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Everest: Why do people still climb the world's highest peak?

A hundred years after the first attempt to scale Everest, the peak continues to draw hundreds of aspirants every summer

Climbers approaching the summit of Everest.
Climbers approaching the summit of Everest. (Istockphoto)

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About five years ago, Somat Chetariya, 40, decided to revive his interest in geography. He had enjoyed the subject in school, but that was before he had come across 8,000m mountains. The world of big mountains fascinated him and he started absorbing all the literature on it. In search of his own adventure, he decided to climb Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world, and reached the summit in September last year. It set the stage for an attempt on Everest this spring.

“Manaslu taught me to push myself. Climbing these big mountains is more a measure of your mental capability than your physical ability,” Chetariya says. Time has always been a luxury for Chetariya, a urologist by profession, and he had to figure out ways to ready his body for Everest. Besides on-ground training, he invested in a hypoxic tent. For three months, he slept in it to acclimatise his body for altitude.

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Once the climbing season got under way, Chetariya, unlike most other climbers, took a helicopter directly to the Everest Base Camp on 12 April. After three acclimatisation climbs, he flew back to his home-town Jamkhambhaliya in Gujarat on 30 April. He attended to 41 surgeries over the next week. All the while, he slept in his hypoxic tent to remain acclimatised, flying back to Base Camp for the final summit push on 6 May. He summited Everest on 13 May, and climbed neighbouring Lhotse the next day, pulling off two 8,000m climbs in under 23 hours.

A century since the first attempt at climbing Everest, the peak continues to draw aspirants in the hundreds each summer. Some climb chasing many firsts, others do so in search of accolades, others because they just feel like doing so. Rarely does anyone climb Everest via difficult, technical routes in a display of mountaineering ability any more, though. Everyone, apart from the Sherpas, is a client climber following a fixed rope set by the Sherpas every season.

But before Everest became the poster boy of commercial climbing, it represented a severe mountaineering test. Harshwanti Bisht, the current president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and the first woman to hold the post, was part of the Indian expedition to Everest in 1984. This was the team that put Bachendri Pal on the summit—the first Indian woman to get there. Bisht, 67, remembers taking a long hike to Base Camp, starting out a short distance from Kathmandu, that helped her get acclimatised. Hers was the only team at Base Camp; the Indians were joined by a Bulgarian expedition a few days later. Most of the work, from setting up the camps to fixing ropes up the South Col route, was done by the team. “An advance team would go up and figure out the tricky sections where they needed to fix ropes. This party would then come down and rest, while another team would go up to continue building on their work. That was the system in place,” Bisht says.

In Bisht’s home-town Kotdwar, Uttarakhand, people had little idea of Everest or why someone would want to climb it. “A small percentage, who knew about mountaineering, encouraged me and asked me to be careful. The mountain would always be there for another attempt,” she says.

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Even after commercial expeditions took off in the 1990s, climber Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, 49, recalls the cooperative efforts of route-opening. “There were Khumbu Icefall doctors (Sherpas who set the guide ropes through the dangerous, building-sized seracs and ladders across gaping crevasses in the Khumbu Glacier) even back then, but they were often joined by expedition members who had the capability to operate on the mountain. Once the route was opened, maintaining it was the responsibility of members from each team,” he says. Dharmshaktu first climbed Everest in 1998, and has summited it six more times. “Today, none of these things happen—it’s all very commercial, as everything has been taken over by the expedition operators from Nepal,” he adds. He does believe, though, that the current practices make Everest more affordable and minimise casualties on the mountain.

Dharmshaktu’s climbing career started in the late 1980s, when he worked with a number of expeditions, doing a variety of jobs—as a route-opener, cook and high-altitude porter. He went on to climb many mountains in the Indian Himalaya, such as Nanda Ghunti, Kamet and Satopanth. “I come from a remote village called Bona in Uttarakhand, where we still don’t have a road. My hope was that climbing Everest would help me secure a job,” says Dharmshaktu, whose stellar climbing resume did help him get a job with the Border Security Force in 2000.

What has stayed constant through all the changes, however, is the appeal of climbing the highest mountain in the world. Jay Kolhatkar, 26, got his first taste of the mountains as a child when he went trekking with his mother. After pursuing mountaineering courses and climbing smaller mountains in India, he longed to get a feel of altitude. “I could have picked a cheaper mountain to climb but Everest is a dream for every mountaineer. And it’s no different for me,” says Kolhatkar, who reached the summit of Everest on 12 May. He hopes to continue climbing and pursue a career in outdoor education.

Devin Gala, 35, an American, remembers drawing inspiration from a book written by Ed Viesturs, the first and only American to climb all fourteen 8,000ers, and without supplementary oxygen. After picking up the basics, Gala climbed Mount Rainier in the US in 2012. Since then, he has climbed five of the Seven Summits—the seven highest peaks on each continent. After an unsuccessful attempt on Ama Dablam in 2018, where he chose to follow his instincts and retreat, he decided to climb Everest this year for reasons other than the glory that comes with a successful summit bid. “There’s a little bit of a fear of missing out. The way climate change has been deeply and rapidly affecting the glaciers, these mountains may not remain the same. I climb mountains because they may not be there,” says Gala, who summited Everest on 13 May and climbed Lhotse the next day.


The admiration that comes with summiting Everest is the same as winning gold for the country at the Olympics

Some, like Rahul Bairwa, 29, set aside a conventional career in the hope of taking up mountaineering as a full-time profession. Since quitting his job five years ago, he has been investing in his Everest climb. He pursued mountaineering courses and applied his learning on climbs up Satopanth and Kun in India, as well as on Elbrus and Kilimanjaro in Europe and Africa, respectively. His routine involves ultra running and weight training, honing his technical skills, improving his endurance, and testing his mental and physical limits under trying conditions, all as a build-up to Everest.

“I want to climb virgin peaks that are challenging in order to promote mountaineering as a sustainable profession in our society. And to fulfil my dreams, I need sponsors,” he says. “But not many even know the names of Indian peaks. I have observed that in order to enter these corporate offices, I needed to add Everest to my profile. I think that will change something and they will finally treat me as an athlete and show interest in my projects,” Bairwa says. “The admiration that comes with summiting Everest is the same as winning gold for the country at the Olympics,” he adds.

Following his multiple successes on Everest, Dharmshaktu continues to lead teams up the mountain. But he also has another purpose: Since 2006, has been involved with clean-up operations on Everest. He has also been looking to do his bit for the Sherpa community. “There are a lot of young, educated Sherpas who are doing well for themselves. But not all from the community are multifaceted. After a certain age, they are out of jobs and either their mental health suffers or they get into bad habits. I am working with a few others to help them with some kind of vocational training, so that they can earn a livelihood after they are done with mountaineering,” he says.

Bisht insists there’s an urgent need to regulate climbing on Everest. “Everest is like the hen that lays golden eggs. Everyone is making quick money but the time will come when things won’t be the same. So many people climbing at a time on one mountain is certainly going to have a negative impact on Everest,” she says.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist.

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