The Himalayas were scattered with tragedy this summer. Eleven climbers died on Mount Everest, many of them forced to wait for hours in the “death zone”, the region beyond 8,000 metres (26,246 feet) above sea level. Surreal pictures of a “traffic jam” on Everest flooded the media – a long queue of climbers clinging to a rope, waiting for their turn at the top.

Climbers spoke of having to step over bodies, of watching other delirious climbers being borne down as they made their way up. The torrent of adventurers has ensured that there is no such thing as a lonely death on the Everest anymore. Recovery operations have yielded four bodies and 11 tonnes of garbage so far.

The other tragedy occurred far from the public eye, in one of the last remote fastnesses of the world. Eight climbers went missing on Uttarakhand’s Nanda Devi, the highest peak in India. The group had permission to climb the Nanda Devi East peak. Days later, five bodies were spotted on an unscaled peak nearby.

The climbers who died were Indian, Nepali, British, American, Australian, Irish. They included a professional mountaineer, a guide, a software salesman who had quit his job, a professor who studied artificial intelligence, a recent physical education graduate who was to start teaching.

For most, to climb the high peaks of the Himalayas is to reach for a kind of remoteness, where sublimity may be experienced, human character and endurance may be tested. For over a century, the mountain range has drawn climbers for reasons both romantic and pragmatic.

Mystic mountains

Till the 19th century, many of these mountains were gods who could not be touched. The Tibetans called the Everest “Chomolungma” or “Goddess Mother of the World”. Nepali villages around the mountain also knew it as “The Mountain So High No Bird Can Fly Over It”. Nanda Devi, or the “bliss giving goddess”, is still worshipped by Hindus.

While local communities did not climb these peaks, they remained remote to colonial adventurers as well. Nepal did not let in foreigners, so the only route to Everest was controlled by a stern, guarded Lhasa in Tibet. Some of these administrative attitudes continued into the 21st century. In 2000, for instance, the Sikkim government banned expeditions through the north east face of the Kanchenjunga and seven other sacred peaks.

Nanda Devi lay within the British Empire but it needed no proscriptions. The main peak in the Nanda Devi Sanctuary is 25,643 feet. It is ringed by tremendously high mountains, many of which are over 21,000 feet. It was only in 1934 that the British explorer, Eric Shipton, was successful in his “attempt to force the inviolate sanctuary of the Nanda Devi Basin”. The summit would not be reached till 1936.

Like the Alps in Europe, the Himalayas were also described in the language of the Romantic sublime, possessing the kind of beauty that strikes terror and awe in the heart of the beholder and creates an apprehension of higher powers. Even to Western explorers who did not worship these mountains, they were a place of metaphysical significance.

In Kashmir As It Was (1907), Francis Younghusband, the turn of the century adventurer, moves from a topographical description of the Himalayas to their geological history to a contemplation on the “vastness of time” to the future of the human race, which may evolve to “beings of a higher order” who could finally be untethered from Earth itself.

Francis Younghusband and team on a 'military expedition' to Tibet in 1904.
Francis Younghusband and team on a 'military expedition' to Tibet in 1904.

Mapping the Himalayas

But these flights of imagination were still tethered to a colonial project. The Himalayas were territory conquered last because of their remoteness from centres of power. As Shipton says in his account of the 1934 Nanda Devi expedition: “In the exploration of a continent the mountainous areas are generally the last strongholds of mystery to fall before the onslaught of man, be that onslaught brutal, scientific or merely inquisitive.”

First, they had to be mapped and measured. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was launched in 1802, soon after the East India Company had acquired the territory of Mysore. Starting from the south, it plotted its way across the subcontinent through a process of trigonometric calculation called “triangulation”. Giant theodolites – instruments weighing half a tonne – were lugged across the region to measure horizontal and vertical angles.

In the course of its 70 years, the survey estimated the heights of Dhaulagiri, Nanda Devi and Kanchenjunga. For a few years ending in 1843, it was led by George Everest, an ill-tempered British official, racist even by the standards of the time. He was succeeded by Andrew Waugh, who announced in 1856 that he had found the highest peak in the world. He also announced he was naming it after his grumpy predecessor, Everest.

Fifty years later, Younghusband’s effusions about the mountains were accompanied by a neat list of the highest peaks in the world, most of them in the Himalayas and surveyed from a distance. For the Everest, he followed Waugh’s measurement of 29,002 feet, lower than the current 29,029 feet. But he also expressed doubts about the accuracy of the figures, since they were calculated from fixed points far from the actual peaks.

Shrewd calculations must have underpinned these notes. From the mid-19th century, the Himalayas were part of the Great Game, a race for territory and control between the imperial powers of Britain and Russia. Younghusband, who had travelled across the contested terrains of Central and Southern Asia, was a key player. In the vast, uncharted expanses of the Himalayas, to map and measure was to claim.

As Deborah Baker describes in The Last Englishmen (2018), mapping continued to be an important part of later British expeditions to the Himalayan giants. By the 1930s, theodolites were supplemented with cameras and ground expeditions with aerial photography. Along with surveyors, geologists joined the expeditions, studying the meat and matter of the mountains.

Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman on the 1934 Nanda Devi expedition.
Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman on the 1934 Nanda Devi expedition.

The great ‘kampf’

Even as the high Himalayas lost remoteness and started to reveal their mysteries, they acquired a new kind of symbolism for Western explorers. In the debris of the First World War, as shattered countries tried to restore themselves, the conquest of the Himalayas became the new test of national character. Many of those who took part in expeditions over the next few years had fought in the war.

