How did Hillary do it?

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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.

Everest silences you

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One of the most beautiful accounts I have read of climbing Everest comes from a man who has certainly never climbed it.  In his book “The Satanic Verses,” Salman Rushdie describes the experience from the perspective of Alleluia Cone, a flat-footed woman who dreams of making a solo ascent after a successful climb with a group of sherpas.  In this first excerpt, she’s telling a classroom full of girls about her first ascent.

Do you know how it feels, she wanted to ask them, to have the whole of your life concentrated into one moment, a few hours long?  Do you know what it’s like when the only direction is down?

‘I was in the second pair with Sherpa Pemba,’ she said.   ‘The weather was perfect, perfect.  So clear you felt you could look right through the sky into whatever lay beyond.  The first pair must have reached the summit by now, I said to Pemba.  Conditions are holding and we can go. Pemba grew very serious, quite a change, because he was one of the expedition clowns.  He had never been to the summit before, either.  At that stage I had no plans to go without oxygen, but when I saw that Pemba intended it, I thought, okay, me too.  It was a stupid whim, unprofessional, really, but I suddenly wanted to be a woman sitting on top of that bastard mountain, a human being, not a breathing machine.  Pemba said, Allie Bibi, don’t do, but I just started up.

In a while we passed the others coming down and I could see the wonderful thing in their eyes.  They were so high, possessed of such an exaltation, that they didn’t even notice I wasn’t wearing the oxygen equipment.  Be careful, they shouted over to us, Look out for the angels.  Pemba had fallen into a good breathing pattern and I fell into step with it, breathing in with his in, out with his out.  I could feel something lifting off the top of my head and I was grinning, just grinning from ear to ear, and when Pemba looked my way I could see he was doing the same.  It looked like a grimace, like pain, but it was just foolish joy.

‘At that moment,’ she told the girls, who were climbing beside her every step of the way, ‘I believed it all: that the universe has a sound, that you can lift a veil and see the face of God, everything.  I saw the Himalayas stretching below me and that was God’s face, too.  Pemba must have seen something in my expression that bothered him because he called across, Look out, Allie Bibi, the height.  I recall sort of floating over the last overhang and up to the top, and then we were there, with the ground falling away on every side.  Such light; the universe purified into light.  I wanted to tear off my clothes and let it soak into my skin.’ (204)

Back home in London, Allie shows her boyfriend Gibreel a wooden sculpture of Mount Everest that Sherpa Pemba gave her.

‘Look,’ she said, stretching out a hand without leaving the bed and picking up, from her bedside table, her newest acquisition, a simple Everest in weathered pine.   ‘A gift from the sherpas of Namche Bazar.’ Gibreel took it, turned it in his hands.  Pemba had offered it to her shyly when they said goodbye, insisting it was from all the sherpas as a group, although it was evident that he’d whittled it himself.  It was a detailed model, complete with the ice fall and the Hillary Step that is the last great obstacle on the way to the top, and the route they had taken to the summit was scored deeply into the wood.  When Gibreel turned it upside down he found a message, scratched into the base in painstaking English.   “To Ali Bibi.  We were luck.  Not to try again.”

What Allie did not tell Gibreel was that the sherpa’s prohibition had scared her, convincing her that if she ever set her foot again upon the goddess-mountain, she would surely die, because it is not permitted to mortals to look more than once upon the face of the divine… ‘The Himalayas,’ she told Gibreel so as not to say what was really on her mind, ‘are emotional peaks as well as physical ones: like opera.  That’s what makes them so awesome.  Nothing but the giddiest heights.’ (313)

Allie describes the difficulty of living post-Everest, knowing that nothing in daily life will compete with the grandeur of such an experience.

‘Everest silences you,’ she confessed to Gibreel Farishta in a bed above which parachute silk formed a canopy of hollow Himalayas.   ‘When you come down, nothing seems worth saying, nothing at all.  You find the nothingness wrapping you up, like a sound.  Non-being.  You can’t keep it up, of course.  The world rushes in soon enough.  What shuts you up is, I think, the sight you’ve had of perfection: why speak if you can’t manage perfect thoughts, perfect sentences?  it feels like a betrayal of what you’ve been through.  But it fades; you accept that certain compromises, closures, are required if you’re to continue.’  (306)

There are a few times in my life when I’ve had a similar feeling: something I’ve experienced is so magnificent, so beautiful, it’s difficult afterward to reconcile such an experience with the mundaneness of “normal” life.  No doubt Everest would have such an effect.

How to be a sherpa


What you’ll need: a genetic adaptation to living in high altitudes, including unique hemoglobin-binding enzymes, doubled nitric oxide production, hearts that can utilize glucose, and lungs with an increased sensitivity to low oxygen*; rope

Songlist:  Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ by Nancy Sinatra

Further Reading: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, View from the Summit by Edmund Hillary

See? It's easy, just follow the yellow line!

Everyone’s favorite fact last week: 49 of 50 states boasted snow on the ground, including Hawaii.  Excluding, of course, Florida, the state that once captivated the country for months by not having its act together (if that’s all it takes, I’ll be famous in no time).

As a northerner, I scoffed at the south’s inability to handle its five inches of precipitation.  We Minnesotans are the type to store shovels in the trunks of our cars in case we get stuck, and provisions to last a week if the shovels don’t work.  In my winter-related arrogance, I conveniently overlooked the unprecedented three days of school cancelled in the Twin Cities due to a blizzard last month.  We’ve also gone well over the three “Snow Emergencies” budgeted for 2010-2011, aka the days the city plows every street, aka the days it’s good to have a garage.

In some places of the world, however, snow does not constitute an emergency but a way of life.  Take the Himalayas.  It is unfathomable to imagine a mountain range as majestic as that one sans snow–where would the beauty be?  I may never have the training or the courage to climb a Himalayan mountain (and I certainly don’t have the touch of madness that compels people to climb Everest), but I envy those who do.  I especially admire sherpas, some of whom have climbed Mt. Everest a dozen or more times, all while carrying another person’s burden.  It is their job, yes, but I find it altruistic nonetheless.

A sherpa and his pack

Technically, “Sherpa” refers to an ethnic group of people from Nepal, or those hired to guide mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas.  Thus, most of us cannot hope to become sherpas (though sherpa is sometimes used as a proprietary eponym for those who haul the belongings of others or invoked to imply knowledge of cold weather conditions).  Yet the allure is great–sherpa guides are people, mostly men, who don’t just climb mountains; they were born to climb mountains.  They are physically disposed for this act more than anyone else.  It makes me consider the question: what was I born to do?  What am I physically, mentally, or emotionally equipped for that 99% of the earth’s population is not?  So far, I’ve come up short on answers to that.

*According to wikipedia