Every May, news from the Everest momentarily captures public fancy. Occasionally, it includes bad tidings, which, because of the tragic element, dent public consciousness. This year too, there have been three deaths though none controversial.
More regular is the flow of good news - of ascents, safe descents, national records and that most superlative statistic - a world record. Sadly, it all evokes a somewhat tepid response. As traffic to the Everest and rush of statistics increase, there is noticeable snickering that greets feats no less worthy than those of the past.
In 1996, when 15 deaths in the spring climbing season led to an outcry and debate, derision was heaped on the concept of commercial expeditions. But the age of expeditions mounted by nations was over and commercial expeditions were most logical in the modern era. Individuals keen to climb a mountain were happy to pay someone to take care of the logistics. It left the client free to train beforehand, keep fit on the mountain and use a guide and other help to get to the summit.
It didn't come cheap, especially for an eight-thousand peak. But booming business reduces prices and, while the most expensive package deals cost $70,000, berths on no-frills expeditions for less than half this amount became available. Yet, armchair critics sneer: "So, anyone who has that much money and is fit can climb the Everest, huh?"
More people are climbing the Everest today than ever before but not because it's got any easier. Modern equipment, training methods, a glut of information, and financial resources have played a role. But the Everest still thrusts the dangerous Khumbu ice-fall and avalanche-prone Camp III, and the same low temperatures and biting winds into the face of every human who ventures onto her flanks. There's another common crib line: "They do it for the records, not for love of mountaineering." Chhurim Sherpa (27) of Nepal climbed the Everest on May 12 this year. On May 19, she stood atop the summit again, becoming the first woman to climb the Everest twice in the same season. To complete the ordeal again within 11 days is a stupendous achievement. Of course, she set out with the world record fuelling her ambition. But who would grudge that?