This week, next week and all through that mundane month of May something quite mental is happening in hellish patch of planet Earth. No, it’s not Geelong this time, but a place even more unlikely: Mount Everest.
Nowhere in Australia offers a great challenge to the altimeter. We have our feet firmly planted in the low-lying girt. But it’s good place to climb vicariously, comfortably; and sea level offers a great vantage point to witness the madness of mountaineers.
Keep a look out in the media, every May is the same. A few seconds video from base camp, all wind and snow, tents battered and buried, prayer flags ripped to shreds, ice-coated rock so hard and mean it will crack your head open at any chance. You can feel the cold through the television, but can you understand the urge? Something dramatic happens every year. Death or glory, sometimes both. May is the only month where the weather offers a window to the death zone.
People often assume I’d like to climb Mount Everest. I like to plod around in the hills and get rained on, so it makes sense that I’d want to climb the pinnacle of the pinnacle, doesn’t it? While I appreciate there are probably many who would raise a glass to the thought of me falling headfirst into Tibet, I must confess it’s not something I entertain on a regular or irregular basis. I’ve read too many books on the topic, and it’s clear to me there’s more human suffering in high altitude mountaineering than in your average Graham Greene novel.
Mount Everest was first climbed in 1953. It goes without saying that both Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were highly experienced mountaineers, unlike many of the hordes of weekend warriors who have forked out tens of thousands of dollars to be guided up the mountain this May. The Nepalese government issues permits to climbers. This year 376 people have been granted permits, up from 289 last year. This includes 11 Australians.
Last year I interviewed two Australian women with their heads in the clouds. In 1997 Brigitte Muir became the first Australian woman to climb Mount Everest, thus becoming the first Australian to climb the highest peak on all seven continents, the famed “Seven Summits.” Her love for the beauty of mountains consumed her life. She explained that mountaineering is a different game to what it used to be. So much of it now is about peak bagging and bragging rights, not the love of being in the mountains.
Of the 376 people attempting Everest this year, the vast majority will be guided, which means a real mountaineer walks in front of you, tells you when to walk and when to stop, makes all the decisions while you trudge on behind and hope your body holds it together. Two years after climbing Mount Everest Muir was back in the Himalayas, attempting Makalu, the world’s fifth highest mountain. Tragedy – always a constant companion in the mountains – struck. Her climbing friend was killed coming down from the summit. Muir left her climbing gear on the mountain, walked out and never climbed another mountain again.
I second person I interviewed was Alyssa Azar, who last year became the youngest Australian to climb Mount Everest, at 19. She was as cold and solitary as the Matterhorn, with a fierce, unstoppable drive and almost robotic focus. She definitely wasn’t a people person, but was she even a mountain person? I wondered if she loved mountains the way Brigitte Muir did, or whether she just loved the satisfaction of attaining goals. Mount Everest has always been used as a metaphor for corporate success, and CEOs regularly trot out Everest summiteers to motivate their employees to strive higher.
This May as eleven plucky Aussies join the conga line to glory, the Sherpas of Nepal will say a prayer on their way to clamber upon Sargarmatha, the Goddess of the Sky. The prayer is a simple one. It’s a plea for forgiveness.