Everest, everywhere, all at once: What the peak is teaching us about attitudes and altitudes - Hindustan Times
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Everest, everywhere, all at once: What the peak is teaching us about attitudes and altitudes

ByShail Desai
Jun 14, 2024 04:45 PM IST

From the world’s tallest mountain to its highest garbage dump, a lot has changed since the mountain was first summited in 1953. A view from the top.

In 1998, the first civilian expedition to Everest set off from Mumbai. It had been planned to mark 50 years since India gained independence from British rule.

Everest as seen from Gokyo valley. Today, climbers get endless oxygen supply, are airlifted beyond Base Camp, hire Sherpas to do the heavy lifting. The result: alarming numbers of climbers this spring. (Adobe Stock) PREMIUM
Everest as seen from Gokyo valley. Today, climbers get endless oxygen supply, are airlifted beyond Base Camp, hire Sherpas to do the heavy lifting. The result: alarming numbers of climbers this spring. (Adobe Stock)

The climbers boarded a second-class train compartment to Gorakhpur, crossed the border with Nepal by road, and caught a bus to Kathmandu. After a short trek to acclimatise to altitude, another long drive brought them to the base camp in Tibet.

It had been three weeks since they set out.

Even for a private expedition with such a grand mission, gathering funds was a challenge. An attempt on the world’s highest peak from the north would be less expensive, and a lot more satisfying, since it was less commercial than the route via the South Col-South East ridge in Nepal.

The 13-member Independence Golden Jubilee Everest Expedition team, led by Hrishikesh Yadav, featured seven climbing members and a team of Sherpas from Nepal. Surendra Chavan was the first to summit Everest that season, on May 18; a day later, his teammate Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu made it to the top.

“Back then, an expedition was deemed successful if even one member reached the summit. So we decided to climb on different days to maximise our chances of success,” says Chavan, 63. “We had a lot of tasks to attend to on the mountain. It was a really demanding experience for all members. Once all camps were set up, we had a meeting to decide who would attempt the summit. The Sherpas had an equal say since they had seen us operating on the mountain.”

Until Advance Base Camp, most of the gear had been carried by yaks. Here on, loads were ferried to the higher camps to stock them for the summit push. They also carried ropes and hardware that would be needed to secure the tricky sections on the mountain.

How heavily trafficked is Everest? When part of an ice cornice collapsed in May, photographs offered an indication, as climbers and guides were forced to queue and wait to pass between Hillary Step and the South Summit. (Getty Images)
How heavily trafficked is Everest? When part of an ice cornice collapsed in May, photographs offered an indication, as climbers and guides were forced to queue and wait to pass between Hillary Step and the South Summit. (Getty Images)

Conditions were similar when Bachendri Pal and Rita Gombu Marwah arrived at Everest in 1993, as part of an all-woman team. Both women had attempted to summit previously; Pal had succeeded, becoming the first Indian woman at the peak in 1984. She was now leading the team, with Marwah as her deputy. (They did not make summit attempts this time, but were instead responsible for the planning of the climb.)

“There was a lot of talk that Everest had lost its value since women were now climbing. It was quite disturbing. But we set it all aside to do a job better than the men. We scrutinised around 100 applicants and picked our team. Every member was involved in the load ferry. These were really fit women who deserved the success of seven summits that the mission achieved,” says Marwah, 66.

Expeditions to Everest picked up as commercial climbing took off in the 1990s, and things started to change. The first thing to change was the numbers; the second were the facilities, to allow those large numbers of people with varied skills to dream of making it to the top of what had once been one of the world’s most forbidding peaks.

In 1990, less than 40 years after the first-ever summit, by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, in May 1953, there were 10 expeditions. There were 56 in 2000; 81 in 2010; and 92 in 2019. According to the Himalayan Database, 1,080 Indians have climbed Everest, the third-highest tally by a single country (the first two are the US and the UK). More than half of these, 537, were Indians who signed up between 2011 and 2019.

It has simply become easier and more convenient. Hence the snaking queues, this spring, and in turn, a few casualties as well.

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So, what’s changed? Dharmshaktu, who has attempted Everest via three different routes, made his second successful ascent via the south side in 2006. On his last visit to Everest Base Camp, in 2021, he says he was taken aback by what he saw.

“There were people going from Base Camp to Camp 2 in a helicopter, climbing to the summit, descending to Camp 2 and flying straight to Kathmandu. This is what Everest has been reduced to,” he says. “A successful climb was from Base Camp to the summit and back. And that rule is no different today.”

The helicopter service has made the south side vastly more popular. Nepal, whose economy depends heavily on Everest tourism, and tourism in general, is flexible when it comes to the norms. There were once rules that stated one had to have summited a smaller mountain before attempting an 8,000-metre one. Recently, Nepal’s Supreme Court ordered the regulation of climbers going to Everest. The impact of the overcrowding has been notable in Sagarmatha National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where Everest is located, with piles of accumulated garbage, contaminated water sources and in the extent of disruption to the sensitive biosphere.

