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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Everest at 50: Still There
The feat was as arduous as it was audacious, a triumph
for a war-weary world. Fifty years ago this spring, Tenzing Norgay
— a Nepalese yak herder turned mountaineer — and Edmund Hillary,
a New Zealand beekeeper, became the first men to stand on the world’s
tallest peak. On Saturday, April 12, Princeton University will help
commemorate that golden anniversary by hosting "On Top Of The
World: An Everest Anniversary Conference." The day-long event
will feature lectures, panel discussions, memorabilia, slide shows,
and films of the world’s most formidable mountain and of the people
who have followed Norgay and Hillary to the roof of the world.
The conference will bring together climbers and commentators who are
themselves part of Everest legend and lore. Tom Hornbein was with
the first American expedition to successfully summit in 1963. Along
with climbing partner Willi Unsoeld, Hornbein was the first to climb
the mountain’s West Ridge — where a passage, the Hornbein Couloir,
still bears his name. In 1965, he published "Everest: The West
Ridge," an account of his ascent.
Ed Webster was one of a renowned group of four climbers who blazed
a new trail up the mountain’s Kangshung Face in 1988, climbing without
radios, oxygen, or the help of Sherpas. It was Webster’s third trip
to Everest, one he recounted in his "Snow in the Kingdom: My Storm
Years on Everest."
Ed Douglas — a writer, mountaineer, and editor of Britain’s Alpine
Club Journal — published the biography, "Tenzing: Hero of
Everest," last month. He is also the author of a biography of
Alison Hargreaves, the first woman to summit Everest without supplemental
oxygen, and of "Chomolungma Sings the Blues," a chronicle
of Everest’s commercialization. ("Chomolungma" is the mountain’s
Tibetan name and means "mother goddess of the world.")
Maurice Isserman, a history professor at Hamilton College and one
of the country’s preeminent historians of the 1960s, is now working
on the history of mountaineering.
And Princeton resident and alumnus David Robertson is also former
president of the Friends of the Princeton University Library. (The
Friends are hosting the Princeton event, with sponsorship from the
university’s Council for the Humanities, the geosciences department,
as well as the National Geographic Society.) Robertson is not only
a biographer of George Mallory, the British climber who in the 1920s
famously explained Everest’s lure by saying "because it’s there,"
but also his son-in-law, having married the second of Mallory’s two
daughters. His wife-to-be was seven when her father disappeared during
his third summit attempt.
Fifty years ago, Norgay and Hillary descended from Everest to a lifetime
of celebrity. Norgay, who died in 1986, was a revered figure among
Asians, having overcome poverty with skill and endurance. Hillary’s
ascent was a bracing coup for Britain on the eve of Queen Elizabeth
II’s coronation — and (now Sir) Hillary, who is still alive, has
devoted many years to improving living conditions for the indigenous
Sherpas, Tibetan Buddhists who migrated centuries ago to Nepal and
who often accompany climbers in the Himalayas.
Since Norgay and Hillary broke the summit barrier, more than 1,600
others have reached the peak. Thousands more have tried — and
at least 175 have died, a sad tally that may grow next month when
hundreds more attempt to commemorate the golden anniversary with their
own Everest climb.
In the 50 years since that first summit, the sport of mountaineering
has been transformed, both at Everest and worldwide. Hornbein —
who will kick off this week’s conference with a 9 a.m. lecture on
"Everest Then and Now: The Maturation of the Mountain" —
admits to being ambivalent about the mountain and sport he has done
so much to publicize.
Now 72 and a long-time resident of Seattle, Hornbein
continues to teach at the University of Washington School of Medicine
where he spent decades as a practicing anesthesiologist. He also continues
to do high-altitude research — and climb with friends and family
in Washington’s Cascade Mountains and in Rocky Mountain National Park.
"To the extent that I’ve helped make mountaineering more
visible, I don’t know if that’s a contribution or not," he says
in a phone interview from his home. "The mountains just keep getting
They also keep attracting hordes of novices who don’t have the skills
or dedication of climbers like Norgay and Hillary. Robertson will
moderate a panel presentation and discussion on "The Changing
Face of Mount Everest" with Douglas, Isserman, and Webster as
presenters and panel members. Now 87, Robertson recalls that when
he was climbing — in the 1930s — expeditions were sponsored
by national alpine clubs and geographical societies.
"The committees held strict physical exams to try to ensure the
climbing party would be not only strong but safe," Robertson says.
"Nowadays, there’s nothing like that kind of review." Many
more people are now climbing with inadequate experience, equipment,
and weather sense, he adds. "I’ve been alarmed for a good many
years by the growing number of accidents."
Money, not skill or safety, now often determines who has a shot at
the summit, says Webster, talking by phone from his home in Maine.
Commercialization was first introduced on Everest in 1985 when eminent
climber David Breashears — who later returned to film the spectacular
IMAX movie "Everest" — guided Texas multimillionaire Dick
Bass to the top.
The new tradition of large guided tours, complete with affluent "clients"
and dozens of gear-toting Sherpas, got harsh notoriety in 1996, when
eight members of guided expeditions died in a storm on the upper reaches
of the mountain — partly as the result of the bottleneck caused
by so many people trying to summit in one day, who didn’t have the
ability to maneuver when the storm hit. They accounted for more than
half of the 15 people who died on Everest in 1996, the mountain’s
deadliest year. The disaster was chronicled by journalist Jon Krakauer,
a tour client on assignment for Outside Magazine, in his riveting
1997 best-seller "Into Thin Air."
