If you’ve been following over the past week you know I’m not referring to the USA’s current Secretary of State, but this guy ↓

Sir Edmund Hillary, dashing as always

I’m even more amazed by his feat now, especially after reading the website I referred to yesterday which catalogues all of the advanced mountaineering gear a person needs, as well as detailed maps and plans for how to summit and survive. NPR sums up my feelings best:

The immensity of what Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did that bright blue day in 1953 is nearly impossible to imagine, even for the most seasoned climber. There were no fixed ropes and aluminum ladders, no polar fleece, no GPS for guidance. Just two men, tied together, hacking steps in the ice to climb more than 29,000 feet.”

Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did use oxygen, but it was a primitive system by today’s standards. There were several reconnaissance missions beforehand, but it was not until these two men came to what is now known as the Hillary step that they first learned of this last, almost unsurmountable, obstacle.

In 2002, Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing Norgay summited Mount Everest together, to mark the 50-year anniversary of their fathers’ successful ascent (along with them was Brent Bishop, son of one of the first Americans to reach the top). Peter commented on the difficulties their fathers faced, and how the climb has changed:

We came to the Hillary stair dad and Tenzing climbed 50 years ago,

The Hillary step--almost there!

this 40-foot, very steep rock and ice step just before the summit, and these guys came across it, you can imagine their anxiety, ‘Can we do it? Do we have the skills to get up this thing? We’ve only got an hour before we’ve got to start turning back or we’re going to start losing our oxygen.’ All these sort of issues — well, we came along there and of course three or four of our Sherpas had already pulled the fixed rope … It’s a totally different situation.”

Apparently, once he and Tenzing Norgay summited Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary assumed that no one would want to try it again. Of course, we know that’s not true. Hundreds of people attempt a summit annually, a desire that is complicated by the fact that there are only a handful of days each year when the summit can be successfully and safely navigated. Thus, on any one of those days you might be contending for your 15 minutes on top of the world with seventy other people. Clearly, this is dangerous for everyone involved, especially on the Hillary Step and the knife ridge, where there’s no room for a passing lane.

In his blog for Frontline’s story, “Storm Over Everest,” Doug Pierson describes difficulties avoiding traffic jams and freeloaders. He talks about the mounds of trash left behind–food wrappers at Base Camp, empty oxygen canisters at Camp 4 (also known as “The Deathzone,” which lies at an altitude above which your body starts to self-destroy). Indeed, there are even bodies abandoned on the trail that will remain frozen and foreboding.

I imagine this would be a disappointing sight to those who choose to climb this tallest of mountains in order to surround themselves with unblemished beauty, those who wish to feel that they’ve been where no (few) men have been before. Though he doesn’t specifically mention Everest, Andrew Hyde wrote an interesting piece about what he calls “the tragedy of Nepal,” namely the congestion and pollution that he witnessed while touring the country. Perhaps this is the fine line we now walk as adventurers, the balance between appreciating the natural beauty of nature and destroying it by flocking to the few places on earth still relatively untouched. Perhaps it seems unfair to some that no place remains undiscovered, that our world is fully google-mapped and tread upon. But perhaps if the reason you climb a mountain is to conquer what seems unconquerable, you have the wrong attitude altogether. Jamling Tenzing Norgay writes,

We believe strongly that when you climb this mountain you have to climb this mountain as if a child crawling up to its mother’s lap. You don’t conquer Mount Everest. We believe climbing with pride, arrogance and disrespect can lead to trouble, and that’s sort of what happened in the last couple of years, where people are climbing for the wrong reason and people are climbing who should not be there at all.”

As for me, this week has only reinforced all the reasons I don’t want to climb Mount Everest. I’m happy to look out my kitchen window and see the moon turn the midnight snow purple, while sipping from a steaming cup of hot chocolate. I don’t need to be on top of the world to recognize that beauty.