Dr. Rupak Bhattacharya: As soon as our star Haridas Pal has confirmed his return flight from Kathmandu, arrangements are put in place for a grand reception even at the airport. News of it is viral on main-stream and social media. What follows, and justly so if you believe the media reports, are celebrations and receptions akin to that of a famous soldier returning home after winning a famous battle against overwhelming odds. Let’s not grudge him his moments of glory and ensuing glamour; thirty lakh is a huge investment after all and must have an assured return on investment.
It is again the season for hackneyed clichés and sentimentally morbid prose and sound-bytes, as yet another Himalayan climbing season gets under way in this part of the world.
Neither does the morbidity and mortality statistics show any discernible signs of improving, as lives and limbs continue to get lost, sacrificed at the altar of what may generously be described as “summit fever”, but in reality remains nothing better than “summit tourism”, nor do the regional main-stream media’s reporting thereof, who in their know-all partisan ignorance, avoid asking the relevant questions, resorting to their practiced clichés and sensationalism, aiding and abetting this annual tragedy.
The spring 2019 season is barely a month old, and we have already lost eight Indians, four on Everest and two each on Makalu and Kanchenjunga, and two more have suffered cold injuries. The season is yet far from over, and the death count is twenty-one.
This part of the world, West Bengal, India, is reputed for its festivals. In fact, on oft repeated adage speaks of thirteen festivals in twelve calendar months.
Over the last decade or so a new festival has been added– Gore-Tex 8K Himal, celebrated / lamented each spring.
The venerated deities of this festival are the 8K peaks in the Nepal Himalayas.
The devotees, nearly all barring a few, are those who, if you were to be generous again, could be termed “climbers” but are in reality “me-too-guided-summit-tourists”.
The presiding head-priest is the Dept. Of Tourism, Govt. of Nepal, who like “heads” everywhere, relax in air-conditioned offices at a comfortable 21 degrees, working extremely hard composing the relevant mantras (read rules/regulations/stipulations), revised annually, characterised by their potentially fatal impracticability at minus 21 degrees, and only honoured in their transgression.
The devotees throng the altar, literally in hundreds, not because they have been an apprentice under a mentor guru learning the suitable prayers and having performed the required penances (read learnt the art, craft and philosophy of mountaineering) to qualify their presence, but because they are “customers” with very deep pockets.
Free market economy and disposable incomes are the prerequisites for successful marketing, and this festival has been marketed so effectively that even novices are now seen in hundreds being ushered up and down a potentially fatal slope, clipped to a rope, like so many GoreTexed sheep.
These “ushers” are the Sherpas, the gate-keepers to some of the highest pieces of real-estate in the world, and altar-boys to these deities.
These altar-boys belong (read employed) to different parishes (read agencies), who in turn are registered with the Head Priest. They all take a piece of the cake, the Head getting the biggest and the altar-boys the smallest for doing the most and the potentially fatal.
This is a Spring Fest, for if spring comes, as it does each year, can business be far behind. As the snows melt, and the paths become navigable, long trains of Sherpas, Porters and pack – animals head up, to prepare the stage for the ceremony. Once everything is ready, the boarding and lodging in place, the route opened and fixed, the devotees are ushered in.
Who are these devotees without whom the ceremony would be a non-starter? Barring a very few who do not need ushers, the rest are me-too-guided-summit-tourist, who have come to earn either bragging rights or financial/ material benefits or both. The devotees from my part of the world fancy themselves as mountaineers, a terminology supposedly earned by doing some courses at an Institute and then to have been on a few 6K guided expeditions. Some have been on quite a few, which makes their presence here an anachronism, for they at least should have learnt and known better.
Imagine a devotee who stops to take multiple photographs of his friend in dire straits, but does not even say hello, and on reaching sea-level talk about the glamour he has attained as an Everesteer. Imagine another devotee who lost most of his fingers to frost-bite because he forgot to put on his mittens! Imagine a senior devotee, who is now considered by the local media to be an expert on such matters, planning to lead an expedition (much publicised but aborted at base-camp) over a route that is officially out of bounds and patently illegal. He even talks about asking his team to practice “jumarring” ; the obvious inference being that the Sherpas would fix the rope and the devotees will only clip-on and jumar up and down. Imagine another whose Wiki page eulogises her as one who has climbed Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Elbrus and Kosciuszko without oxygen. Little did she realise that it would have been a record if she did them with Oxygen. Imagine another who fights with his Sherpa and forces him to go down to base-camp to fetch his cigarettes. Imagine another on her crowd-funded second 8K having to be heli-rescued after reportedly bragging that she could do it without oxygen. And there is another Indian lady Everesteer who failed to even recognise the iconic Nanda Devi and thought it was Everest.
