Who will heed Sir Edmund's call?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 12:00am

Mountaineering, like so much else, has changed beyond recognition since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest - the world's highest peak - 50 years ago today.

Hailed as a gift for the newly crowned British Queen, the pair's success was the culmination of a large, carefully plotted expedition involving many months of toil and danger. 'We've finally knocked the bugger off,' Sir Edmund said with characteristic understatement after his triumph of human endeavour.

Now 83, Sir Edmund is expressing even tougher sentiments as guest of honour during the golden jubilee celebrations in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, the poor mountainous nation that sits in the cradle of Everest. The route up Everest has become something of a mountaineering motorway. More than 1,300 climbers - some of them, by Hillary's standards, extremely inexperienced - have now reached the summit. More than 170 reached the top in the last two weeks alone, some complaining of delays at key ladder points and fixed rope climbs.

Sir Edmund - joined by other veterans such as Reinhold Messner, the Italian who climbed Everest alone without oxygen - says it is time to 'give the mountain a rest for a few years'. They want the Nepalese government to limit the number of expeditions and the routes used, despite the loss of lucrative fees and taxes.

'At base camp there are 1,000 people and 500 tents; there are places for food, places for drinks and comforts that perhaps the young like these days,' Sir Edmund said. 'Just sitting around base camp knocking back cans of beer I don't particularly regard as mountaineering.'

The mountain, of course, remains as dangerous as ever - as tragedies in recent years have shown. If not so difficult a challenge in terms of climbing technique, its sheer scale brings unique difficulties. Blinding summit winds trap the unwary; the thin air can kill or cripple the poorly prepared.

Younger climbers are still demanding access. So too are the Sherpa guides making relative fortunes for their labours in guiding inexperienced climbers.

The question, certainly, is one of management. Ideally, the mountain that has done so much for the Nepalese should remain within reach. This may mean carefully controlling climbs and finding alternative climbing work for the hardy and talented Sherpas. It certainly will mean doing more to ensure the removal of tonnes of rubbish from previous expeditions now strewn across the mountain.

The answer lies, too, in the human spirit behind Hillary and Norgay's effort. It is not a place of mere entertainment, but one deserving awe and respect. Sir Edmund has done a great deal for the area in the last five decades. Other international climbers must fill those mighty boots.