A file photo from 2018 shows some of the prayer flags and celebratory messages left behind at Base Camp. (Adobe Stock)
A file photo from 2018 shows some of the prayer flags and celebratory messages left behind at Base Camp. (Adobe Stock)

So far, the numbers show no signs of abating. This spring, Nepal’s tourism department handed out 421 permits for the mountain, generating $4.5 million in royalties on the permits alone. For a little perspective, all of Nepal’s seven other 8,000ers — Annapurna I, Dhaulagiri, Kangchenjunga, Makalu, Lhotse, Manaslu and Cho Oyu — received a combined total of 313 permits, fetching about $558,000 in revenue.

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The trash left behind by hundreds of people has handed Everest the infamy of being the world’s highest garbage dump. Dharmshaktu has led clean-up expeditions that have collected tonnes of trash from the higher camps. “But bringing down trash left behind by others requires huge amounts of manpower, especially from Camp 4, the highest camp, where people simply abandon what they don’t need,” says Satyadeep Gupta, who was on the mountain this season. “Perhaps bigger drones could help address this situation…”

For other ways to address the situation, one could look to measures enforced by the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA). For starters, it costs about $10,000 more per person to climb Everest from Tibet. That automatically means fewer takers, but it also does guarantee them a better experience.

“There were just three teams on the mountain in May. That’s 30 to 40 people, with each team assigned their own summit day. It’s definitely better climbing from Tibet,” says Kuntal Joisher, who has summited Everest from both sides, Nepal and Tibet, in different years. “When I was there in 2019, the most I had in front of me at any point were three climbers.”

Then again, he adds, China doesn’t depend on tourism revenue as heavily. “They’ll be fine even if they halt climbing completely, unlike Nepal,” he says.

So, amid the endless supplies of oxygen and the comforts at camp, all provided by a high-altitude guide, an immensely skilful Sherpa in all likelihood, what is the real Everest on Everest today?

There are routes that have still seen only a handful of successful summits, and a few that still remain unclimbed. These require technical climbing skills, the ability to forge a way up the mountain, the physical strength to operate in inclement weather conditions and the acceptance that even after weeks of trying, the summit may continue to be elusive.

It’s a world of a difference from how most approach Everest — and other commercial climbs — today, where a team of Sherpas called Icefall Doctors paves a way through the Khumbu Icefall, and another team opens the route to the summit, before the floodgates open for the rest to follow.

Honest climbers call themselves high-altitude tourists, rather than mountaineers. “It’s really a guided trip,” Joisher says. “The journey though is still transformative. And the hope is to share the experience and inspire others to find their own Everest.”

That phrase has perhaps done more damage, through the decades, than it was intended to do, especially on the high mountains. But climbing Everest can still change lives.

Soon after his summits in 1998 and 1999, Dharmshaktu was hired by the Border Security Force and went on to lead a number of expeditions in the high mountains that earned him a Padma Shri in 2014.

Chavan, who also summited as part of the jubilee team, found mention in school textbooks in Maharashtra, and had a chowk named after him in his hometown of Dapoli.

“We were welcomed with a dhol tasha performance inside the Mumbai airport, then taken all around Pune in a jeep. After that, my life didn’t change much,” he says, “simply because I didn’t want it to change.”

Everest had always been the end in itself.

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TAKE IT FROM THE TOP: 5 climbers look back

Rita Gombu Marwah, attempted Everest in 1984: She climbed so other women could summit

(Courtesy Rita Gombu Marwah)
(Courtesy Rita Gombu Marwah)

Just below South Summit, a feature at 8,690 metres on Everest, Rita Gombu Marwah, then 26, had a decision to make.

On the one hand, there was the glory of being the first Indian woman to scale Everest. On the other, the weather had turned over the last hour, bringing strong winds that were now pushing them back. One of her climbing partners, Phu Dorjee, had set off on his own, while the other, Ang Dorje, was slowing down behind her.

“Ang Dorje’s feet had gone cold, since he didn’t have a sleeping bag at South Col the previous night. He was apprehensive about continuing the climb,” she says.

It was 1984. The Indian Mountaineering Foundation had sent a mixed team to Everest, at the suggestion of then prime minister Indira Gandhi, who felt it was time for an Indian woman to stand at the summit. At the time, Marwah worked with Air India as a traffic assistant at Palam Airport, but she was also a trained climber, from a family of mountaineers. Her father, Nawang Gombu, was the first man to scale Everest twice; Tenzing Norgay was her grand-uncle.

