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Man & the mountains

At 19,340 ft, Kilimanjaro towers above the Serengeti plains of Tanzania, visible for hundreds of miles all around. Natives describe it as a place where spirits seek everlasting rest. The Masai tribes call the mountain Ngaje Ngai (or the ‘House of God’); early colonisers called it the Crown of Africa; while to mountaineers, it was the greatest panoramic view in the world. The local Chagga tribe believe the peak was crowned with silver that would melt in the hand, guarded by spirits who would inflict pain and chills on anyone who ventured too high. The tallest peak is called Uhuru, Swahili for ‘freedom’.One of Australia’s most recognisable natural landmarks, Uluru or Ayer’s Rock is a reddish sandstone formation in the Northern Territory. The local Anangu do not climb Uluru because of its great spiritual significance, and request visitors not to climb the rock for their own safety. Though it just stands 348m tall, it has claimed 35 lives. To the Anangu, Uluru is a spiritual place where their tjukurpa (creation stories) converge, which govern their ceremonies, art, and rules for living. The rock straddles a sacred Dreamtime trail that was a traditional route of their ancestral Mala men. Despite warning signs, some visitors still climb Uluru. A chain was added in 1964, and extended in 1976, to make the hour-long climb easier, but it is still a steep hike to the top.

In Japan, the solitary snow-clad Mount Fuji has inspired artists and poets alike. Its first representation in Japanese art goes back to the 11th century, and over the years, it has become an internationally recognised icon of Japan. Climbing the 3,776-metre-high peak might be fashionable today, but in the past the holy mountain represented an arduous spiritual pilgrimage for the Japanese. Traditionally footed in straw sandals and white robes, today, scaling the peak in summer is like the rush hour in Tokyo and not as Zen as it used to be. Over 3,00,000 people make the climb each year, and the numbers are only growing ever since it received the UNESCO World Heritage tag in 2013.

Sacred space

When Eleanor Hawkins, Lindsey and Danielle Petersen, and Dylan Snel climbed Mount Kinabalu and took a nude selfie, little did they know that they would be accused of causing an earthquake of 5.9 magnitude. Most Malaysians consider the mountain sacred. And Sabah’s Kadazan Dusun tribe believe the mountain houses the spirits of their dead ancestors. They often act as guides, instructing climbers to treat the mountain with respect. The name ‘Kinabalu’ is derived from Aki Nabalu or ‘resting place of the dead’. Each December, the tribe conducts the monolob ritual to appease the spirits and allow climbers to visit the mountain safely. Besides several offerings, a priestess sacrifices seven white chickens, which are cooked and given to the ceremony participants. In the past, this ceremony was conducted before every ascent, and climbers used the cooked meat as rations for their sacred journey.

So what is it that makes people put themselves at such great risks to climb mountains? When English mountaineer George Mallory, who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s, was asked, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.” His immortal words are often described as ‘the three most famous words in mountaineering.’ During the 1924 expedition, Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on the North-East ridge, just 245 m from the summit. Their fate was unknown for 75 years, until his body was discovered on May 1, 1999 by an expedition that had set out to search for the climbers’ remains.

George Mallory’s son, John Mallory, three years old when his father died, said, “To me, the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don’t get down again.” Sir Edmund Hillary echoes the sentiment: “If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I am rather inclined to think personally that maybe it is quite important, the getting down, and the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.” As the saying goes, ‘What goes up, must come down.’

The history of mountaineering began in 1492 when Antoine de Ville, lord of Domjulien and Beaupré, became the first to scale Mont Aiguille in France. Aided by a small team, ropes and ladders, it is believed to be the first recorded climb of any technical difficulty. In 1573, Francesco De Marchi and Francesco Di Domenico ascended Corno Grande, the highest peak in the Apennine range. It was the era of Enlightenment, and the spirit of curiosity to discover the natural world led to many mountains being climbed for the first time.

Richard Pococke and William Windham scaled Chamonix in 1741. In 1760, Swiss scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure offered a reward for the first person to ascend the French peak Mont Blanc, a prize that was claimed in 1786. By the early 19th century, many alpine peaks were conquered; Grossglockner in 1800, Ortler in 1804, Jungfrau in 1811, Finsteraarhorn in 1812, and Breithorn in 1813.

In the UK, mountaineering as a sport took root with the ascent of Wetterhorn (1854) by Sir Alfred Wills, which ushered the golden age of alpinism. The same year (1857) as India grappled with the First War of Independence, the Alpine Club — the world’s first mountaineering club — was founded.