Sadly, Webster says, the 1996 tragedy born of hubris
and poor judgment only increased the mountain’s allure for commercial
climbers. "Even more people showed up on Everest the year after,"
he says, adding that many of the climbers wanted to prove that they’re
more skilled than the people who died. "Better — or luckier,
The ethics of what Webster calls "large siege-style expeditions"
are very different from those of small, independent parties —
like Mallory and his climbing companion Sandy Irvine, Norgay and Hillary,
Hornbein and Unsoeld, Webster and his colleagues — "that can
move lightly and quickly up the mountain, but with much more risk."
And the mindset of dedicated mountaineers is totally different from
that of guided clients: Climbers assume all the risk, equipment load,
and climbing strategy, while "clients want to buy into a trip
with the least amount of hassle and organization," says Webster.
At age 47, with a wife and baby daughter, his mountain activities
are no more extreme than seasonal cross-country skiing. "They
want to hand someone a check and show up in Katmandu," he says.
In addition to presenting an afternoon slide show at the conference,
Webster will give the morning’s "Small is Beautiful in the Himalayas"
presentation, extolling the virtue of climbing in small groups.
Webster’s most sublime moment on Everest came at dawn on summit day.
The sun rose behind him, casting the mountain’s immense, pyramidal
shadow clear to the horizon.
"It’s a totally spectacular sight," he says. "The alpine
glow with the mountains bathed in pinkish gold by the rising sun —
that’s a sight you never forget."
That memorable moment was also Webster’s most harrowing: Removing
his bulky outer mittens to photograph the Himalayan dawn, Webster
snapped eight shots in two minutes — wearing only his inner liner
gloves, at 27,000 feet, in 30 degrees below zero. Those two minutes
were all it took for frostbite to set in, and Webster ended up
losing eight of his fingertips.
"These were rather," he says wryly, "costly photographs."
(Ironically, his 1988 expedition was sponsored by Kodak.) They will
be among the slides he’ll show at the conference.
Along with the potentially lethal threat of altitude
sickness, Everest climbers face other quandaries. The climbing boom
has generated a looming environmental crisis as the populated portions
of the Himalayas get deforested. And countries including Nepal and
China — which share Everest’s real estate — charge exorbitant
fees for climbing permits. Climbers who go to China have the ethical
dilemma of financially supporting China’s brutal subjugation
"Most mountaineers feel that they can do more good by going to
Tibet, talking to Tibetans, and promoting their cause once they get
home," Webster says. But with Tibetan hillsides littered with
rubble that once were monasteries, "it’s a terrible heartache
to see how much of Tibet has been destroyed."
Journalist Krakauer in "Into Thin Air" wrote that "attempting
to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act — a triumph
of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider
it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument."
Yet there is no sign that the number of people willing to succumb
to that desire is abating.
What will the next 50 years on Everest hold? "People will always
be dreaming up new ways to attempt Everest," Webster says. "A
very small group of mountaineers will try to think of ways to climb
Everest in an even `purer’ style." Fifty years on, the mountain
still has an unclimbed ridge aptly named Fantasy Ridge, a part of
the Kangshung Face that Webster describes as "phenomenally difficult
and dangerous." Or a passionately committed mountaineer will perhaps
attempt a solo ascent up an untried route without oxygen.
And despite the best efforts of hardcore purists, "commercialization
is pretty much here to stay — and that’s unfortunate, in my view,"
Webster adds. "Even if you do a climb that’s as pure as the one
we did, the chances of getting to the summit and having it all to
yourself nowadays are pretty small." But then, the chances of
most of us even considering a shot at standing in the boot prints
of Norgay and Hillary are smaller still.
Princeton University Library, Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall,
609-258-3174. Day-long conference to commemorate the first successful
Everest ascent. Free. Saturday, April 12, 9 a.m.
Afternoon session begins at 1:30 p.m. with "My Storm Years
on Everest: Climbing the Kangshung Face" by Ed Webster. Reception
at 3:30 p.m. in Firestone Library’s main exhibition gallery. Films
begin at 7:30 p.m.
The Everest ascent made by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund
Hillary in 1953 captured the world’s imagination — and helped
transform the sport of mountaineering. Several innovations have been
When George Mallory’s frozen body was discovered in 1999 at 27,000
feet, he was still clothed in the wools and tweeds he’d worn to attempt
the summit in 1924. Today’s climbers are swathed in insulated Gore-Tex
and use zinc-plated carabiners and chrome ice axes.
Tom Hornbein — who was a part of the first American team to summit
Everest and who is taking part in the Friends of the Princeton University
Library commemorative conference — also contributed a technological
innovation. Dividing his time between anesthesiology and mountaineering,
Hornbein was giving a lecture about one of his climbs at the University
of Washington where he practiced — and where Fred Maytag, the
owner of Maytag Company and an adverturer in his own right, was recuperating
from cancer surgery. Hornbein befriended the businessman and described
the problems he kept having with oxygen masks at high altitude.
Hornbein showed Maytag a design for a mask to be made out of rubber
that would be easier to de-ice and have simpler, more effective valves.
Maytag sent Hornbein’s ideas to his company’s design department, and
the result was the Maytag mask. Three months after Maytag died, Hornbein
and his team began their Everest trek — and Hornbein was wearing
the mask during his trailblazing summit.
That same mask was worn by filmmaker and mountaineer David Breashears,
who has summitted Everest several times and filmed the "Everest"
IMAX film released in 1998. "Breashears wore my mask in 1997,"
Hornbein says, "so it’s now climbed the mountain twice."
— Phyllis Maguir
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