As the world mourns the passing of one of its most famous explorers, Sir Edmund Hillary, so too, silently, will the mountains that have lost one of their best friends. Such was Sir Edmund’s concern for modern climbers who show scant respect for the true philosophy of mountaineering. In a sense, it is ironical that Sir Edmund lived long enough to see the realisation of his dream of the Himalayas — once an impossibly isolated region — become a popular destination for mountaineers. For this also turned the area into the highest garbage dump in the world.
Since Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay first stood atop Mt Everest in 1953, hundreds of enthusiasts have made the daunting attempt, discarding in their wake empty oxygen containers, bottles, food cans, and biodegradable stuff. Sadly, despite repeated warnings by green campaigners that this high altitude junk poses serious environmental threats, precious little has been done about it. Not that this is surprising given the increasing numbers of wannabe climbers who crowd the Everest base camp. It’s obviously not the call of high adventure that urges many of them to climb this beautiful, if dangerous, mountain. Rather, it is the glamour attached to ‘conquering’ (a word loathed by true mountaineers) the world’s most famous peak that drives them to pay huge sums to be literally led by the hand to ersatz climbing glory. The southeast ridge that took Sir Edmund and Tenzing to the top years ago is now a very different place, strewn with aluminium ladders and thousands of yards of fixed ropes that help inexperienced climbers negotiate the treacherous icefalls.
The best tribute mountaineers can pay Sir Edmund would be to change their attitude towards climbing. This could heal the scars on the Everest’s pristine mountainsides.