Let me introduce you to some really really tough sisters….
Everest at night, as seen from the Nepalese town of Namche Bazaar from which every assault on the south side begins (Photo source: Wikimedia)
As a kid, my eldest bro (the Heinrich Himmler-meets-Pol Pot chap I used to look up to, when we were small) once went along with our father, to a joint in Nepal called Pokhara in the foothills of the Himalayas. From there, as the crow flies, the 26,550 foot Annapurna-I is at a distance of 20 kms.
One morning they went up on the roof of their hotel just before sunrise and sat staring north. It was going to be a brilliantly clear day but at that moment the mountains, from their foothills upwards, were shrouded by thick mist and it seemed as if the Himalayas did not even exist.
The hotel manager had said to hang on and they would be rewarded with the sight of their lives. And they were. As they waited, the mist at the foothills began to rise. And rise and rise, till my brother was looking directly up into the heavens and the mist had still not cleared the peak. The white of the peaks glowed bright orange and glinted in the early morning sun while the top one fifth of the Annapurna remained shrouded. The sheer magnificence of the sight was something that has remained with him.
The Annapurna-I is one of the ‘14 Sisters’, the world’s tallest 14 peaks located in the Karakorram and Tibetan Himalayas, that are the only peaks higher than 8000 meters, an altitude above which lies the “death zone”, where the air contains just 18-20% of the oxygen it has at sea level and chances of survival even in full gear, beyond 18-24 hours, are nearly zero.
Annapurna-I, centre-right, as seen from the south. Of the 167 successful summit attempts, she has held back in her folds, 63 unfortunates (Photo source: Wikimedia)
Even from our rooftop at home early in the morning when the air was crisp and clear, in the northern Indian town of Gorakhpur where we congregated every summer, we could clearly discern the peaks in the distance, albeit as just an irregular grey outline. They looked like dark nimbus clouds over the horizon at first but after a week we noted that they never changed shape and therefore could not possibly be clouds.
We were 150kms directly down south of the Annapurna, across the Nepalese border, but even at that distance the Annapurna’s perfect isoceles shape was clearly recognizable, towering way above the rest. Gradually those distant shapes became like companions as we got to know them more intimately.
To the right, that is further to our north-east, we noted that there was a jumble of similarly unmoving dark shapes huddled together, of which, three sort of stood out. Barely visible in the distant haze, their peaks just about made it over the horizon. We didn’t think they were a big deal until Saigalji, my father’s assistant, made us wiser one day when he brought along a reasonably powerful pair of binoculars.
The three that stood out, from east to west, were the 27950ft Lhotse, the 29000ft Everest and the 27000ft Cho Oyu. As the raven flew, they were approximately 350kms distant. Sometimes I’d be standing next to HH-meets-PP and we would be passing the binoculars between us, silent, awestruck, unable to comprehend things that were so enormous that you could see them from 350 kms.
The Himalayas, and particularly the Everest, have held our fascination for centuries. Formed when the Indian plate collided against the Asian plate 50 million years ago, the greatest mountain range in the world has been growing ever so gradually taller and inching laterally toward the north-east as new crust emerges and the two plates continue to grind against each other. Since the 1850s when the first attempts at scaling the ‘14 sisters’ began, the Himalayas are believed to have grown taller by about 37 inches.
As the sisters have aged, they have demanded more and more respect from us. Of the 14, the Annapurna’s demands have been the most strident. Believed to be the most hazardous climb, she has claimed as her own, 63 climbers, drawing them into her deep crevasses and shrouding them in her ice. Taken against the 167 who summitted and made it back alive, this is a death-to-summit ratio of 38%. Two others, the Kanchenjunga(28500ft) and the K2(28700ft), both similarly extremely hazardous climbs, have been nearly as vengeful as Anna has been toward us.
Compared to Anna, her heftier sis, Chomolungma, whom the we like to call ‘Everest’, is almost warm and cuddly. Only 250 have succumbed so far, against 5600 successful summit attempts, a death to summit ratio of just over 4%. Of the duo who summited Chomo first, the white guy, Edmund Hillary, became Sir Edmund Hillary even before he had made it back to base camp.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, May 1953 (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
The other guy, (without whom Sir Hillary would probably have ended up as a permanent part of the scenery), happened to be a brown guy, unworthy of knighthood. He was a brave sherpa, named Tenzing Norgay. He got some crummy medal called the George Medal from the UK, the explanation given – because he was Indian. I hold nothing against Hillary himself though, as he has, in his personal capacity, done an immense amount of charity and social work for the ordinary Nepalese over the years.
