Taming Everest

A

On May 21, Arunima Sinha became the first woman amputee to scale Mount Everest. Earlier that day, a team of Indian school students, all between 16 and 17 years, posed for pictures on the top. A few days later, 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura would climb the 29,000 ft peak, becoming the oldest man to get to the top. This year's climbing season the sixtieth after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set foot on the peak for the first time saw 1,040 climbers start uphill from the base camp. A record 697 people reached the highest point on earth (8,848 m).

While the forbidding peak remains a test of endurance and the ultimate prize for mountaineers, it has become far more accessible. The success rate of climbers has more than tripled since 1990 when you had less than 20 per cent chance to summit (it is 67 per cent now) and a higher chance of dying in the attempt. Fixed ropes laid out by Sherpas, access to better, lighter equipment, accurate forecasts and more guides have all contributed. Just a few days ago, a proposal was made to place a ladder up Hillary Step, a rocky outcrop a few hundred metres below the summit, which is the last technical challenge before the summit.

In the past decade, a blind man, a diabetic, and a 13-year-old (a record likely to stand after Nepal and China increased the minimum permissible age to 16 following reports that a nine-year-old would attempt the peak) have all become Everesters. In May 1953, Hillary and Norgay conquered the peak; the numbers clambering up its slopes like ants seem to suggest that it is close to being tamed.

"You don't have to be a climber any more to climb a mountain," snorted Italian Reinhold Messner, who was the first to climb the peak without supplemental oxygen in 1978. "You pay and someone prepares the mountain for your climb," he was quoted as saying a couple of weeks ago. But while Messner's views may seem extreme, they find some resonance with pioneering climbers.

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