Why does man climb mountains? There are a number of reasons and urges but it is not possible to comprehend all of them; the intensity of challenge, the excitement or love of adventure is the usual answer; or is it the urge to break free from the limits and disciplines of organized society? Realization of the Supreme Power, being close to nature or the companionship and enduring friendships which the mountains offer? Whatever the answer may be, it is no mundane activity and is without any utilitarian gain or material profit. The extraordinary struggle of man with rocks and ice, exhaustion and isolation and physical and mental strain add to this joy, especially when it is all over. Though, even after the mountains have been climbed; summits gained and goals reached, mountains always remain bigger than us.
Everest was discovered during the trignometrical survey of Himalayas by Sir George Everest, the then Surveyor General of India in 1841. Eleven years after the discovery when the data was compiled and it was found out that the Peak XV, Everest, was 29,000 feet high - the highest in the world. The great giants of the Himalayas-the seven “Octansenders” (over 8000 meters) and Everest, highest of them all, spurned attempt after attempt.
Darjeeling, where the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is situated, presents a most unparalleled view of the snowcapped Himalayas. At 45 miles through air from Darjeeling, lies the third highest peak in the world, the Kanchenjunga. A few miles from the town is Tiger Hill, from where on a clear morning, one can see the summit of the Everest, distinguished by its singular but imperial plume.
Sherpas are the inseparable part of any Everest expedition. Sherpas literally means “men from the east”. They are extraordinary people and exceptionally hard, courageous, dependable and loyal. They have acquired high proficiency in very high altitude snow and ice climbing.
The first step begins with a number of steps constituting the Forward March. The trek is through the scenic villages of Nepal, namely Sarsar-Phulbari-Amtai- Manebhanjyang-Okhuldunga and stopping at Thyangboche. The common villages known to Everesters , Nimare, Tomoche, Phuleli, Kharikhola, Puiyan and Phakding finally leading to Namche Bazar –the heart of Sherpa land.
Crossing the Sun Kosi and Dudh Kosi rivers through tall tress, cherry and apricot blossoms, one reaches deep ravines filled with boulders and the now barren hill slopes. At Thyangboche is the famous Lama monastery wherein resides the Incarnate Lama, when in Nepal. Thyangboche is truly “A Gateway to the Heavens” commanding a breathtaking view. At 13,000 ft, straight ahead lies the Everest, flanked by the stupendous, Lhotse and Nuptse walls. On the right is the towering Ama Dablam right over the valley of Imja Khola, a straight 10,000 ft below.
At high altitudes the environment is quite different from that what people are normally accustomed to. The thinner atmosphere brings breathing problems, upsets metabolism and absorption of oxygen and food in body diminishes. The blood becomes thicker to compensate this defect. Such other factors are included in the process of acclimatization.
The Base camp is set generally under the shadow of Khumbutse and the Lho-La. This area is probably the world’s greatest amhphitheater. Facing the Everest from the left, Pumori (23,442 ft), Lingtren (21,972 ft), Khumbutse (21,785 ft), Changtse (24,780 ft), the West shoulder of Everest, and Nuptse form a semicircle of snow white galleries rising in the azure blue sky.
The way up, the Khumbu glacier, leads to a semicircular dead end. The hanging tongues of ice, peeling off the walls constantly, bombard the slopes with constantly shattering rock hard ice. This is the “Icefall”. From a rim, over 20,000 ft, the Icefall rumbles in a continuous, thick cascade of solid ice, slowly, dangerously and deceptively, constantly shaking and trembling.
Beyond the Icefall, lies a gentle and broad glacier named as the Western cwm (cwm means hollow in a mountain; a deep ravine). On the left is the Everest, on the right is the Nuptse and straight ahead is the Lhotse face. Hence the calmness of the valley is broken only by avalanches that come thundering down these mountainsides. The cwm is also known as “The Valley of Silence” leading up to the tremendously steep jagged summit of Lhotse. On the left, is the summit of Everest rising 9,000 ft above the glacier, but in front lays the main hurdle.
Between Lhotse and the Everest, lies a broad gap at 26,200 ft. It is the famous South Col. Shortest route to the South Col is through the Lhotse Couloir (Couloir means a gully in up-down direction). At the height of 25,000 ft on the couloir, a traverse needs to be taken at the Geneva Spur (name given to the rock rib by the Swiss expedition). This is the zone, where the endurance of the climbers is tested to the limit against the bitter cold and the sharp winds. Above the South Col there is only one place for camping till now and that too at about 28,000 ft. There on rises the “Razor’s Edge”. The ridge is covered with soft snow and loose boulders. There is soft snow on the right and a sheer drop on the left. It leads to the South Summit. From the summit directly in front, is the final Summit Ridge, but only after a 30 ft descent and then a climb. It is a fairly steep slope with cornices. The Ridge is full of firm ice and leads to the famous “Hillary’s Chimney”, a rock and ice formation. On the left is the rock while on right is the snow. On has to climb through it with a sheer drop below. It was named a “Chimney” by Tenzing and Sir Hillary in 1953.
The Chimney leads straight onto the Summit hump. This is the top of the world, “the roof of the world”. The one’s who have been fortunate to stand on that peak report the feeling of mixed emotions right from joy to tears and gratitude to humbleness. Many of them have taken the snow or pebbles from the summit as mementos. The view from the summit is the most breathtaking. Knowing that it is the highest place on the planet (29,038 ft) everything else does look small. Makalu, Lhotse, Nuptse and Kanchenjunga in the distance look ravishing.
None of the summiteers have denied the fact of experiencing the power of the Supreme Being, while on top. It is a feeling of being suspended in space and time and the cycles of nature have no imprint on the phenomenon. We salute the one’s who have braved the Icefall, the ominous valley of silence, the cruel and windswept South Col and reaching the holy precincts of “Sagar Matha” and yet coming back to tell the tales of their embrace with the “Goddess Mother of the Earth”, locally called as Chomolungma.