The Demystifying Of Mount Everest

In the long list of once splendid places that humans have rendered too dreary to contemplate, it's hard to top Mount Everest, no pun intended. When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit, 50 years ago this week, London Times correspondent James Morris, who'd gone along to report, called it "the last innocent adventure." No Everest expedition has ever been truly innocent: that famous bit of film from 1953, in which the climbers return to camp, was stage-managed by the cameraman, who ran out ahead to coach them. But today even the faux innocence is gone: Everest has been fetishized, commodified and, predictably, trashed. As Hillary himself told a climbing partner after the conquest: "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off." He died last week, just short of the anniversary, at 83.

The challenge survives (sort of). Every year, a hundred or so people, at $65,000 a pop, line up for the single-file trudge to Everest's summit and a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am encounter with the Sublime. For every eight or nine who reach the top, one makes the ultimate sacrifice to decadence, leaving his or her frozen body behind among the tons of discarded bottles, cans, tents, ropes, crampons and oxygen cylinders--and now, surely cell phones and laptops. In an e-mailed dispatch from an American expedition last year, one climber reported watching the "Star Wars" DVD at 21,000 feet. Of course, before we get too sniffy, let's remember that back in the 1920s, George Mallory read Shakespeare aloud with a tentmate to pass the long, cold hours. On the way to and from the Sublime, Everest gets as boring as anyplace else, except more so.

Everest will never be as tacky as Mount Fuji, with its vending machines at the summit. Hillary spent his last decades raising cash to clean up the mountain, both for esthetic and public-health reasons. (The vast quantities of excrement climbers have left behind could contaminate glacier-melt water in Nepal, India and Bangladesh.) Expeditions now must bring along a conservation officer; human waste is removed in barrels, and this spring workers carted down 10 tons of rubbish. The hulking Goddess Mother of the World has never been a shapely mountain, but now it's looking a bit less like poor old Moby-Dick, with that tangle of old harpoons and ropes--and a beckoning corpse--hanging off his white hump, and a bit more as it used to look in those Mallory-era photos.

Still, Everest continues to suffer from a more subtly invasive, apparently irreversible, pollution: the systematic erosion of its mystery by the human compulsion to observe, to record, to quantify, to know. It started in 1852, when the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India calculated that at 29,002 feet, Peak XV was the highest mountain in the world. (The currently accepted figure is 29,028.) It didn't get its lovely, if un-P.C., Western name--after Sir George Everest, surveyor general--for another 13 years. (The locals had always called it Chomolungma, but they were just locals.) Today its every feature--the Hornbein Couloir, the Geneva Spur, the Hillary Step--bears a Westernized label and the imprint of cramponed feet. London's Evening News called the first British expedition, in 1921, "a very foolish thing... Some of the last mystery in the world will pass when the last secret place in it, the naked peak of Everest, shall be trodden by these trespassers." They might as well have saved the ink: the early Everest booster Sir Francis Younghusband argued that reaching the summit of Everest "will elevate the human spirit"--a sales pitch that's never lost yet. What else has been elevated in the past 50 years, the cleanup crews can tell you.

This isn't to say that the legendary moments of 1953 don't continue to stir the heart. That scramble up the steep, unstable snow slope below the South Summit: "One of the most dangerous places I have ever been on a mountain," Tenzing would recall. Hillary's solving the ascent's last problem by chimneying up a gap between a wall of ice and the cliff (or "step") that's now named after him. Their arrival at that ultimately remote place he called "a pleasantly rounded cone." And we've had legendary moments since. The successful Chinese ascent by the old Mallory route in 1960--in which Chu Yin-Hua tried to climb the Second Step barefooted. Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld's solving the West Ridge in 1963. Doug Scott and Dougal Haston's solving the Southwest Face in 1975. Reinhold Messner's solo ascent without oxygen in 1980. And that eerie yet somehow comforting moment in 1999 when searchers found Mallory's still-preserved, bleached-out body at 27,000 feet.

We can't wish none of this had happened. Yet each of these triumphs of the spirit, the will, the body--and mountaineering technology--has chipped away at the mystery. For 50 years, we've been replacing the visionary with the merely factual, the achievable with the merely buyable. Until at last, we're where we are now. Except in imagination, we can never go back. Then again, except in imagination, most of us were never there in the first place.