Mount Everest: Top of Whose World?
‘Because it is there’ was the unbending response of mountaineer George Mallory when he was asked why anyone would want to climb Mount Everest. In that sense Everest had been ‘there’ since the 1850s, when it was first identified in the Great British Trigonometric Survey of India as ‘singularly shy and retiring.’ The fact that this was something extraordinary – the highest in the world, then measured at 29,002 feet – was acknowledged in 1856 when it was considered proper to name it after the retiring Surveyor General of India. Not that Sir George Everest, infamous for his volcanic temperament, was especially impressed. And Mallory? His body was left on the mountain in 1924, tantalisingly close to the summit. Thereafter Everest was inviolate until June 1953, when Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay allowed themselves to spend just fifteen minutes there, burying in the snow some small tokens of their achievement. The news of their triumph was delayed so as to arrive here on the same day as the coronation of queen Elizabeth, resulting in coinciding sixtieth anniversaries which may be used by crazier patriots in a campaign of delusion to play down the fact that neither of those two pioneering climbers was British.
It was some time after Everest had been noted and measured that the prospect of climbing it, which involved first crossing the formidable surrounding landscape, was seriously discussed. And when there was such a discussion, it originated among an expensively exclusive elite that prided itself on being driven by what was known as a ‘mystic patriotism’ – but which in reality had notably less exalted motives. This was a cause enjoying the passionate support of Lord Curzon, supremely imperialist Viceroy of India: ‘It has always seemed to me a reproach … that we, mountaineers and pioneers par excellence of the universe, make no sustained and scientific attempt to climb to the top…’ In 1906 the proposal was taken on by the Alpine Club on the assumption that the cost would be borne by its more prosperous members who in return would qualify for a place on the expedition. In the event, the entire concept was swamped by the outbreak of war in 1914, when many of the aspiring conquerors of Everest – including Mallory – were persuaded by what they regarded as their obligation as Englishmen to the essential idealism of the human spirit to take their place in the trenches, where they witnessed such horrors as would prepare them for the worst that Everest could offer.
The foredoomed peace of 1918 allowed the surviving climbers to turn their obsessive attention to the detailed organisation of an Everest expedition. One immediate problem was to ensure that a party would be allowed by the surrounding countries to get at the mountain. This was complicated by the question of whether the British would send arms to Tibet for that country’s continuing dispute with China. There were also religious objections to the invasion of sacred ground. An influential figure in settling this problem was Charles Bell, the British political officer at Sikkim, whose knowledge of Tibet, its people and their traditions was impressively extensive. He reported: ‘…there are several sacred places in the vicinity of Mount Everest…Tibetans would not like Europeans moving about those places…(and) do not believe that explorations are carried on only in the interests of geographical knowledge and science… Until the Tibetan question is settled with China these expeditions to Mount Everest should not be allowed.’ Eventually Bell’s considerable influence persuaded the British government to supply arms, ammunition and the necessary training and technical advice to the Tibetan army. In December 1920, as part of a more complex initiative in diplomacy, this brought Tibetan agreement to a British Mount Everest expedition.
The plan was to send a party in 1921 to assess whether it would be possible to climb Everest and get down again safely and to settle on the most likely route for doing so. This would be followed by yearly expeditions from 1922, setting up a chain of camps from which a select pair of climbers could strike out for the summit and quickly return. Among the most urgent matters for the Committee was to select the mountaineers. Arthur Hinks, one of the joint secretaries, was responsible for this although his temperament was not the most promising for so delicate a task. Among an ocean of volcanic eccentrics he was a sarcastic, intolerant, vituperous bully contemptuous of anything he considered ‘modern’ such as a telephone in his home. There was a strict requirement for all members of the expedition to be British, which allowed Hinks to compose a response to an ex-officer of the German Army: ‘I have hitherto put straight into the wastepaper basket all applications from ex-enemies.’ Not that all cases were judged on climbing ability: in 1923, Richard Graham who offered pretty well everything needed to commend him and who had a number of influential supporters – including Mallory – was at first accepted but then quietly rejected when an anonymous Committee member objected to him on the grounds that during the war, as a Quaker, he had been a conscientious objector.
When the mammoth task of organisation was completed the expedition arrived at its base camp early in May 1921. Among the matters to be settled was whether the use of oxygen should be allowed or whether it would be ‘unsporting.’ Especially keen on oxygen, making himself somewhat unpopular in the process, was George Finch, an accomplished climber who in the next expedition in 1922 reached to a record 27,300 feet – during which he saved the life of his partner. A party led by Mallory then failed to improve on this and as they were descending they were hit by a massive avalanche in which Mallory narrowly escaped death but seven native porters were killed. A lack of money prevented another effort in 1923, but on the following year two climbers – Norton and Somervell without using oxygen – reached 28,126 feet, less than 1,000 from the summit. But they were in a very bad state, with Norton snow blind and Somervell fearing he was on the point of death. They both survived and Mallory prepared himself with Andrew Irvine for his third attempt on 8 June, leaving the geologist Noel Odell at Camp V to keep observation.