As a sport

One of the landmark events was the trailblazing ascent of Matterhorn in 1865. English illustrator Edward Whymper led the climbing party; unfortunately, four climbers fell to their deaths. This ascent is believed to mark the end of the golden age of mountaineering. By this time, the sport had reached its modern form, with fixed guidelines, equipment and professional guides. Climbers started exploring other ranges like the Pyrenees and the Caucasus. D W Freshfield became the first man to conquer Mount Kazbek, and most of the Caucasian peaks were successfully conquered by the late 1880s.

Mountaineering in the Americas became popular in the 1800s. In North America, the 14,410-feet-high Pikes Peak in the Colorado Rockies was first climbed by Edwin James in 1820. Fremont Peak (13,745 ft) in Wyoming, erroneously believed to be the tallest mountain in the Rockies, was scaled in 1842 by John C Frémont. Pico de Orizaba (18,491 ft), the highest peak in Mexico and third tallest in North America, was first summited by a US military team in 1848. But it was not until 1913 that Mount Mckinley (20,237 ft), the tallest peak in North America, was successfully scaled. Mount Logan (19,551 ft), Canada’s tallest peak, was first climbed in 1925 in a two-month-long expedition.

The exploration of the Andes in South America began in 1879-1880, when Whymper climbed Chimborazo (20,564 ft) and explored the mountains of Ecuador. In 1883, Paul Güssfeldt ascended the 17,270-feet-high volcano Maipo and attempted to climb the tallest mountain in the Americas, Aconcagua (22,837 ft), but was unsuccessful. Aconcagua was finally summited in 1897 by Matthias Zurbriggen during an expedition led by Edward Fitzgerald. By the turn of the century, mountaineering went truly global as Mount Kilimanjaro was climbed in 1889 by Ludwig Purtscheller and Hans Meyer, and Mount Kenya in 1899 by Halford Mackinder. The final frontier in climbing was the youngest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas.

The Himalayas

Initially surveyed by the British for military and strategic reasons, Sir William Martin Conway explored the 23,000-feet-high ranges of the Karakoram in 1892. In 1895, Albert F Mummery died while attempting Nanga Parbat, while in 1899, DW Freshfield went to Sikkim. A number of Gurkha sepoys were trained as expert mountaineers by Charles Granville Bruce, which led to further explorations.

English mountaineer Oscar Eckenstein was a pioneer of modern climbing techniques and mountaineering equipment. He introduced shorter ice-axes that could be used one-handedly, designed modern crampons and improved the nail patterns of climbing boots. In 1902, the Eckenstein-Crowley Expedition, with author and occultist Aleister Crowley, was the first to attempt to scale Chogo Ri (or K2). They reached 22,000 ft before turning back due to weather and other accidents. Undaunted, in 1905, Crowley led the first expedition to Kangchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world. Four members of the party were killed in an avalanche and they failed to reach the summit.

By the 1950s, all the eight-thousanders but two had been conquered, starting with Annapurna, in 1950, by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal. The last great peak was the highest of them all — Mount Everest. After several attempts by the British, the summit was finally reached on May 29, 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay from the south side in Nepal. A few months later, Hermann Buhl made the first ascent of Nanga Parbat (8,125 m or 26, 657 ft) in a siege-style expedition, walking the last 1,300 m (4,265 ft) alone under the influence of drugs — coca tea, Padutin and Pervitin, a methamphetamine-based stimulant used by soldiers during World War II. Mount K2 (8,611 m or 28,251 ft), the second-highest peak in the world, was first scaled in 1954 by Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni. In 1964, the final eight-thousander to be climbed was Shishapangma (8,013 m or 26,289 ft), the lowest of all the 8,000 m peaks.

Sought after

From the ascent of the Pandavas to the heavens to sadhus and mystics, many have thronged the Himalayas for answers. But mountaineering in India developed after Independence, under the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1950, an ascent of Bandarpoonch in Garhwal was attempted, then Trishul in 1951 — the first time an Indian team had successfully scaled a 7,000 m peak. A year after the ascent of Everest, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) was established (in 1954) in Darjeeling, and the very next year, Indian teams climbed Kamet. In 1958, Cho Oyu, on the Tibet-Nepal border, became the first 8000 m peak that was climbed by Indians, followed by Nanda Kot and Chaukhamba in 1959.

By the 1960s, climbing as a sport took root as mountaineering institutes were established in 1960 and 1961 at Sikkim and Manali. Despite close attempts of the Annapurna range and Mount Everest between 1960 and 1962, the first Indian ascent of the Everest took place in 1965, when nine mountaineers conquered the mighty peak, a record held for 17 years. The Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) was set up in 1961, while the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering was established in Uttarkashi in 1965.

