Climbing Amok for Records

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

I won't be surprised if a report of the following kind were to appear in this newspaper some time soon.

"Pravin Newar of Kathmandu, who will be 10 in June, will set out to be the youngest person to summit Mr Everest when he starts his climb of the tallest mountain in the world on 10 April. Talking to reporters at a special press conference, Pravin said that when he was three, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa's summit climb made the news and he has wanted to climb Sagarmatha since then. He emphasized that in addition to being the youngest climber atop the world's highest mountain, he wants to set multiple records. Pravin wants to climb the mountain in 15 hours, wearing the Nepali national dress with the Palpali topi, bettering the previous record by an hour. On top of that he wants to undress at the summit, and leave the national dress at the top of the mountain as souvenir. In addition, Pravin wants to spend 21 hours at the top, bettering the previous record of 20 hours. 'I want to make Nepal proud' added Pravin."

Some aspects of the above report might seem too imaginative or exaggerated to some readers. However, given what we have read in recent times about various Nepalis who want to climb Mt Everest to set one or other record, the fabricated report seems very plausible to me. In other words, the goals of the fictional character Pravin Newar seem to be the logical end of the stated desires of those who want to record new 'victories' over the world's tallest mountain.

If you don't believe me, please take notice of the following reports that have appeared in the newspapers in recent weeks. Kaji Sherpa, who has climbed Mt Everest several times, first made it to the news when he climbed the mountain wearing the Nepali national dress. In October 1998 he was again in the news for having climbed the mountain in 20hrs 24 mins, bettering the previous record set by the French climber, Mark Batard. Kaji had actually wanted to climb the mountain in 18 hours but inclement weather interrupted his 'speed expedition' for about three hours within two hundred meters of the summit. After two months of Kaji's success, three-time summiteer Dawa Chiri Sherpa from Rolwaling told the press that he wanted to climb Sagarmatha in 17 hours.

In mid-March, we then heard of the desire of the seven-time summiteer Babu Chiri Sherpa, who wants to "spend an unprecedented 20 hours atop the 8,848 metre high summit entirely at the mercy of mother nature and that too without using supplementary bottled oxygen supply." At around the same time, newspapers reported about the forthcoming climb of a native of Pokhara, Arvin Timilsina who at 15 wants to be the youngest climber atop Sagarmatha, bettering the previous record (age 17) held by Shambhu Tamang. As a non-climber I do not understand this desire to record new types of victories over the tallest mountain in the world. While for some, the record setting agenda seems to be a competition with others, others claim that their goals emanate from a desire to simply make a claim over a record. Arvin obviously falls in the former category while Dawa Chiri Sherpa falls in the latter. Coming from a family of six brothers, all of whom had climbed Mt. Everest, Dawa was quoted in late December 1998 as saying, "More than competing with Kaji Sherpa I want to do this to fulfill my own desire and the requests of my friends. I am the son of poor [parents]. We don't have much else, except a desire to set a record."

For experienced climbers who have been atop Mt. Everest several times, trying to make it to the highest point on earth in a new way might seem like a worthy personal goal. But even then, it seems that some of the new record-setting attempts by these veteran climbers are signs of the climbing fetish gone amok. Staying at the summit for 20 hours without oxygen is one such sign. For neophyte climbers, these attempts are even more of a sure sign of the record-setting fetish gone amok. Consider Arvin's case. He has never climbed above 6000m. Heights above that altitude – referred to as the "Death Zone" in climbing parlance – is what he will have to survive if he wants to succeed.

At this rate, I, for one, think that before too long, we will be reading about a case similar to the fictional character Pravin Newar described at the beginning of this essay. While it is too early to suggest that the Nepali state should come up with a set criteria regarding who is eligible for climbing high mountains, I think it is time that a national debate on the subject be held openly. Climbing as a macho activity and the records associated with it might remain with us despite this debate but some parameters must be drawn to limit the present tendency of climbing amok for record-setting. Apart from stressing the perils of climbing and the high cost borne by communities who have lost a disproportionate number of their members to the mountains, this debate should highlight new themes for discussion. When the Nepali state does not think Arvin is old enough to vote in the forthcoming elections or drive a motorcycle, why should it allow him to climb Sagarmatha (and waive off the necessary royalties)? Isn't his case and those of others who want to set various records and make "Nepal proud" examples of vacuous Nepali nationalism, one that has not, to date, been able to ensure, that high altitude porters work under safe conditions? If so, it is really time to have this debate and mull over some related basic issues. Otherwise climbing gone amok and vacuous nationalism can be a disastrous combination for the society at large.

Published in The Kathmandu Post, 2 April 1999

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