Over the years, the slopes of the 14 sisters have been dotted with the corpses of climbers who did not make it, strewn along the routes that climbers usually take. If you are scaling the Everest, you will come across these grim reminders as you climb higher and higher, their bodies perfectly preserved, frozen in time, their faces blackened by the sun’s unrelenting ultra-violet radiation.
The dead have grown so recognizable that they have even been given nicknames. ‘Green Boots’ lies on his side in a small open-mouthed cave-like overhang at 27800ft on the North face. He had been an Indian, a member of the crack Indian Special Forces Commandos, the ITBP. He was a part of a 6-man Indian team attempting to summit from the Tibetan side on a stormy afternoon in May, 1996.
Separated from his group, Green Boots had sought refuge from the elements in that overhang. As he sat there shivering in the cold, he slowly froze to death. He was seen by other passing climbers, sitting rigidly upright for a year or two before the wind blew his body over on his side into the position that you see him in, below. Two others from his team also perished, their corpses never found. Green Boots now serves as a wayside marker that climbers use, to gauge how near they are to the summit.
Green Boots, perished 1996, photograph dated 2006 (Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)
The cave where Green Boots lies has since been named the ‘Green Boots Cave’. Nine years after he breathed his last, he finally acquired a cavemate, another climber, who had stopped by to rest in 2005, a 32 year old Britisher, David Sharp. Sharp is still seen sitting there today, another grotesque marker that climbers are forced to pass by on their way to the summit. Sharp’s body froze in place as he sat down to rest, rendering him unable to move.
David Sharp, perished 2005, photo dated 2011 (Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)
Over 30 climbers passed him by as he sat freezing to death. Some heard faint moans and realized he was still alive. They stopped and spoke with him. He was able to identify himself but was unable to move. Some brave ones among the passersby moved him into the Sun in an attempt to thaw him but eventually realized that he would never be able to move. They were forced to abandon him.
Nine years have gone by since and the two must be friends by now, one sitting up and the other lying on his side, frozen in time, immobile, silent against the howling winds. In time, over a century, I am sure Green Boots Cave shall grow into a fraternity, of deluded souls, of which Green Boots and David Sharp shall have the honor of being the founding members.
Why do we humans bring this kind of torture upon ourselves? Is it the mesmeric challenge, the irresistible fascination of besting the seemingly insurmountable? Then why do we cheat? Why the supplemental oxygen, the sherpas and the mules? Doesn’t all that seem like the end justifying the means? In what way then are performance enhancing drugs criminal? Surely, an oxygen cylinder in Alpine climbing, must be the equivalent of steroids in cycling?
An Everest summit attempt has been reduced to a contrived and sterile pantomime today. Preparations begin way ahead of the start of the climbing season in early May. A group of forty of the best Sherpa guides set about breaking trail and fixing ropes and ladders, right up to the summit, an enterprise so hazardous that one in ten don’t return. Breaking trail is when someone has already waded through waist-high snow ahead of you, making it easier for you to do the trek. It also acts as a real trail, showing you the way. Without this initial work, climber deaths would simply sky-rocket.
Apa Sherpa(a.k.a. “Super Sherpa”), holds the record for reaching the summit of the Everest more times than any other person in history. Apa made his 21st summit in May 2011.
So, where is the sport, the adventure, if your hand is virtually being held all the way? Those 16 sherpas who died last week on the Khumbu icefall were doing exactly that – breaking trail and fixing ropes and ladders over crevasses so that amateur climbers who pay $100000 a pop, could get to the top without incident. The sherpas do many other auxiliary duties, such as preparing the four base camps on the Everest, installing and clearing toilet tents and transporting garbage down the treacherous slopes. I will not even mention the pittance ($125) that they earn per climb and the peanuts that their families get by way of insurance payouts if they perish. All for the great white adventure tourist. For the sherpa, the Everest is not adventure tourism. It is his means of livelihood and the work that he does is 15 to 20 times more dangerous than the most hazardous job in North America, which is commercial fishing.
