When George Mallory was asked by a New York Times reporter in 1923 why Mount Everest must be climbed, he said, “Because it’s there.”
The simplicity of his reply put in perspective what climbing the highest mountain in the world means to all those who crave the challenges it poses. This came from a man who has inspired a generation of climbers, and triggered one of the most popular debates in these circles—whether he and his partner Sandy Irvine were indeed the first to climb the Himalayan giant in 1924, close to three decades before that feat was credited to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
“It’s possible, but not probable,” Leo Houlding, a British exponent of big wall climbing, says.
That discussion is for another time. The fact is that the Everest has long been scaled by several. Yet after all these years, each one has their own reason to make an attempt, just like Mallory did. It explains why the Everest was still the common link for four speakers from three generations—Doug Scott, Leo Houlding and Tashi and Nungshi Malik—at The Himalayan Club’s annual seminar, part of its 90th year celebrations, over the weekend. The club was founded on 17 February 1928 in Shimla by like-minded individuals looking to further the cause of mountaineering and exploration.
Houlding swears that big mountains don’t interest him. The 36-year-old, who comes from the Lake District—a haven for rock climbing in north-west England—started scrambling up the nearby cliffs with his father as a child. Quite naturally, he took to free-climbing beautiful lines up rock faces, from the Mirror Wall in Greenland to Ulvetanna in Antarctica.
But when American legend Conrad Anker called him in 2006 to play the role of Irvine in the 2010 IMAX documentary film, The Wildest Dream, in Houlding’s words, it took “half a second” to make the decision. Anker played Mallory.
In 1999, Anker had spotted Mallory’s body at 27,000ft on the North Face of Everest as part of an expedition, 75 years after the latter went missing. It rekindled the debate on whether Mallory had died on his way back from the summit in 1924.
“We started filming towards the end of the (climbing) season, since we didn’t want a hundred people when we were filming. For two weeks, we had the mountain all to ourselves. I will never forget the summit day (14 June 2007). We watched the sun rise from the top of the world—it was special,” Houlding says.
From spending six weeks at over 6,000m to hauling 75kg of bulky camera equipment up the Everest and shooting on the summit for 2 unreal hours, Anker and Houlding even tried on clothing and gear that was made and designed on the basis of what Mallory had used.
The large-scale expedition was a contrast to the climbing Doug Scott took to in the 1960s—up 8,000ers (peaks above 8,000m) like the Kanchenjunga and Shishapangma and a crawl down Baintha Brakk or The Ogre, with shattered ankles and no food for five days.
“To go where no one’s been is always going to be interesting—looking around the next corner and just seeing what the land is and if I’m strong enough to continue. We Nottingham lads are tough, you know,” he says, chuckling.
For Scott too, big walls were a fascination that drew him to the South-West Face of Everest. After two unsuccessful attempts on the uncharted route in 1972, he returned in 1975 and reached the top with partner Dougal Haston, one of the finest Himalayan climbers from Britain, at 6pm on 24 September. As the light faded, so did their chance of a safe descent, especially since their head lamps were not working. So at 28,750ft, the two settled down in a snow cave for the night, without oxygen and sleeping bags—he remembers this quite clearly despite the hallucinations.
“Dougal was talking to someone whom we had left back at Base Camp. I thought he had lost the plot,” Scott says.
“I was listening to the conversation between my left foot and right foot. I sat patiently on my rucksack and heard them out. It was quite entertaining given that we just couldn’t afford to sleep, else it would have been really difficult to get off the mountain,” he says.
For a radical climber who preferred lightweight, alpine-style climbing, the pile of “high-altitude tourists” that the Everest sees each year are as much an annoyance as climbers who put bolts in his beloved mountains.
“It’s all show business these days; climbing was all about the journey. Until 1986, there was just one expedition on the Everest each season. You had the mountain all to yourself, fantastic.
“Two thousand people come to Base Camp now, there’s a rope all the way up for the 200-300 who attempt the climb. They need to restrict the numbers climbing each season to save Everest,” Scott says.
Commercial as it may be today, climbing the Everest has meaning. Tashi and Nungshi Malik were called the Everest twins even before they actually climbed the mountain. Once they got back to Base Camp after summiting on 19 May 2013, they thought about chasing all the highest peaks of the seven continents, instead of basking in the glory of many firsts—they were, after all, twins and 21 years old.
On 21 April 2015, they accomplished the Explorers Grand Slam—the highest peaks and the two Poles—and with this a whole lot of other firsts. The sisters channelled their fame towards the cause of the girl child and women empowerment, which they are pursing these days through the NungshiTashi Foundation.
Climbing the Everest will always remain in fashion. There are many reasons for people around the world to do it. Then again, there could be a simple answer to it—because it’s still there.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.