To make the cut for the expedition, Marwah scaled Kabru Dome in Sikkim in 1982 and made an attempt on Mana the following year. “That was some hard climbing. We were competing with the men and were picked based on speed and stamina,” she says.

There were only two teams climbing Everest that spring. Each member carried their own gear to the higher camps to get ready for the summit push. “The summit teams were picked based on how each climber had performed during these rotations. I was part of the first team, and we had done well on the journey to South Col,” Marwah says.

Now, she was torn between pushing on and retreating. She asked Ang Dorje how far the summit was. “He told me, ‘You’ll make it there, but won’t come back alive.’” This was an experienced climber who had summited Everest before. “I was disappointed, but this was no do-or-die mission for me,” Marwah says.

She abandoned the attempt. Two weeks later, her teammate Bachendri Pal made history as the first Indian woman, and fifth woman overall, to summit Everest.

“Back home, the newsreader announced how I was the first Indian woman to climb over 8,000 metres. They also mentioned my feat in Parliament. I was quite happy with just that. Once home, I got busy with my job, marriage and kids. I have no regrets,” Marwah says.

Pal and she would lead an all-woman expedition to Everest a decade later, in 1993. They would not attempt to summit then, but they would help seven other women reach the top.

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Surendra Chavan, first summited in 1998: When the Gods intervened

Surendra Chavan leaves Advance Base Camp for his summit attempt. (Courtesy Surendra Chavan)
Surendra Chavan leaves Advance Base Camp for his summit attempt. (Courtesy Surendra Chavan)

For three days, 37-year-old Surendra Chavan was stuck at Camp 5 on the north side of Everest. He and his climbing partner would wake every few hours to knock the snow off the roof of their tent, lest they be buried beneath it. When the weather finally cleared, four Sherpas arrived bearing batteries for his walkie-talkie.

“The team at Advance Base Camp was relieved to hear from us. They had been concerned,” he says. His partner, who was suffering altitude sickness, went down as Chavan and the four Sherpas continued up.

At Camp 6, they somehow managed to prop up one of the two tents, both of which had been flattened by the storm, and all five men squeezed into it. After a brief rest and a quick meal of sattu and tea, they set off for the summit at 2.30 am.

“We were the first team to go up that year, so we had to keep fixing ropes in certain sections. As the sun came out, I reached out for my sunglasses, only to realise they were missing. I panicked, well aware of the consequences of snow blindness. But I collected my thoughts and remembered the spare glasses in my sack,” he says.

After they cleared the First and Second Step, two significant features en route, a brief celebration unfolded over walkie-talkie. But just 100 metres from the summit, the team was battered by strong winds. It was impossible to stand, so they crouched in the snow and waited. In the next minute, the team sirdar, Dawa Sherpa, pulled out some paper and flung them towards the sky.

“The city boy in me couldn’t quite understand why Dawa had to litter those pristine surroundings. I chided him, only to hear that the papers had prayers scribbled on them and had been given to him by the lamas from Rongbuk monastery for our safety. And quite remarkably, the wind died out in the next ten minutes, allowing us to reach the summit,” he says.

On the descent, Chavan recalls saying a little prayer at a point where an Indian climber lay forever. And another moment, when he almost fell asleep; he’d made the mistake of stopping to sit and catch his breath. All further breaks would be standing ones, he says, laughing.

At base camp, he felt a fresh surge of adrenaline. He’d actually done it.

“I experienced the real joy of standing on top of Everest when I was reunited with my teammates,” he says. “For a few seconds, nobody said a word. Most of us were just sobbing. I felt immense gratitude in that moment, since every single person had contributed equally so that I could get to stand at the top of the world.”

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Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu’s 2001 odyssey: A route left unfinished

Bad weather and a few close calls prevented Dharmshaktu and his 12-member team from reaching the summit via the unclimbed East Ridge in 2001. (Courtesy Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu)
Bad weather and a few close calls prevented Dharmshaktu and his 12-member team from reaching the summit via the unclimbed East Ridge in 2001. (Courtesy Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu)

After scaling Everest via the north side in 1998, Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, 28, returned with a team to attempt the unclimbed East Ridge route.

“It remains the most thrilling expedition I’ve been on,” he says. Now a deputy commandant with the Border Security Force, he has made 11 attempts on Everest and summited seven times, the most by any Indian.

That year, the 12-member team set up base camp on the Kangshung Glacier and studied the East Ridge to find a way up. At every stage of their climb, they were met with opposition from the mountain. There was a reason this route had not yet been successfully attempted.

“There were so many avalanches and we had a few close calls. We said a little prayer every day before setting off,” Dharmshaktu says.

Even with much of their gear swept away, they managed to make it to about 6,800 metres. But, amid bad weather and whiteouts, there was no way to proceed, and they had to descend.

