95 years ago, Everest was just as deadly but much less crowdedhttps://indianexpress.com/article/world/95-years-ago-everest-was-just-as-deadly-but-much-less-crowded-5771721/

95 years ago, Everest was just as deadly but much less crowded

If you’ve ever faced the Himalayas, you know they can swallow you whole.

95 years ago, Everest was just as deadly but much less crowded
Capt. John Noel, a photographer and filmmaker who accompanied the Royal Geographical Society’s 1922 expedition up Mount Everest — the first documented attempt to summit the highest peak on earth, on the mountain in August, 1922. Using a telephoto lens, he captured George Finch and Capt. John Geoffrey Bruce’s progress in a short film, “Climbing Mt. Everest,” the first motion picture made at that high an altitude. (The New York Times)

Written by Somini Sengupta

The mountains are deceptively calm. Snow-covered, sometimes they blaze bright enough to blind. They appear indifferent to the tiny travelers on their backs — these European men in the waning years of the British Empire, seeking, as the stories of the time often read, to conquer Everest.

Conquer? Really? Who conquers whom? If you’ve ever faced the Himalayas, you know they can swallow you whole.

Some of the earliest pictures of the highest peak on Earth were taken on British expeditions in 1921, 1922 and 1924. They are among the first pictures of our species trying to scale it — and to document the feat for future generations.

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95 years ago, Everest was just as deadly but much less crowded
Information on the back of a photograph of Mount Everest on a partly cloudy day, from 28,000 feet above sea level in the spring of 1924. At the time, the image’s original caption said, this was “the highest point in the world at which photographs have ever been taken.” (Times Wide World Photos)

Look at those tiny creatures — that’s us! — walking in a row against the dazzling white wall of ice. See, they are hacking at the mountain to dig steps in which to place their feet. By 1922, a British expedition team got within hundreds of feet of the summit.

Read | Explained: What does it take to climb Mount Everest? What are the risks involved?

What these pictures don’t fully tell you is that the mountains are not calm at all. They growl when stones tumble. The wind whistles as you climb. The altitude drains your breath. They tell you how puny you are, how frail really, which is why you try to supplicate them, as the Buddhists who are from those mountains do, by stacking one stone on top of another in prayer.

95 years ago, Everest was just as deadly but much less crowded
Members of the Royal Geographical Society’s 1922 expedition up Mount Everest camped near the top of the peak. The crew made three attempts to reach the summit of Everest that spring. After the third try — during which an avalanche killed seven porters — the team gave up and returned to its Rongbuk Glacier camp. (The New York Times)

Everest, the peak, is named after a bureaucrat of the British Empire, a choice that itself foregrounds man over nature. The people of the Himalayas often refer to it as a goddess or a mother. In the pictures, they peek out from between the white men’s shoulders. In the captions, they are often unnamed, referred to as “sturdy native porters.” Their humanity had already apparently been conquered.

The pictures are a glimpse into our collective capacity for adventure and courage. But looking at them now, they are also a glimpse into our capacity for self-destruction, our ability to squander what we love.

95 years ago, Everest was just as deadly but much less crowded
Members of a 1922 expedition, shown camped at 22,500 feet on Mount Everest. Two of them climbed to just above 27,000 feet — using bottled oxygen — the highest any expedition had reached at that point. Their record was broken by Edward Norton in 1924. (The New York Times)

What we know now is that by the time of these expeditions — as industrialism was enthusiastically conquering nature — we were already beginning to alter the Himalayas forever. The powerful among us, in Europe and the United States mainly, enlarged our economies as fast as we could by burning as much fossil fuel as we could.

Read | Deaths on Mount Everest: ‘I saw my wife struggle for oxygen as her supply got over’

The greenhouse gases we injected into the atmosphere have already warmed the planet measurably. They continue to, at an accelerating rate. As a result, the ice is melting in the Himalayas. At the current pace, scientists forecast that at least a third of the ice in the Himalayas and the neighboring Hindu Kush range will thaw by the end of this century.

95 years ago, Everest was just as deadly but much less crowded
On a partly cloudy day, from 28,000 feet above sea level on Mount Everest in the spring of 1924. At the time, the image’s original caption said, this was “the highest point in the world at which photographs have ever been taken.” (Times Wide World Photos)

Why should that matter? These mountains are the water towers of Asia. When the ice is gone, the water is gone too, affecting more than a billion people who live downstream. Then there is nothing left to conquer. No ascent of man.

The mountain is indifferent, as nature almost always is to those of us who think we are somehow something other than just a part of nature.

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A group of hikers camped near the town of Shekar Dzong during a 1921 reconnaissance expedition of Mount Everest. At the time, Nepal was closed to foreigners, so any approach to Everest had to be made from the Tibetan side. (The New York Times)

Pictures are meant to be the repository of our collective memory. The Himalayas hold our memories too. As the ice thaws, it releases the bodies they swallowed long ago.