Mount Everest: Do we have what it takes?

June 13, 2023 10:35
Photo: Reuters

Standing at over 5,164 meters tall at Gorakshep, the highest human settlement and the stop prior to Everest Base Camp (EBC), overlooking the Himalayan Mountain ranges and the ultimate summit, I was absolutely in awe.

The rich history and adversity associated with ascending this iconic mountain only add to its allure. Summiting Everest becomes a surmountable challenge to a few and only a deep sense of reverence to many. Yet one can never truly know if they are prepared for such an endeavour or if they will ever be.

The first attempts to climb Everest date back to the 1920s and were undertaken by British mountaineers such as the renowned George Mallory, who led three expeditions to the summit. He never succeeded but his determination persisted even after facing high winds and a deadly avalanche that killed several porters. He returned after the first two endeavours and shared his experiences of tackling the seemingly insurmountable and the potential path to the summit. Yet beyond all the expedition hardships depicted, a journalist is said to have asked him, ‘Why climb Mount Everest?’

‘Because it’s there’, Mallory replied.

These three simple words immortalised Mallory as perhaps one of the most celebrated mountaineers of all time and epitomised the humanity’s desire to conquer the universe. His response paved the way for further exploration to the North Pole (first verified expedition in 1926) and South Pole (first verified expedition in 1911) and the Highest Pole (Mount Everest), ushing in a new era of alpinism and exploration.

On Mallory’s third attempt to Everest in 1924, he and his partner, Andrew Irvine, were last seen alive less than 300 meters from the summit – still pushing upward and they subsequently vanished. Mallory’s body found roughly 70 years later, a few hundred metres from the summit (8,848 metres) after succumbing to a tragic fall. Irvine’s body was never found.

Three decades after these events, in 1953, the first documented ascent of Everest was achieved.

Since then, thousands of climbers have attempted to scale Mount Everest. Yet the high altitude, extreme weather conditions, and difficult terrain make it a perilous and gruelling climb. The thin air at such high altitudes means that climbers must acclimate themselves to the conditions, notwithstanding the fact that, altitude sickness poses a genuine threat and can be lethal. Despite these, the allure of climbing Mount Everest persists. For many, it represents the ultimate test of physical and mental endurance, and the opportunity to push themselves to their limits.

I did not climb Mount Everest. Though my journey to Everest Base Camp (EBC) was not quite alike to the ones who reached the summit, nor remotely as challenging, there is always an element of uncertainty when trekking in the mountains – and we all need to be adaptable to the weather. We witnessed four seasons in the mountains – from scorching hot to winter snow – all in a matter of hours. It is essential to be prepared for any conditions, from gloves to rain pants.

Despite the unpredictability, there are three certainties that can help you mentally prepare for the long trek ahead.

First – know your ‘why’. Why do you do it? What is your calling? Are you trying to prove yourself? Many people whom we met on the way were in their middle forties and fifties. For many, the journey to the top is not just about reaching the destination, but also about the personal growth, self-discovery, and sense of accomplishment that comes with the experience.

While it remains unclear whether Mallory was the first to summit Everest, as he could have fallen and died during his descent, one thing is certain – his motivation was love for the mountains and his wife. Before departing England for his expedition, he promised his beloved wife, Ruth, that he would leave a photograph of her at the summit. Ruth's picture was not found near his body.

The sheer power of nature and how unforgiving it is, was unforgettable, dwarfing everything around and making one feel incredibly small in comparison. It is a humbling experience.

Second – climbing is a struggle but also a joy. And the struggle would dominate a large part of the journey – and it was a real struggle at high altitudes. The ascent to EBC is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one – you must do what it takes to succeed. From 3,000 metres above sea level, your feet drag and soon you find your legs become shaky. Your body, acclimatises over time, grows weaker – before long it requires your mental resilience to persevere.

When the treeline disappears above 4,000 meters, barren lands emerge, and relentless headwinds demoralise your spirit and only remind you it is still a long way to go. The final leg of the journey from Gorakshep to EBC left us feeling extremely nauseous.

While the breath-taking beauty of the Himalayas is undeniable, it's also crucial to connect with and respect the local Sherpa community, who are an integral part of the climbing culture in the region. Sherpas are often underappreciated, yet their support is vital for a successful journey – when Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to summit, it was the Sherpas' assistance that proved instrumental.

Finally, the journey is suis generis. It helps you discover your life's purpose, leading to greater satisfaction, fulfilment, and happiness.

Special thanks to my trekking companions Enrico and Saloni for sharing this incredible journey with me.

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The writer is an independent researcher and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Shapers initiative.