Once they were back at the Base Camp, they tried finding another route up the mountain. But time eventually ran out as the monsoon approached. The highest the team reached was 7,700 metres, a little below South Col.

They promised each other they would return and try again the following year, but failed to secure funding for the next attempt. This remains unfinished business for Dharmshaktu. “We experienced all the rush that comes with real dangers on an expedition. That route remains unclimbed even today,” he says.

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Kuntal Joisher, finally summited in 2016: In pursuit of an all-vegan climb

When Joisher returned to Everest three years after his first summit, he replaced his feathered down suit with one made of recycled plastic and reclaimed fishing nets. (Courtesy Kuntal Joisher)
When Joisher returned to Everest three years after his first summit, he replaced his feathered down suit with one made of recycled plastic and reclaimed fishing nets. (Courtesy Kuntal Joisher)

His first two climbs were cancelled due to an accident on Everest in 2014 and an earthquake the following year. Kuntal Joisher’s family was concerned after he had just about survived an avalanche triggered by the earthquake. For years, he had invested both time and finances in pursuit of Everest.

“But I had to finish the climb,” he says. “This was a personal pursuit, my dream, and if I gave up, the regret was going to be mine.”

Eventually, at 36, all his past experience of climbing smaller mountains, including success on Manaslu, the eighth highest in the world, helped him get ready for an attempt in 2016.

When he finally neared the summit, Joisher encountered a few descending climbers and snuck past them, while those behind him remained stranded at bottlenecks. As a result, when he got to the summit at 9.20 am, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and there were just four other climbers around. It was everything he had dreamed it would be.

He sobbed as he called his father to share the moment and then he spent a precious 30 minutes undisturbed, at the peak.

“I have made it to the summit of 35 mountains, but I have never felt what I did on Everest,” he says.

That year, Everest recorded a 94% success rate as 313 clients and 366 support staff reached the top. Climbing on Everest was heading towards its peak, with all kinds of support available on the mountain. But what was far worse was the quality of climbers attempting Everest.

“The numbers who started arriving at Everest without preparation have only been increasing. They don’t know the left crampon from the right, nor how to wear a harness. And a few who get themselves in trouble demanded someone come rescue them,” Joisher says.

The 2016 climb left Joisher with one regret: The staunch vegan had to relent and wear a down suit stuffed with bird feathers. He made up for this three years later, when he returned to the mountain in a synthetic suit made with recycled plastic and reclaimed fishing nets, to pull off what he proudly calls the first all-vegan summit of Everest.

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Satyadeep Gupta and a record-setting 2024: Twin peaks

Gupta summited two peaks — Everest and neighbouring Lhotse — twice each, over just 10 days. (Courtesy Satyadeep Gupta)
Gupta summited two peaks — Everest and neighbouring Lhotse — twice each, over just 10 days. (Courtesy Satyadeep Gupta)

On the day Satyadeep Gupta, 38, was readying for the summit push, he caught a stomach bug that caused severe diarrhoea.

He could hear the clock ticking. Gupta was attempting a first in the world of mountaineering: a summit of Everest and neighbouring Lhotse twice in a single season. He had about two weeks to pull it off before the end of the climbing season.

“On May 20, I set off for the Everest summit at 7.45 pm, to avoid other climbers. It worked quite well and I was at the peak by 4.15 am,” he says.

By 7.30 am, he had descended to Camp 4 on the South Col that links Everest and Lhotse. On realising how dehydrated he now was, he decided to wait out the daylight hours, and rest. At 1 am the following day, he started for the summit of Lhotse. With hardly any climbers on the route, he made rapid progress, and reached the top by 7.40 am.

The descent was a nightmare, he says. He could feel his body getting weaker. He considered halting at Camp 2, but he was determined to make the second attempt, and pushed on. Back at base camp, he was administered medication, fluids, salts and fruit. After 48 hours, he was ready for his second attempt, though he now had just three days to do it.

“I set off with two Sherpas, one of them a rescue specialist, in case I got into trouble. I blocked everything out and let my mind take over,” Gupta says.

From Base Camp, the trio made a direct push to Camp 3 and, after spending the night there, moved to South Col the following day. As they set out for the summit at 6 pm, Gupta realised they had the entire stretch to themselves.

“You do have this thought that if something were to happen, nobody would have a clue. And maybe nobody would even find us,” he says.

The strong winds over the last 200 metres brought immense suffering for the trio. There wasn’t much of a view when they summited in the dark, at 12.45 am. After a few photographs, they made a quick descent to South Col for a few hours of rest before setting off for Lhotse; by noon, they were on that summit. Gupta made history when he finally walked into Base Camp at 10.30 pm. He had summited the two peaks, twice each, over just 10 days.

“Nobody believed I would make it, except my climbing partner Bharath Thammineni. But I was clear that summiting Everest had to be a special event, done in a special way. And I did just that.”

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