Like all great adventure stories, it has the quality of a myth. Sixty years ago, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay – a beekeeper from New Zealand and a Sherpa from the valleys below the mountain – became the first human beings to set foot on the summit of Everest, known in Tibetan as Qomolangma, meaning the Mother Goddess of the World. As they descended the peak, the reporter James (now Jan) Morris rushed 4,000 feet down the mountain, braving the treacherous Khumbu icefall, to break the news to the world in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
This myth loomed large in my childhood: my great-uncle, John Hunt, was the expedition's leader. When I was little he embellished the story with suitably wondrous detail – the mysterious howling he'd heard at night, the yeti footprints he'd seen in the snow – and even his antiquated climbing gear, all cracked leather and polished wood, seemed like artefacts from an age of greater magic. As a child, I accepted that he'd been to the realm of gods, a pure and everlasting place far beyond ordinary reach; rare adventurers such as him might be permitted to visit for a while, but when they left, the mountain would return to its timelessness. The knowledge that such places existed – as immutable as Arctic icecaps, or the forests of the Amazon – was deeply comforting.
As I grew up I learned this was not the case. Hundreds of alpinists have followed in my great uncle's footsteps, trundling up and down the slopes like commuters on an escalator: the record for the youngest is 13, the oldest 80. Traces of cadmium and arsenic have been found in the highest snows, pollution from Asian industry. The Mother Goddess of the World has become the world's highest garbage dump, covered in tonnes of rubbish discarded by ever-less-respectful guests, littered with scores of frozen corpses similarly abandoned. Finding out about the degradation of this once impossibly faraway mountain – along with the shrinking icecaps, the melting glaciers, the vanishing forests – was like losing a part of my childhood. It lessened the world.
My great uncle's expedition, of course, helped set these things in motion: that first successful ascent made all others possible. Although he couldn't have imagined how mass transport, technology and tourism would come to populate the mountain, he was aware that the ascent had burst the bubble of the unknown, that Everest would be forever changed by the act of conquest. Six months after his return, he wrote of a 'lingering regret that this great peak no longer remains inviolate to hold out its challenge', but continued, as if in consolation: 'there are many other opportunities for adventure, whether they be sought among the hills, in the air, upon the sea, in the bowels of the earth, or on the ocean bed; and there is always the moon to reach. There is no height, no depth, that the spirit of man, guided by a higher Spirit, cannot attain.'
Sixty years on, such boundless confidence in the future feels vanishingly distant. We have indeed attained greater heights but the implications of our impulse to conquer are only too apparent: the damage can be seen in the hills, the air, the earth and the ocean. Our species has been too successful. I'm not saying we should stop adventuring, or lose the desire to explore the unknown – indeed, as our civilisation becomes increasingly disconnected from the natural, non-human world, it's vital that we do – but the vision of 1953 can't be the vision of today. We know too much for that now. The question is, having conquered the world, where do we go from here?
Perhaps an answer can be found in the words of Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, who spoke on the 60th anniversary about his own Everest climb in 1996. In his speech, the language of 'attacking' and 'conquering' nature – language still used with depressing frequency by modern-day adventurers – was notably absent. Instead he talked about showing respect, approaching the Mother Goddess of the World in a spirit of gratitude. It seems a good place to start. Our civilisation has climbed its mountains and now, perhaps, we can pause and give thanks before we begin our descent.
Image courtesy of Creative Commons