The Mount Everest Committee in England was formed by the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical to finance the first reconnaissance of the peak in 1921. In 1928, the Himalayan Club was formed by senior British members of the colonial government. Both were bent on putting an Englishman on top of Mount Everest.

The committee tried in 1922 and 1924, with tragic results. In 1922, George Mallory, who was part of all three Everest expeditions in the 1920s, watched seven porters being swept away by an avalanche. In 1924, Mallory himself and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, disappeared into the eternal snows. Back in England, he would be feted as a national hero on the lines of Captain Cook and the 1924 expedition would become the stuff of legend. It would be 75 years before Mallory’s body was found on Everest, leading to renewed speculation that he had reached the summit.

Britain was not the only country getting sentimental about the Himalayas. In 1924, German film director Arnold Fanck had released the hugely popular Mountain of Destiny, a phrase that eventually became attached to Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth-highest peak. Before making disastrous expeditions to Nanga Parbat, however, the Germans tried to scale Kanchenjunga. These adventures were described in military metaphors and the language of struggle, or “kampf”, a faddish word conveying a sense of national destiny as well as racial superiority. Hitler’s Mein Kampf, it is to be noted, was published in 1925.

In Britain, climbing the Everest became an increasingly stuffy, official project, shaped by politicking in London. More than ever before, it had to reflect Britishness. Frank Smythe, part of the 1933 Everest sortie, writes:

“Moses might have passed through a similar Valley on his way to the Promised Land, and with much the same primitive transport as ours, but not carrying the latest products of Western civilisation, such as wireless and the tinned products of Fortnum & Mason and the Army and Navy stores.”

Some of the expeditions, winding ponderously up the Himalayan slopes with an army of porters and a city of tents that went up each night, seemed to resemble the pageant of empire itself. As Baker writes, debate broke out in London over whether these increasingly baroque expeditions were the best way to conquer Everest. Shipton, for one, preferred frugal, pared-down missions that would be able to make swift progress up the icy slopes. Like the 1934 Nanda Devi expedition and a 1935 Everest reconnaissance, he had some success with these.

In the end, neither the British nor the Germans could claim the first ascent of Everest. That distinction lay with Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa climber, and Edmund Hillary of New Zealand. They scaled the peak in 1953.

George Mallory, pictured in a halo during the 1924 expedition.
George Mallory, pictured in a halo during the 1924 expedition.

‘Why we do it’

Today, the imperial pageants have been replaced by serpentine queues of tourists on Everest. Journeys up the mountain are so common that, before the start of every climbing season, expert Sherpa and Tibetan mountaineers are sent up the slopes to set up “fixed lines”, nylon ropes that demarcate the route climbers should take.

Some pockets of remoteness remain in the Himalayas. Nanda Devi, shut to the world for 10 years after 1965, when a mysterious operation by America’s Central Investigative Agency went wrong, still has unscaled peaks. But in the last two decades, both Nepal and India have opened up more “virgin” peaks to climbers.

While traffic across the Himalayas has increased, it is Everest that is described by veteran climbers as “that most vulgarissed of mountains”. Till 1985, Nepal gave out one climbing permit per route for the Everest. That year, 55-year-old American oil magnate Richard Bass made it to the summit led by his climbing partner. According to many mountain watchers, it ushered in a new era of commercialisation. The idea that anyone could climb the Everest for a fee gained currency.

In 2019, the Nepal government gave out 380 permits at the rate of $11,000 each. For some years now, dystopic stories of garbage on Everest and tourist traffic jams have done the rounds. Four thousand people have reached the summit since Hillary and Norgay first got there. Many more have climbed to the base camp.

Yet the numerous adventure tourism companies of the Everest industry still sell the same dream of remoteness, even if remoteness is gone. They also hold it up as a project of human endeavor. One company goes by the tagline, “Helping dreamers do”. Another one, which seems to specialise in treks up the south face, says:

“Climbing the mountain from the South side belongs to one of those Everest expeditions which allow you to move beyond the boundaries of your imagination. Being virtually on the top of the Earth provides you with a chance to build up a bigger picture.”

For hundreds of adventure-sport enthusiasts in India and around the world, climbing the mountain is still the grand project it was for explorers a century ago. Commercialising the Himalayas takes a serious toll on fragile ecosystems and comes with safety hazards which must not be dismissed. But it has also brought about a strange democratisation in mountain climbing.

The modern-day conquerors of Everest are no longer a small band of colonial swashbucklers or only people described as “men of science”. They are not always fat cat tourists either. Among those who made it to the summit were people without limbs or with multiple sclerosis who wanted to transcend the limitations of the body.

Among those who lost their lives on the mountain in the last few years were three tourists from Bengal – a tailor who had lost his hand, a part-time guitar tutor who also drove a truck for a living and a police sub-inspector. People who had saved for years or dipped into hard-earned resources to make the climb. They would have been greeted as modern-day George Mallorys in their hometowns and villages.

When asked why do it, why risk death and financial ruin, they might have answered like Smythe:

“How can we explain when we don’t know? And we don’t care whether or not we are understood – not a bit. We only know that in discomfort, in storm, in the beauty and grandeur of the mountains we have discovered something very much worth while.”

Or they might have answered simply, like Shipton quoting Arctic explorers before him: “We do so because we want to.”