You could find hundreds of such “specimen” devotees on the slopes during the season. Untrained and unqualified, they are not only a threat to their own selves, but to others on the rope, and more importantly to their usher Sherpas. One can recall, a few years ago, a lady climber on her second 8K, who, after having done the main peak, over-ambitiously went for the west peak and disappeared with two young Sherpas; two bread-winners for their families, falling prey to the lure of dollars. Even this season a Sherpa perished trying to recover a dead climber; a gruesome example, so to speak, of adding insult to injury.
To these devotees alpinism, mountaineering as the world has always known, freedom of the hills, purity of the line and climb are alien concepts. They have no clue about “self-reliance” being the paramount prerequisite for “adventure”. They are just “clients” who have paid a tidy sum, about thirty lakh Indian Rupees, and expect commensurate service and get it too. Their tents are pitched and ready, warm food cooked and served on time, water and hot drinks readied in flasks and most importantly the route is opened and fixed. In fact it may not be an exaggeration to say that, figuratively, the Sherpas even change their diapers, so to say.
And when the Sherpas decide that the time is auspicious for the final ceremony, they get the devotees ready and usher them up and down again.
If lucky, they make the top and they have a photograph to prove it and the Sherpa says you have done so, then the Head Priest issues a certificate.
Hurrah, at last they have got what they had come for in the first place. End of ceremony. Now they are on the same list which starts with Herzog and Hillary and now has Mr X, also known as Haridas Pal in this part of the world, on same list. Imagine the quantum of blessings (read reflected glory) accrued from the ceremony.
Not that some of them are not aware of Herzog and Hillary. They are, but only as dim figures in the chapters of climbing history. Their ethos, their philosophy though remains a closed chapter. The regional main-stream media, both English and vernacular, whether print or visual, contribute in perpetuating this narrative, and thus helping to market a product/service which is but a sham, a shiny but fake duplicate of the original.
The regional main-stream media, reporting climbs etc., is in urgent need of “media” attention. That is a contradiction in terms, because the question of who will bell the cat will go unanswered since we also know that all cats are grey in the dark. The factual darkness that remains a hallmark of their reportage, is glossed over with sentimental sugar-coating and spicy sensationalism, devoid of responsibility, ownership and credibility.
And if there is an accident, life and limbs are lost, the local media goes into overdrive. To legitimise their reports they rope-in “expert” commentators for post-mortem analysis and advices. Funnily, these experts too are former and/or still active 8K tourists, whom this very media has elevated to star/expert status. It is like asking the cat the best way to keep the milk safe.
A few years ago, a leading English daily headlined, “Lost Everest Climbers Safe… are on their way down, escorted by Sherpas “. Imagine the devastating effect when the same daily published the next day, “Everest takes its toll… one presumed safe is dead… another in Kathmandu hospital… two more are missing “. This could be cited as a textbook example of incompetent, un-corroborated, unethical, arm-chair reporting. Incidentally the second report did not have a single word of apology for dashing the hopes of tortured families and friends after having reassured them with a “fake” news. Another local media relocated India’s highest peak Kanchenjunga to Nepal confusing cartographers and readers alike. Another one reported the first Indian climb of Mt Moebius in the Rwenzori, and captioned the summit photo as Mt. Kilimanjaro. Another one, which the Royal Geographic Society may have missed, reduced the number of 8K peaks from fourteen to a less challenging nine.
If the climbers do not need to qualify to even be on Everest, why on earth should the journalist reporting it have to be qualified. This vicious cycle feeds on itself, deliberately, or may be in ignorance.
The reports annually follow the same pattern. Before they actually leave town it’s always about the conquering hero leaving for another conquest, and how difficult it is to raise funds and how he humbly acknowledges his well-wishers. The word conquer is used consciously every time, in ignorance or deliberately, though it has become obsolete with the death of colonialism and no self-respecting climber ever uses it anymore. The “hero” part is important to varnish the climbers’ achievements and to give him a star status. You can’t ask a star about the details of his route, like how he plans to tackle that infamous chimney, the crux, between camps 3 and 4. Neither of them are possibly aware if its existence and couldn’t be bothered about it too, for a Pasang or a Dawa has been paid to rope it. The reporting then moves on to the actual ascent, summit and descent to everlasting glory. Our hero struggling valiantly through snows and ice, yawning and hidden crevasses, fierce winds and blinding storms, insurmountable slopes which are surmounted, sub-zero temperatures and unquenchable thirst followed by the conquest of the summit, and then the more painful descent to a hero’s welcome when he/she reaches home. The media, scrupulously avoiding asking technical details of the climb or the terrain, projects the devotee as a mountaineer icon to be taken seriously and more importantly to be emulated.
What, at best, should have been a minor news on an inside page, becomes a banner page-one headline; the joker becomes a king/queen of the pack. And if one or more fail to get back, as is increasingly happening now, and the weather cannot be blamed, then it is either the fault of the Sherpas, or the devotees were not devoted enough (read not fit).
Very recently, the region’s largest English daily had a huge biographical article about one such devotee, now queen. Poor lass, literally and figuratively, had to come back from Everest short of the summit because she “reportedly” ran out of oxygen and had to be heli-rescued. But before she had left for her climb the media had also reported that she planned to do it without oxygen.
