and 3 to acclimatise us. Each time we move higher,I will my body to respond favourably. At the base camp,days are spent reading and playing cards,waiting for weather windows and trying to avoid the vast array of illnesses to which an altitude-racked body can succumb. The mountain is a constant,overshadowing presence,both physically and at the back of the mind. We have done up and down trips through the Khumbu Icefall with its startling natural beauty and the rickety ladder crossings over yawning crevasses,trudged to Camp 2 under the beating sun,hauled up the near vertical kilometre of blue ice on the Lhotse Face,to make it to Camp 3,vertiginously placed half-way up its length.
The sun is rising. I look to my right and for the first time I have a shocking appreciation of how steep the route is. At 8,750 m,a small table-sized dome of ice and snow marks the South Summit. From there the route follows the knife-edge southeast ridge. A misstep to the left on this Cornice Traverse would send one 2,400 m down the southwest face,while to the immediate right is the 3,050 metre Kangshung face. I shudder involuntarily and push on.
The ridge gets narrower until I find myself alone on one side,negotiating a rocky outcrop that requires stepping down between two boulders,wedging through and then climbing out on the other side. I am totally unprepared for the feel of rock under the crampons after hours on snow and ice and I feel my feet skittering out from underneath me. I let out a silent scream as my feet scramble to get purchase back on the rock. But I make it.
At the end of the traverse is an imposing 12 m rock wall called the Hillary Step (8,760 m). Amongst the tangle of old ropes littering the rocky step I nearly stand on the live rope as I try to avoid the crush of people jostling to get over the obstacle.
Finally,the summit comes into view. The woman on the rope in front of me stops dead in her tracks,overcome by the moment. I curse under my breath and will her to keep moving towards the summit. I finally unclip from the rope to get past her. I find out later she is the oldest Indian woman to summit Everest and feel ashamed that Ive not had more patience for a fellow countrywoman.
8.30am,May 20 2011
The summit is a mound the size of a small bathroom with around 20 people crammed onto it in various stages of laughter and tears. I sit for the briefest time before being hassled to begin the descent by Padawa who is conscious of the need to preserve oxygen supplies. I spend a few moments hugging my tentmate Jen and expedition leader Tim,who both arrived 30 minutes before. The three of us move off together for the long descent.
People ask me why I wanted to climb the mountain. I imagine I would need to go back to a childhood spent in the Australian outdoors,an early fascination with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgays ascent and an overdeveloped sense of adventure.
I am not surprised at the increasing number of Indians taking up the challenge. Tenzing Norgays legacy is very much in evidence in the mountaineering schools in Darjeeling and elsewhere in this country,and the Himalayas have always been at the heart of the Indian spiritual psyche.
Susan Hunt runs a tourism,sports and destination marketing consultancy,and lives in New Delhi