Early on 9 June as the mist cleared Odell saw, on a ridge near the base of the final peak, what he later described as ‘two black spots.’ As he watched, the two figures surmounted a great rock step before the mist clamped down again and they were lost to sight. ‘There was but one explanation,’ he later wrote, ‘It was Mallory and his companion moving, as I could see even at that great distance, with considerable alacrity…’ He kept watching and hoping for some hours before he gave up. But Mallory and Irvine were never seen again, and the climbers assembled below had to face the agonising truth that they had perished somewhere on the slopes. In effect it was the end of the expedition. But a great deal, in several senses, had been invested in its result, which stimulated some reluctance to admit to failure. So Odell was subjected to strong pressure to refashion his memory of what he had observed, even to supply evidence that the climb had been successful. But what concession he made on this was no more than vague and conditional. Subsequent events offered nothing more: for example when Hilary and Tenzing got to the top they did not find anything to suggest that anyone had been there before.
With the return of the expedition the angry frustration at the failure did not prevent an awareness that this was a potentially profitable situation. Odell was promoted as a rising star, soon speaking at as many as three lectures a day, which yielded him some £700. A lot was expected of the film The Epic Of Everest, made by the official photographer John Noel, on which rode an investment of £8000. Noel was not optimistic about the prospects for the film and questioned whether these might have been more promising had there been a female star to inject a romantic interest. Already it featured a type of carnival including dancing and seven performing Buddhist monks, which caused the Dalai Lama to ban Noel from Tibet and forbid any more plans to climb Mount Everest.
In what are known as these more enlightened times the travel industry has expanded into mountaineering, with offers to conduct willing tourists to the summit – at a suitable price. One agency promises to provide ‘…the very best leadership, equipment, oxygen systems, comfort, food and Sherpa support…’ for some £35,000; another charges $65,000 because it claims to be better than cheaper companies. One effect of this is to create serious congestion on the route up the mountain; recently one experienced climber took a photograph of a huge queue standing for hours on the slopes, waiting its turn. In all he summarised the situation as ‘mass hysteria.’ There have been accounts of the mountain being disfigured by masses of litter including empty oxygen cylinders and of hurrying climbers in the Death Zone stepping around others who have been overcome. And crime flourished in a setting where it would once have been inconceivable. In his book High Crimes Michael Kodas, who had climbed the mountain twice, listed a series of thefts from the tents of climbers, in many cases involving equipment which was life-preserving, later to be found hidden among other team members’ property: ‘…some of my own teammates… in their efforts to stand on top of the world and make money doing it, behaved more like mobsters than mountaineers.’
It was consistent with these events that in 1999 a party from the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition should find, at 27,000 feet, Mallory’s frozen body. Photographs were then on sale for considerable sums of money; at one stage the price for a single shot reached $40,000. As Mallory’s body was hacked and levered out of the ice the clothing was torn, yielding artefacts which were later catalogued as rare specimens. From the diggers could be heard comments such as, ‘There’s still some more shit here’ and ‘This is something…I think it’s fucking closed.’ One vastly experienced climber who gave vent to his feelings at this was Chris Bonington: ‘Words can’t express how disgusted I am. These people don’t deserve to be called climbers.’
After the failure of the 1924 expedition, leaving its bodies out on the frozen slopes, there was a suspension of any more such ventures until 1933. In the meantime there was the preoccupation with glorifying it all as an historic example of purely British endeavour. At the memorial service in St. Paul’s cathedral the bishop of Chester intoned about ‘…the last ascent, with the beautiful mystery of the great enigma… stands for more than an heroic effort to climb a mountain.’ These words may have defiantly soothed some ruffled patriots but said nothing about the essentials of what had happened. The drive to climb Everest was at first energised by the pressure to compensate for the failure of British expeditions to be the first to reach either of the Earth’s poles. And then, in what was called, after 1918, The Silence as the world was in preparation for another great war, there was the need to assuage the grief over senseless disasters such as the Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli… Behind it all the political and military urgency of the tensions in the area sprouted from the priority to assert the British rule of India and stifle any potential threat from Russia. These matters were not unrelated to the fact that marketing the opportunity for people to climb Everest emerged as another investment, essentially no different from all the other degrading examples of the commodity demands of capitalism. In face of that, no human being, no mountain, can stand free.