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Resort at the Top of the World

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

There was another Hillary in the news last week. It was Edmund Hillary, the mountaineer who in 1953 became the first human to reach the top of Mount Everest -- alongside his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay. The New Zealander had died at 88.

A climber who attempted Everest in 1924 and lost his life doing so offered the most famous line about the endeavor. Asked by reporters why he wanted to climb Everest, George Mallory answered, "Because it is there."

The mountain is sacred to the indigenous people of the Himalayas, but to Mallory the peak was an "it" to be conquered. Hillary had a lot more soul than that, but upon climbing Mount Everest, he did remark, "Well, we knocked the bastard off!"

Taking the test is why many of today's "adventurers" make the trek. The climb has become an extreme sport for which the mountain could as well be a giant rock climbing wall with bad weather.

For the super fit with money, Everest is now an item on the checklist of life's exploits. Several climbers have posted YouTube video clips of themselves atop Mount Everest, one set to the music of James Blunt's "You're beautiful."

Those who treat it merely as an icon to vanquish don't see anything. They don't appreciate anything. They just go up the hill to prove they can do it. You sometimes wonder why these folk -- if they want to perform a spectacular feat -- don't simply run two marathons back-to-back, instead.

Snarky comments aside, one must still note the grit, strength and courage of people who do scale the mountain, which rises to 29,029 feet above sea level. Most intimidating is the high-altitude "death zone," where a lack of oxygen causes hallucinations. More than 200 climbers have died on Everest.

The bestselling book and movie "Into Thin Air" recounted a tragic 1996 expedition during which eight members died. But rather than deter others, the story has apparently increased the desire to beat the mountain.

Since Hillary's famous climb, over 2,000 men and women have taken up the challenge, including a 70-year-old, a blind person and a man with one-arm. Wealthy people pay guide companies as much as $70,000 to organize expeditions up the celebrated peak. It's amazing to think that Hillary's once astounding feat has been performed by socialites and doctors, and at least one Sherpa has done it 14 times.

The lust for Mount Everest has never seemed to be much about Nepal, the country in which it partly resides (sharing it with Tibet) -- or the local Sherpa who have a name for the mountain, and it's not Everest. They call it Chomolungma, which means "goddess mother of the Earth." The British named the mountain after Sir George Everest, who had been their surveyor general in the mid 19th century.

For the Sherpa guides, the job of carrying stuff up pays a lot more than growing potatoes or herding yaks. Facilitating new bragging rights for wealthy Westerners is a good living in this poor part of the world, even though these Buddhist Tibetans are often treated as beasts of burdens.

Let it be said for Hillary that he dedicated his post-climb life to helping the Sherpa build schools, hospitals and bridges for the locals. Hillary was a good man, and brave.

He also understood that mountains are more than recreational facilities. They are also spiritual places. That's why it's often painful to see the sides of mountains scraped clean of trees to make paths for ski runs and motorized lifts.

Everest has not yet suffered the fate of being turned into a mass sports resort, but the goddess probably wouldn't mind if more people left her alone.

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