In the same article the journalist tells us how this lady, a few years ago, had to abandon her summit bid on Kamet because she ran out of food, had poor gear and tents, and recycled oxygen cylinders. The journalist has no follow up questions for this, for obviously he is not even aware that if oxygen were ever used on Kamet it would only be for a medical emergency and not to aid the climb.
This media generated false narrative becomes the best advertisement for the agencies, generating more devotees, so more business next spring. Ceremonies mean business; and so more the devotees more the business. I sometimes wonder, does the media also get a slice of the cake for this service?
The next chapter, of this adventure thriller, involves the common man, other climbers (devotee or otherwise) and the local administration/ government.
As soon as our star Haridas Pal has confirmed his return flight from Kathmandu, arrangements are put in place for a grand reception even at the airport. News of it is viral on main-stream and social media. What follows, and justly so if you believe the media reports, are celebrations and receptions akin to that of a famous soldier returning home after winning a famous battle against overwhelming odds. Let’s not grudge him his moments of glory and ensuing glamour; thirty lakh is a huge sum after all and must have an assured return on investment.
But it is the “official” (read government/ administrative) recognition that actually legitimises, and on the long run, perpetuates this false narrative and thus the myth of this “star mountaineer”. In a socialist democratic welfare state it is expected, and also actually implemented, that sports and allied activities will be promoted and encouraged. This regional government thankfully also actually does so.
Since it is not expected that the Minister and his administrative offices be experts on mountaineering and allied sports, it is but natural that an official salaried advisory body is constituted to advise them, and such a committee does exist. Among its other promotion/ encouragement activities it also presents, annual cash awards and (supposedly prestigious) medals for excellence in mountaineering. They also provide monetary help to Clubs going on expeditions and/ but only to those individuals who go for 8K peaks. Since the Minister and his offices do not know Club A from Club B, he has to rely on his advisory committee to vet all applicants and choose the most deserving. So it serves the Clubs selfish purpose to be in the good books of this committee and refrain from any criticism, however justified it may be, of its activities. Even when the same committee organises and finances an expedition to the Indian Himalayas, and is later found that they did not have the statutory official sanction for the peak, from the regulatory authorities, and four members of the summit team have suffered horrendous frost-bite, no questions are asked or entertained. And why should only the 8K aspirant individual be given monetary (a princely sum of 5 lakh Rupees) help and also be awarded later is a question that has never been asked or answered. It is obvious that the advisory committee decides this for approval of the minister, who has again obviously been advised that the height of a peak is the only deciding factor.
So, guided 8K summit tourism gets priority and this fake narrative is officially promoted and perpetuated. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, the real authentic climbers and their impressive un-guided achievements remain un-aided and un-recognised by this same committee, though some of them are acclaimed, applauded and awarded by the international community as major documented achievements. The real climbing world has long realised that how and what you climb is more important than how high you climb. This partisan attitude of the committee is an obvious and blatant reflection of its composition; 8K tourist summiteers, and their yes-men/women, promoting other 8K tourist aspirants, at the tax-payers expense.
This finally becomes the last but an essential and official promotion and advertisement for the agencies.
One often wonders if this is in accordance to a well laid out plan; deity, devotee, head priest, usher, altar boys, media and officials, all links of a single money-spinning chain.
But why should the common man and/or the true adventurer/mountaineer be bothered over this?
A few and simple valid reasons are:
- Why perpetuate and give credence to a false narrative when we are aware of the true one
- This falsehood though good for business leads to unacceptably high mortality and morbidity
- Because it creates media – hyped fake icons who if emulated will lead to disasters as seen every year
- This unacceptable mortality will increase the premium rates for insurance, and the true mountaineer will suffer
- All this is partly but officially funded at the tax-payers expense and they legitimately deserve answers
- What examples are we setting for the next generation?
- Why should genuine Indian climbers become a laughing stock internationally because of these devotees?
- When will we realise that just as all Sherpas are Sherpas but not necessarily “Guides”, so too, all self-certified mountaineers are mountaineers but not necessarily “mountaineers”
Some of us may know most of, or all, the answers. A course-correction is imminent, if only to prevent further loss of life or limbs if not the tax-payers money. I am reasonably certain that the regional media will sing a slightly different tune now that they too have been shamefully exposed. The officials, both here and in Nepal, will also make the correct noises (read change of regulations), but will they take definitive steps for a better, honest and safer future? Will the “media stars” be exposed and rendered redundant as icons to be emulated by the future generation? Will future devotees learn to recognise the worthy deity and also learn the correct prayers and practices to pray at her altar?
One eagerly waits for honest, better and safer times in the near future.
Words: Dr. Rupak Bhattacharya
Photo courtesy: Nimsdai Project Possible, Wikimedia, Dream Wanderlust, The Daily Beast, Daily Mail