What's the point of climbing Everest?
I have never entirely understood the point of climbing mountains. Mallory's famous old line (if he ever really DID say it) that he wanted to climb Everest "Because it is there" has never seemed to me quite enough. All kinds of things are "there" in the world, which we dont feel the need -- or think it worthwhile -- to conquer. Without want to pour cold water on the efforts of Ben Fogle, swimming the Atlantic has never been top of most people's "wish I could" list, and we would take it as a curious obsession if we met someone who wanted to climb every tree in the country (because they were there). For many people mountains are obviously different (climb every mountain?) and I wouldnt for a minute want to stop then doing it -- but it's not for me.
This may have something to do with the fact that both my parents were passibly keen mountaineers and rock-climbers. And I was dragged up many a Welsh peak at too early an age. It was the cost-benefit analysis that I couldn't ever quite figure. When you had done it, what did you actually get out of it? My Dad would always enthuse about "the view", but not many under-10s are great admirers of mountainous panoramas. Although the parents decried it as desecration, I rather liked Snowdon, because there was at least a café when you got to the top -- though equally I could never really see why we couldnt have taken the little train to the summit.
Add to that a few nasty fatalities among the parents closest friends (from "falling off"), and I think you'll understand why I'm none too keen.
Anyway this all came back to me this week -- as we were "celebrating" the 60th anniversary of the Ascent of Everest.
My Mum and Dad were quite good friends with some of the successful "ascent team", so I heard rather a lot about it all from them.
Even then I remember being puzzled at why the man who went up the mountain with Hillary didnt seem to have a proper name: I decided that Sherpa Tenzing (as he always was then called) might be the Nepalese equivalent of Corporal Jones, but that didnt seem to fit with all that talk about "the Sherpas" as if beasts of burden.
Now we listen to all the old footage again, the imperial style of the expedition and the reporting is perhaps the most striking thing of all -- and only 60 years ago. It's an exact stylistic match for a letter I found among my long dead Mother's papers. It's from Charles Evans, who was the deputy on the Everest expedition, written a couple of years later, after he had led the successful ascent of another Himalyan mountain, Kangchenjunga. It's typed with a red ribbon, on one of those old-fashioned aerogrammes, and this is was it says:
"Dear Roy and Sarah,
Just a line of greeting, which was meant to have been written to you high on the mountain, but I forgot the letter cards when I moved up myself.
You'll have heard by now that it is climbed. It was done twice on the 25th and 26th. Just to show the world that we had plenty of punch, and now everyone is down safely off it. The proceedings have however unfortunately been marred by the death of a Sherpa from cerebral thrombosis, a nice friendly chap and good worker, and the Sherpas view is 'We got the mountain', 'the mountain got one of us' . . .It is of course true that his death was a consequence of his being high, or most probably so.
We are recovering -- eating and resting -- should be in Darjeeling about June 10th, when most chaps seem to be going to the Alps. All the best
Yours ever, Charles."
I have no doubt that climbing this mountain (twice) was a tremendous feat of stamina, effort, bodily exertion and organisation. I also have no doubt (from everything my parents said) that Charles Evans -- a doctor, who went on to become a University Principal -- was a nice guy. But all the same there's something uncomfortable about the words, or at least of another era.
The bit that gets me is when he says that "everyone" is safely off the mountain -- and then you discover that "everyone" didnt include the dead, nameless Sherpa.