Friday, October 05, 2007

The heights of fame

In an age where the world is supposed to be getting flat, it stands to reason that the highest point on earth is not getting any loftier. But what is astonishing is how much Mount Everest — which mountaineer George Mallory described in 1924 as “the lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy” — has diminished in the eyes of those who climb it. Some months ago a Nepali climber reached the summit, shed all his clothes, and declared himself world record holder for the highest display of nudity. Does it count as a display if no one is watching? Angry Nepali mountaineering authorities are hardly concerned about such semantic niceties. They have called for a ban on setting obscene records atop Everest; what they haven’t explained is how such a ban can be enforced on a summit some 29,000 feet above mean sea level and with sub-zero temperatures. When Mallory, who died during his third attempt, was asked why he wanted to scale Everest, he famously replied: “Because, it’s there.” Ask many of today’s climbers the same question and you might well hear: “Because, it’s there to be broken.” With established routes, vastly better climbing equipment, and an improved understanding of acclimatisation, the game is about setting records — the weirder, the better.


It is a long way to trudge, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, for 15 minutes of fame, but nobody’s complaining. Last year Rod Baber made the world’s loftiest phone call when he called his wife and kids from the summit’s northern ridge. Ever gracious and clearly over the moon, he sent the mobile company that sponsored the climb an SMS message: “One small text for man, one giant leap for mobilekind — thanks Motorola.” Earlier this year Dutchman Wim Hof attempted, but failed, to climb Everest with nothing but his shorts; undeterred, the “Iceman” has vowed to try again in 2008. Other record-holding worthies include a sherpa who has been up 17 times; another who, possibly winded after the climb, decided to have a sleepover to become the overnighter on the summit; and a couple of Europeans who were the first to make their descents on snowboards and skis. One fallout of the record mania is that it is getting crowded up there. Well over 500 people have already scaled the peak this year, more than in any other year since it was first conquered by Hilary and Tenzing in 1953. This is not such a bad thing for a revenue-hungry Nepal that levies a fee of $ 25,000 per climber. But it is clearly not such a good thing for the ecological future of the world’s most famous mountain. The craze for setting records has made the magnificent mountain the world’s highest garbage site.

Source: The Hindu

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