I imagine what must have happened that led to last week’s disaster. For a week prior, Chomo had been rumbling and sending smaller seracs crashing onto the Khumbu Glacier intermittently, between periods of calm, as she waited, to see if we had got the message. (Seracs are large blocks of ice). She had saved up the supermarket-sized serac for later, in case we didn’t listen. And we didn’t, so full of ourselves we had become. Last week she spoke to us for the final time. Will the world take heed? Or will we continue defacing her pristine beauty?
I think that extreme sports or adventure tourism, one of which climbing the 14 sisters can certainly be categorized as, are just delusional arrogance, though there are some who will ask us to see a ‘broader picture’, of ‘technological spin-offs’ and the ‘glory of human endeavor’. Remember that Swiss female adventure tourist who was gang-raped trying to cycle her way in short pants for fun, ‘to see if she could make it’, through one of the world’s deadliest places, the dreaded Chambal valley in Madhya Pradesh, central India, a year or so back? She is no different from those dead climbers. She and them, they were all asking for it and got what was coming to them. The grieving families back home wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about broader pictures and spin-offs, let me tell you.
There was a time in the 1920s when the conquest of Everest had grown to become almost a religious pursuit. The First World War had just ended with devastation all around. The people of the then most powerful nation in the world, Britain, needed a morale booster. Britain launched 3 expeditions, all of which floundered. One came quite close, a two-member team that included a by-then world famous Alpinist, 37-year old George Mallory. Mallory had made conquering the Everest a passion and dream that he dreamed every waking moment, convinced that he was destined to be the one to be the first reach the summit.
Once, when asked why he wanted to conquer the Everest so desperately, Mallory seemed taken aback, as if he had never thought of it that way. He managed to blurt out,” Why? I suppose because it is there.”
A little after one midnight June 1924, Mallory and his colleague, Sandy Irvine, set out on their summit assault and were last seen negotiating a ridge on the North Face, at 28000 ft. Soon after, they disappeared behind a cloud and were never seen again.
The 1921 expedition. George Mallory is at rear, far right, standing (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
Mallory’s body was eventually discovered, 75 years later, in 1999, limbs broken but otherwise well preserved at 26760 ft, face down in the snow. Some contents of his wallet were missing, giving rise to speculation that he had indeed conquered Everest, left the mementos on the summit and fallen off the face on his way down. The missing contents of his wallet were never found. Only Chomo knows whether Mallory actually made it to the top and she won’t talk.
The climber who found Mallory’s body was a seasoned alpinist named Conrad Anker and his expedition was filmed for the National Geographic. You will find the video here…….
A colleague of mine almost died on the Everest last year. For $35000, he had purchased a package for the base camp only, the base camp being at 19500 ft, at the foot of the Khumbu Glacier. At the base camp on the second day, he developed HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) an affliction where fluid rapidly starts filling up inside the lungs till the victim literally dies of drowning, in his own fluids. HAPE can happen at altitudes usually higher than 8000 ft and is fatal if not treated immediately. He was transported down in a chopper, barely alive and later recovered in a Kathmandu Hospital sufficiently enough to fly back home.
The entire experience cost my colleague close to $75000. He is one of those muscular, extremely fit guys who goes on marathons and cross-country swim-a-thons and all, every summer. A guy who loves coming to work in a 2 km/litre Ford truck in winter and a 1900cc Harley in summer, he thought the base camp would be a cinch. He is lucky to be alive.
Heck, you know what? I have been thinking. There’s no adventure in my life anymore. No risk taking, no cornices to hang for dear life from. No goose pimples from engaging in things that my momma told me not to. At my age it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in the taboo stuff.
One of the things I definitely missed out on was mountaineering. Long as I can remember, mountains have always held me captivated. Base camps and bollards, crags and crampons, wind chills and wolf moons, jagged outcrops and gulleys, drop-offs and sheer cliffs, crevasses and cairns, belayers and belay slaves, ledges, seracs and cornices…..and abominable snow women.
Did I say snow women? There, see? Mountains can make you hallucinate even when you aren’t on them.