Himalayan High: Different mood on mountain since that heady day in 1953

By Amelia Wade

Increasing commercialisation of the trek up Mt Everest is seen as having contributed to a breakdown in the 'brotherhood of the rope' since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered the formidable peak.

Sir Edmund Hillary, left, said at the time, two years before his death, that he thought the whole attitude towards climbing Mt Everest had become rather horrifying. Photo / Royal Geographical Society
Sir Edmund Hillary, left, said at the time, two years before his death, that he thought the whole attitude towards climbing Mt Everest had become rather horrifying. Photo / Royal Geographical Society

Much has changed since two men stood on the top of the world for the first time 60 years ago.

The Himalayan townships have become more developed, Nepal and New Zealand have developed a strong bond and the Everest climb itself has been commercialised.

Today marks the diamond jubilee of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay's successful attempt to conquer the formidable peak.

But new research into the erosion of mutually supportive behaviour among Everest climbers has found there has been a breakdown of the "brotherhood of the rope" since that 1953 climb because of how commercialised expeditions have become.

Sir Edmund's daughter, Sarah, said the increasing number of people climbing the world's highest mountain wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but regulations needed to be put in place to protect both the climbers and the environment.

The working paper by two researchers at the Queensland University of Technology was inspired by Sir Edmund's comment in 2006 after 40 climbers passed Briton David Sharp as he lay dying of altitude sickness without trying to save his life.

"On my expedition there was no way that you would have left a man under a rock to die," Sir Edmund said. "It simply would not have happened. It would have been a disaster from our point of view."

The famous New Zealand explorer and philanthropist said at the time, two years before his death, that he thought the whole attitude towards climbing Mt Everest had become rather horrifying.

"The people just want to get to the top," Sir Edmund said.

Dr David Savage of the Queensland Behavioural Economics group and a co-researcher, Benno Torgler, set out to learn whether Sir Edmund was right and to what extent commercialisation had shifted the norms of behaviour in the life-and-death environment of the Himalayas.

"The development of the traditional climbing social norms grew alongside that of the local Sherpas who hold the same ethic and have, in countless expeditions, risked their lives to help stricken climbers or bring back their bodies," Dr Savage said.

"Traditional, or non-commercial, climbers return to Everest again and again; they build up a bond with other traditional climbers and Sherpas through repeated interaction.

"This leads to a greater emotional attachment and a willingness to stop their ascent to help other traditional climbers, which is enhanced by the fact they know they will have another attempt next year."

Dr Savage said the commercial climbers, who paid more than $65,000 to be taken to the top by an experienced summiter, lacked experience, dedication and training - theirs was a once-in-a-lifetime trip to "tick Everest off their bucket list".

Dr Savage and Professor Torgler analysed Himalayan climbing data from 1950 to 2009 and looked at the impact of Sherpas. They found 58.8 per cent of expeditions did not carry on to the summit after a death had occurred in the expedition.

"However, we do observe that 80.6 per cent of the commercial expeditions with a death succeeded to the top while only 37.8 per cent of the non-commercial expeditions did, which may indicate they were more willing to halt their attempt to attend to a comrade."

Dr Savage said it appeared the presence of a Sherpa in the non-commercial expeditions was a major contributing factor in the maintenance of the old pro-social behaviours after a death, which is borne out in the anecdotal evidence.

In order to further understand these findings the researchers are undertaking a large-scale project looking at the attitudes and beliefs of climbers in the Himalayas.

Sarah Hillary said you couldn't get around the fact that only one mountain was the highest so it was inevitable people wanted to climb it.

But with the amount of money invested in Nepal because of the mountain, it was understandable the locals wouldn't want to stop its commercialisation. But a tightening of controls was needed, Ms Hillary told the Herald. "It would be great if there were regulations to protect the environment and also the people who are working there."

Ms Hillary said it would be nice to see people become more interested in climbing Nepal's other mountains.

"It seems to me you would get a more quality experience doing another peak which is equally [hard], or perhaps even harder."

At a conference on Sunday hosted by the Nepal Tourism Ministry inthe Himalayan mountain town of Khumjung, concerns were expressed about how inexperienced climbers were jeopardising the lives of fellow mountaineers and Sherpa guides.

The president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, Frits Vrijlandt, said those who could not prove their experience should first have to climb one of Nepal's numerous peaks above 6000m, most of which were more technically challenging.

How world is celebrating 60th anniversary

Auckland
Today: Free talk at the Auckland Museum with Sarah Hillary and mountaineer Peter Cammell.
July 4: Everest Celebration Dinner - 60 Years On, held by Sir Edmund Hillary's Himalayan Trust at the Heritage Hotel.

Britain
Sir Edmund's son, Peter, and Norgay's son Jamling join the Queen at a diamond jubilee event at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Mt Everest
Eco Everest Expedition targets rubbish left on the mountain.

Nepal
Three-day Mt Everest diamond jubilee celebrations including some of Sir Edmund's and Norgay's families.

The Hillary family
Small celebration with an Everest chocolate cake.

Read more: Hillary's legacy a bond between nations

Different mood on mountain

- NZ Herald

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