Mount Kailash in Tibet, widely regarded as Shiva’s sacred abode, has also been a holy grail for climbers. In 1926, after studying the 6,000-feet-high north face, Hugh Ruttledge believed it was “utterly unclimbable” and considered an ascent of the northeast ridge, but ran out of time. In 1936, when Herbert Tichy was attempting to climb Gurla Mandhata, he asked one of the Garpons of Ngari whether Kailash was climbable. The Garpon replied, “Only a man entirely free of sin could climb Kailash. And he wouldn’t have to actually scale the sheer walls of ice to do it — he’d just turn himself into a bird and fly to the summit.”

Legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner was given the opportunity by the Chinese government to climb it in the mid-1980s, but he declined. In 2001, the Chinese gave permission to a Spanish team to climb the peak, but international disapproval led the Chinese to ban all attempts to climb the sacred mountain. Messner made his disenchantment public — “If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls… I would suggest they go and climb something a little harder. Kailash is not so high and not so hard.”
In Nepal, the 22,943-feet-tall Machapuchare or Fish Tail Mountain, named after its distinctive peak, is sacred to the Hindus, who believe it is Lord Shiva’s abode. Wilfrid Noyce, a member of the first successful Mt Everest expedition in 1953, came the closest anyone has come to the summit on his 1957 expedition.

The King of Nepal asked Noyce not to set foot on the summit out of respect for Hindu religious customs. Noyce and his climbing partner, ADM Cox, turned back 150 ft short of the summit. This expedition produced the only climbing record of this mountain, a rare book titled Climbing The Fish’s Tail. Many climbers have chronicled their expeditions, and no one can be left unmoved by the challenges and highs and lows of mountaineering. Several books like North Face, Touching the Void, Into Thin Air and Vertical Limit have been immortalised into films. It spawned a climbing craze and a competitive quest for records (fastest, youngest, oldest, you name it), most apparent in Nepal, often raising ecological concerns, issues of over-commercialisation and the plight of sherpas.

Purists describe Everest as the highest garbage dump in the world! Some countries like Bhutan have taken a leaf out of Nepal’s experience. Though ranked the 40th highest mountain in the world and measuring 24,981 ft, Bhutan’s Gangkhar Puensum counts as the world’s highest unclimbed mountain. Often described as ‘awful but fascinating’, the mountain eluded several mountaineering teams for over a decade. Out of respect for local spiritual beliefs, the unconquered Ganghkar Puensum was closed to climbers in 1994, along with all other peaks in Bhutan higher than 6,000 m (19,800 ft).

Strong beliefs

The world’s third-highest mountain, Kangchenjunga (28,208 ft), located on the Indo-Nepal border in Sikkim and smaller only to Mount Everest and K2, has been regarded as one of the greatest challenges in mountaineering. It was first climbed in 1953 by Charles Evans from the Nepal side, until a ban on foreigners was imposed in 1955. Only three teams have ever reached its summit by ascending its perilous north-east face. However, that route has been closed due to pressure by local Buddhists, who are incensed by the disregard of ‘godless’ foreigners. The Sikkimese regard it as a deity as well as an abode of gods; and the legendary yeti or Abominable Snowman, Nee-gued in Sikkim, is believed to roam its slopes.

In April 2016, an Austrian team was given permission to attempt the near-vertical trek in exchange for $20,000. The team, led by climber Willie Bauer, tried to pacify local Buddhists by agreeing to turn back 10 m short of the top. But the furore it caused led the state government to ban expeditions to Kangchenjunga and seven others sacred peaks, just as 18 unclimbed mountains elsewhere in India have been opened for the first time. Several Himalayan peaks in the 6,000-7,000 m range are unscaled because they escaped the attention of mountaineers, who focused on the 8,000 m (26,400 ft) club.

As the tussle between rationalism and age-old beliefs continues, more and more mountains that were once off limits are now reachable, including the 104 peaks that were recently opened in Nepal. After all, cash-strapped countries like Nepal depend a lot on the mountain economy. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before those last unclimbed peaks are scaled.


1492: Antoine de Ville, Lord of Domjulien and Beaupré, scaled Mont Aiguille in France.
1786: Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, was successfully scaled.
1854: In the UK, mountaineering as a sport took root with the ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854 by Sir Alfred Wills, which ushered the Golden Age of Alpinism.
1857: Alpine Club, the world’s first mountaineering club, was founded.
1892: The Himalayan Exploration began as Conway of Allington explored Karakoram Range.
1953: Explorers Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mount Everest for the first time.
1954: Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) was established in Darjeeling.
1958: Mho Oyu, on the Tibet-Nepal border, became the first 8000-metre peak to be climbed by Indians.
1978: Mount K2 (8,611 m), the second-highest peak in the world, was first scaled by Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni.

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