Today is the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest (in case you didn’t know). You don’t have to be a mountaineer to gaze in wonder at photos of the highest mountain on earth, picturing what it would be like if you could drag yourself up it’s treacherous slopes. I used to think I’d like to have a go at it one day but for several reasons that I’ll get into, I doubt I will. However, for a mere $65,000 you can get yourself on an expedition and be in with a real chance of making it to the summit. I have a great deal of respect for anybody who manages to push themselves to get to the top, or even has a crack at it and fails (as most people do). But it’s nothing compared to the respect I have for the team who managed to put Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay onto the roof of the world.
With modern equipment, a competent guide, fixed ropes for most of the route to the summit, good weather and a body that can handle being at high altitude (doesn’t matter how fit and strong you are, some people’s bodies just can’t adapt to the altitude), then you’re in with a good chance of climbing Everest. I’ve seen professional climbers say that “with the right weather you can get almost anybody to the top of Everest” and they’re right, technically it’s nowhere near as hard as, say K2 or Gasherbrum 4. It’s an amazing achievement to succeed if all the above factors are in your favour, but it’s not what I’d call mountaineering.
Wind back to 1953. The equipment was extremely primitive by today’s standards: the oxygen equipment was bulky, heavy and not a patch on modern kit, Gore-Tex was decades away, camping equipment hadn’t benefited from light-weight advanced materials, the crampons weren’t secured to their flimsy boots very well and didn’t even have front pointing spikes on them. In fact, whereas you can front-point your way up ice today with crampons and ice tools, in those days they had to cut steps the whole way up with their ice axes – sheer hell. Understanding of the physiological effects of altitude was in its infancy and – most important of all – it had never been done before. This last point matters on many levels.
In 1953 nobody had been to 29,000 feet on a mountain and many believed that you would die trying. While a Swiss team the year before had made it to the south summit, no human had gone along the knife-edge ridge to the summit proper. They were stepping into the unknown, not really knowing what to expect, the barrier to success being as much psychological as physical. They had everything to lose and everything to gain. That’s why I get shivers down my spine just thinking about it. I try to imagine what it must have felt like with all the doubts and dangers, both known and suspected. Doing something for the first time – forging into the unknown – seems like the ultimate adventure if you ask me. Knowing what to expect at every turn just seems to take the edge off.
Nope, being guided all the way to the top wouldn’t do it for me. It just wouldn’t be right. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t give it a go if the opportunity fell into my lap. But whenever I start thinking that way I just think back to seeing Chris Bonington give a presentation a few years ago on an expedition he’d just done. There was one slide he showed where he was leading along a knife-edge ice-covered ridge with a sheer 3000m drop below “just to see if there was a way through”. There was just him and his climbing partner belaying, and that was it. That was all the support he had. He couldn’t call search and rescue and expect them to come and save him if it all went pear shaped, he had to rely purely on his and his partner’s skills and experience gained over years of climbing at the top level.
Call me old fashioned if you like, but I think you should earn the right to climb mountains like the Himalayas with winters in the Alps or similar locations. Being a rich, successful trader with $65,000 to spare doesn’t qualify in my mind. And neither do I. So on this 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, I’ll not be thinking about the mountain, I’ll be thinking about the men who beat all the odds and achieved the impossible. And lived to tell the tale.