The People Who Helped Conquer Everest, Sixty Years On

Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of Sir Edmund Hilary’s historic ascent to the summit of Mount Everest, sealing a place for his British climbing team in the history of mountaineering. Whilst this feat marked one of the last glories of a dissolving empire, to the people living in the shadow of the mountain, it would stimulate a dramatic rise in prosperity.

5,500 feet below the summit of Everest lies the village of Namche– the last outpost climbers pass through before beginning the final arduous trek to the top. It is the center of the Sherpa highlands, and home for many of the 150,000 members of these descendants of Tibetan migrants. The Sherpas have made a reputation for themselves as being cheerful, hard working, and tenacious traders. In spite of increasing international encroachment, they have retained their distinctive language and culture, whilst actively embracing modern technology. Today, Namche has internet access, full mobile signal coverage,  several hotels, shops stacked with mountaineering gear. and a pub that shows Premier League football on a big screen- a remarkable transformation for what was, a mere sixty years ago, a “charming” but ramshackle little village cut off from the rest of the country.

Hilary’s victory over the mountain couldn’t have come at a better time. With a world still struggling to recover from WWII, economic gloom prevailing, and the British psyche reeling from it’s loss of international power, the triumph of a team of English gentleman was a more that welcome distraction, palpable proof that, though weakened, the country was still more than capable of rising to a challenge. Reporters went to Namche in their droves, keen to capture every last aspect of this feel good story. One Times reporter worried that this influx of international attention could have a detrimental affect on the locals, fretting that “the Sherpa as we knew him will be a figure of the past, obliterated by fame, fortune and foreign innovations”.

there is a growing perception that the western elites who shell out tens of thousands of pounds to join commercial climbs have grown increasingly disrespectful to local Nepalis

He needn’t have worried. Six decades later, thanks to the tens of wealthy thousands who make the pilgrimage to Namche on the way to climb the mountain, the village has become one of the richest in all of Nepal. According to one of the last remaining veterans of the big expedition, “We owe everything to Everest, and to Hillary…Now we have schools, clinics, bridges. Once we ate potatoes and dreamed of rice. Now we eat what we like. The expedition opened our eyes.”

What was once the world’s most daunting summit has now become open to even the most novice climbers, who Sherpas effectively haul up the mountain on short ropes. However, there is a growing perception that the western elites who shell out tens of thousands of pounds to join commercial climbs have grown increasingly disrespectful to local Nepalis, and one expedition actually boiled over into an all right attack by a mob after a misunderstanding between a group of climbers and locals. In the aftermath, one of the climbers noted that, “There’s an underlying feeling among the Sherpas that they’ve been treated quite badly by westerners and that clients don’t have any respect for them. If you look around at how incredibly luxurious some base camps are, you can see their point”. Some experts claim that in the emotionally charged environment of Everest, where life and death can hinge on a precarious sheet of ice, violence often erupts.

Another factor contributing to this tension is the ways in which Sherpas and westerners approach the climb. To the Sherpas, the ascent is marked by collective endeavor  and whoever reaches the top shares credit with those who got him there, whereas for the westerners, to reach the summit is a completely individual achievement, one man and his mountain. This cognitive dissonance causes westerners  to disregard Sherpa team work to rig ropes and side step carefully arranged lines. Sherpas feel that they are losing control of the mountain, and local lives are being put at risk in the face of outsiders egocentrism. Increasingly, the autonomy of the Sherpas over ‘their’ mountain has become a political issue. The image of the amiable Sherpa sidekick is becoming increasingly outdated as Everest’s people work to ensure their mountain is climbed on their own terms.

An exhibition entitled Everest 1953 is now on in London, featuring exclusive photography from the first successful climb. The exhibit will also mark the launch of Everestpublished by Ammonite Press. The publication contains over 400 unique photographs handpicked by the RGS and IBG.




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