Story & pictures by Marlon Saldin
Peak XV was given its name sometime between 1830 & 1843, by the then surveyor general of India, George Everest. Measured 110 miles afar from the Indian Nepal border, as Nepal was closed to westerners, the theodolite measurements would later confirm that the blip on the northern horizon was indeed the highest point of the globe. Andrew Waugh later re-named Peak XV as Everest, in honour of his predecessor.
In 1953, a bee-keeper from New Zealand together with an Indian Sherpa conquered this peak much to the disappointment of the expedition owners – The British, who had to be satisfied with images of the New Zealand flag rather than the Union Jack on the top! Since this achievement by Hillary & Tenzing, almost 2000 have made it to the top with some 200 odd making it their last resting place!
Today it’s not merely mountaineers who make it to the top but almost anyone who can fork-out $60,000. To this add high altitude gear & food, acclimatization peaks, hotels, airfares & you would be looking at something in the region of $100,000. Not much it would seem as there are queues building-up with supply being limited!
To achieve this feat they would be spending almost 3 months above 20,000ft where the human body slowly & but surely starts to decay. Climb above 26,000ft which, in mountaineering terms is called “the death zone” & starve without sleep nor food for around 60 – 70 hours to stand on top of half a pool table size area & have your photograph taken, whilst tying one’s flag or talisman onto a tripod that marks the top of Mt. Everest.
This year 28 teams have made it into South base camp to climb Mt. Everest. I’m told that there’s heavy trafic on the Northern side too, The Tibetan face! Many records would be set which include the youngest & oldest on the mountain. A crossing of borders where climbers from Tibet would descend into Nepal & vice versa is also said to take place. Unfortunately, the weather this season could be a decisive factor with avalanches, hailstorms & thunderstorms already beginning to build-up, limiting the climbing window to the top.
However all these figures take a backseat on the 2nd tallest mountain K2. Nestled between the Himalayas & the Hindu Kush, the Karakorams are sheer towers of ice & rock that look like church steeples & is not a place for novices. Compared to Everest a mere 200 have only succeeded in climbing K2 with a phenomenal fatality rate. In one calendar year there were more deaths than climbs where some of the best climbers perished. Outside the North & South pole these glaciers contain the largest amount of ice.
Mountain tourism is a very high revenue earner & I suspect is the mainstay of the Nepali economy. This would make a strong case-of-point where the Nepal Rupee to Dollar ratio is much more stable [even with their little internal crisis] than the Sri Lankan Rupee to Dollar ratio. Currently there are 52 peak permits issued for climbing during the April – May season. This is also a life-line to the mountain community, dominated by sherpas who could easily use their earnings.
To see them through the year’s end. The bonus would come if they are hired during the October – November season, making their smiles almost reach their ears! Most climbers are quite generous, especially if they “bag their peak” where, in some instances sherpa children have been provided accommodation & schooling facilities, overseas.
Since the mid 80’s, I have begun to see many changes, however slow taking place. The foremost would be the introduction of kerosene cookers, mass copied from a Russian pressurised system, this is slowly but surely dominating the mountain kitchens. Initially it was firewood, but with the decimation of forests it went to yak dung, which is still used at very high altitudes! Another is sanitation where anything is an improvement to what it was! Some lodges even boast of flushing toilets & more surprisingly is that they actually work! The quantity & quality of food too is going through a change for the better, where once upon a time the same hands that added yak dung into the fire would make your dinner!
But all this is mere cosmetic to the human body at altitude. On the outside you could look like Mr. Sri Lanka or a famine victim but its what you’ve got inside that would ultimately decide weather you are worthy of succeeding. The mind takes over long before you are halfway up the mountain & if the body is adapted suitably enough to the altitude, would take you the distance. Time & time again able bodied people flop beside the trail as their minds could not come to terms & those are the lucky ones. Some take expensive helicopter rides out of the mountains & a few end on horse or yak back, feet & head pointing groundward!
This year was no exception with helicopters kris crossing the mountainside. On the 14th 16 people were evacuated at a cost of $3000 each. I was at the rescue association when a South African lady suffering from altitude sickness, took a turn for the worse & had to be evacuated. It was late evening & the satellite SOS was made to Delhi, since Kathmandu has no SA embassy who in return had got in touch with the British high commission in Kathmandu, ordering an air evacuation. A compression chamber fed with oxygen kept her alive through the night until the helicopter arrived at 1st light.
The pilots are probably some of the finest in the world & mauvere their choppers with the same ability as we shift glassware on a shelf. For instance the pilot who came in to rescue the South African landed his machine inside a little fenced yak meadow, not that simple when you’re at the machine’s upper limit of 16,000ft. The machine was in relatively bad shape with a broken glass on the pilot’s side, but cello taped with plastic. Then one of the side plates were loose which was promptly fastened, yet they manage to fly into some of the hardest locations with consummate ease, unassumingly!
To get a perspective of the largeness of the Himalayas one has simply got to compare it with other peaks. For example, labouring up Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe is similier to playing cards, midway to base camp. Then reaching the top of the technical Mt. Cook in New Zealand is the same altitude as Namche Bazzar, where you could be comfortably eating a pizza! This could be a reason as to why many get in wrong on Asia’s greatest peaks.
Finally, the stresses of high-altitude climbing reveal your true character, they unmask who you really are. You no longer have the social graces to hide behind or to play roles. You are the essence of what you are. Said in the words of Sir Edmund Hillary “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”.