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Who's on top

Publication Date : 18-09-2012


In the early 1920s, British mountaineer George Mallory was asked, “Why do you want to climb Mt Everest?” Mallory replied, “Because it’s there.” It is to be assumed that some 30 years later, in May 1953, when the young Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary began their ascent of Everest, they did so in the same spirit. But no sooner had Hillary and Norgay reached the top on May 29 of the same year than they were bombarded with questions regarding who exactly got there first. The question would follow them wherever they went for the good majority of the remainder of their lives. The media in the West was bent on proclaiming Hillary as the “first” to reach the top, while back in Nepal, Norgay was apparently made to sign some papers in Banepa proclaiming that he had reached the summit “first”. The latter couldn’t even read at the time he signed the papers. Apparently the two friends had actually signed something in then Nepali PM Matrika Prasad Koirala’s office, tired of having to deal with the question en-route back to Kathmandu after the descent, stating they’d reached the top “almost together”. But that wasn’t good enough for the world — it continued to dig for the “truth” behind the summit ascent. And article after article, interview after interview continued to pressure the two into admitting the reality. Until one fine day, Norgay admitted he reached the summit after Hillary. Both Hillary and Norgay consistently pleaded that it was no race, and that they were a team, and had conquered Everest as such. Norgay’s 1955 biography states that he was not thinking of “first” and “second”, and that it was not as though “there’s a golden apple up there and I’ll push Hillary aside and run for it”. According to Norgay, they went up slowly, Hillary stepped up first, and he stepped up behind him. There was the answer — they reached the top “almost together” and Hillary stepped up “first”. But still, the hunger for details persisted.

In the latest of such endeavours to dig into the details of the Everest climb, British author Mick Conefrey has proposed a completely new (and absurd) thesis: that the then British ambassador to Nepal, Christopher Sommerhayes, and John Hunt, the leader of the expedition, doctored documents of the official account to conceal who got to the peak first and decided to share credit with Norgay to defuse anti-colonial feelings. Such a narrative utterly undermines the role of Norgay, and whether “first” or “second,” without him, the expedition would probably not have been successful. Even today, mountaineers rely on the backs and insight of Sherpas to make it to the top, and it is preposterous to assume that Norgay was given credit to defuse anti-colonialist sentiments. Lest we forget, history is almost always written by the powerful.


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