The lowering of Everest: A journey towards acceptance.
At this time of year, I’m often asked how I feel about the Everest circus. If you’re one of those inquisitors I apologise if I seemed vague or off-hand, for the truth is, I was sparing you a chunk of your precious time. The answer, you see, is complicated.
Long-term relationships tend to be complicated. Everest and I go back a long way — all the way back to my teenage years, when I found her suitors lined up on a shelf in the school library: Bonington, Scott, Haston, with only Messner to interrupt what I perceived to be a very British affair. Heroes all, they were members of an elite club, although in 1976 Bonington and Messner had yet to formally join it. In the twenty-three years following its first ascent in 1953, less than sixty people had stood on Everest’s summit.
At the time, Everest seemed hopelessly unattainable. She only gave herself to the best. I aspired to be among them, but those youthful aspirations were doused by the reality check of my first Himalayan expedition which told me, without gentleness, that I wasn’t good enough for Everest. She remained hopelessly out of reach. For the sake of my sanity, I forgot about her for years.
Then a chance meeting put us back in touch. By 1988 I’d grown up and I wanted to believe that she, having now succumbed to nearly two hundred summiteers, would come down to meet me. But she was cruel. She burned my skin and stole my breath and she screamed that I still wasn’t good enough. Once again, I forgot about Everest.
On the rebound, and needing to make a living, I set up a business taking people up more modest mountains: a 6000m peak the first year, a 7000m peak the next. Then in 1991, I led a team to an 8000m peak. Where do you go from there, when the only way is up?
The north face of Everest. The Hornbein Couloir (centre) hasn't been climbed since 1991.
A year later, Everest and I had another chance meeting and I dared to believe in our shared destiny. It wasn’t to be, yet she was kinder this time. She let me touch her brow at 8500m, near the top of the deepest crease on her scowling north face, a place that no one else has touched in the thirty years since then. It won’t mean anything to her, but it means a lot to me; the knowledge of it is almost intimate.
Having been rejected twice, you might think it impudent to try again. But when thirty-two people reached the summit on a single day in 1992, it was clear that Everest was stooping lower, or being pulled lower, perhaps even low enough for a lowly mountain guide like me. At a time when summit success was less assured than it is today, ‘perhaps’ was enough encouragement to give it a try. So, in the autumn of 1993 I led the UK’s first commercial expedition to a mountain I’d twice failed to climb.
There was a pivotal moment on the expedition which you’ll be able to read a book about one day. I’ve always erred on the side of caution in the mountains, especially with clients, but on our summit day I took a reckless chance. Infected by the lure of the summit — her come-hither heights — there was no question of turning back. Mesmerised by her beauty we climbed into her beckoning arms and trusted that she’d let us go. And she did: with sixteen summiteers it was the most successful commercial expedition of its time. Were it not for the unexpected appearance of an angel, the outcome would have been disastrous.
The summit of Everest, 7 October 1993.
Awash with gratitude for her kindness, I loved the mountain for a while. But as the years rolled on and she became ever more accessible, I resented her for her availability. She was less mysterious and less exclusive, and ridiculous though it was, I felt betrayed. I couldn’t reconcile my status as the 504th person to ever reach the summit with the shocking fact that more than that were climbing it in a week. And nor did I, as one of the first Everest guides, want to acknowledge my part in the mountain’s lowering. Disillusioned and confused, I stepped away from the business and found a new home in Australia, the flattest of lands.
But the sense of loss followed me. It became a festering sore on my ego, on my identity as a mountaineer, and every new ascent and every new record made it hurt a little more.
Until, that is, I decided to accept the gain of the new rather than resent the loss of the old. So now I think of it differently. Everest was tamed by the world’s best climbers, but they can’t hold on to it forever. It’s too big and too important. Besides, there are thousands of other mountains with limitless objectives for climbers to pick over. Why not make a gift of Everest to those who aren’t mountaineers, without judging whether or not they deserve it?
The 1993 Himalayan Kingdoms Everest Expedition team members at base camp.
Every May, Everest leaps back into the news with a new tranche of records broken and records made. The mountain keeps on giving, pushing personal boundaries, enriching lives. And the more who succeed, the more who are inspired to follow. With the help of sherpas and guides, it’s possible for determined people — from children to octogenarians — to experience the thrill of climbing to the highest point on Earth.
I no longer see anything wrong with that.