On May 29, the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt. Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, a flurry of stories on all things Everest came online: reports celebrating the feat, a video of a young Hillary describing the climb, fun facts (told in numbers) about the mountain, a description of Hillary’s “elemental force” as remembered by writer Jan Morris, explorations of Hillary’s emotionally charged unpublished letters about the climb, even the retelling of a gaffe by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower who presented the original Everest crew with a Hubbard Medal in a now legendarily awkward ceremony.
But overall, the tone has been one of reverence, as reflected in remarks made by Nepalese Prime Minister Khilraj Regmi in Kathmandu this week. “On this day, late Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary created a milestone of being the first human beings on the pinnacle of earth, Mount Everest,” the prime minister said. “That historic success brought Nepal to the limelight of mountaineering tourism and opened a new era of adventure activities.”
Not all was focused on the past. There has also been plenty of recent action on Everest. Last week, Min Bahadur Sherchan, an 81-year-old Nepalese man, battled it out with 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura of Japan for the honor of oldest to reach the peak (Miura won). Another noteworthy Everest adventure took place on Wednesday when Valery Rozov of Russia made the highest BASE jump on record this Wednesday, flying off the mountain’s north face from a height of 23,680 feet.
Yet, colorful anecdotes and remembrances aside, perhaps the most telling of all reports yesterday involved the present state of the mountain. Earlier this month we explored the changing dynamics of climbers and Sherpa over time in light of the recent brawl atop the world that broke out between a group of European climbers and Sherpas who felt they’d been wronged. It seems that relations with Everest’s mountain guides are not the only thing at stake for visitors at the mountain today.
When Hillary described the peak in the early 1950s, he poetically called it “a symmetrical, beautiful snow cone summit.” Unfortunately, that description is today far from apt. Perhaps Time sums it up best: put bluntly, Everest is a mess. What’s more, the mess is multifold. The mountain is becoming congested and commercialized, according to the Washington Post. Even Red Bull is getting in on the action, as seen in this commercial. More sobering, the glacial caps are melting due to carbon emissions, while litter – empty oxygen canisters, ripped tents – despoils the slopes.
“If this global trend continues, there will be considerably less snow and ice on the mountain and the glacier will be in a much less stable state,” David Breashears of the NGO Glacierworks, told the Nepali Times. “But the truth is that we don’t know what it will look like in 100 years.”
“Everest has become the place to show…power, the power of money and a moneymaking business for governments,” added 68-year-old Italian climber Reinhold Messner, who famously completed the first solo ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen.
Messner is not just looking back to the good old days. There are visible changes taking place on the peak. As the Guardian notes, the mountain is crowded with queues of climbers – who pay $10,000 for a permit – porters, cooks and guides plodding up to the summit today. This year 520 climbers have already reached the peak. And on high traffic days, 150 make it to the top.
In a photograph published in the June issue of National Geographic, “a traffic jam of climbers” can be seen poking along at the Hillary Step, a 40-foot almost vertical rock face 29,000 feet up the mountain – essentially the last obstacle before the summit. This crowding has been blamed for the deaths of climbers who use up their oxygen while waiting their turn to move on.
In response, the Nepalese government plans to make some changes. For a start, climbers who apply for permits may face more stringent standards. And in a controversial move, there is talk of installing a ladder from the Hillary Step to the top – for climbers making their way down, not up.
Whether or not this is a sign of progress remains to be seen, but many are in favor, including Apa Sherpa, who has reached the summit a record of 21 times.
His take on the plan: “The route is changing, there is more rock, less ice and snow. It’s very dangerous. For [the] safety of Sherpas, this is good.”