The Himalayan nation of Nepal is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the historic scaling of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, by New Zealander adventurer Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay.
In May 1953, Hillary and Norgay became arguably the most famous people on earth with their monumental achievement -- somewhat along the same lines as Charles Lindbergh from decades prior and Neil Armstrong in the future.
Norgay died in 1986, while Hillary passed away a little more than five years ago at the age of 88. However, the actual legacy of their legendary climb – and the subsequent impact of increased mountain-climbing and tourism in Nepal, once one of the most isolated nations on earth – is rather mixed.
The government of Kathmandu is considering imposing a limit on the number of climbers permitted on Everest at any one time, due to increasing overcrowding and pollution. Some 35 expeditions attempt to climb Everest every year, more than one such endeavor every two weeks.
Over the past few weeks, no fewer than 500 people have climbed Everest, including 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura of Japan, the oldest person ever to scale the mountain. Other successful climbers have included the first female amputee, the first armless man and the first women from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Since the historic Hillary-Norgay adventure, at least 3,500 people have scaled the 29,000-foot peak, and the rate of success has accelerated in recent years due to improved mountaineering equipment and advances in weather forecasting.
National Geographic reported that in 2012, more than half (56 percent) of attempts to scale the mountain were successful – up from only 18 percent as recently as 1990. According 8000ers.com, a website that tracks mountaineering expeditions, since 1953 there have been more than 5,600 attempts to climb Everest, and 210 deaths.
In the interim, Everest has become a cash cow for the Nepalese tourism industry – but at a great price. Temba Tsheri Sherpa, who runs an expedition company at Everest, told Agence France-Presse that for foreign mountain-climbers, the ascent has become like a sporting event for the wealthy.
"Everest has turned into a playground for people with all sorts of interests,” he said. “All they want is to set new records and they seem to be willing to pay thousands of dollars in order to fulfill their dreams."
Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, told the BBC that his father would have been upset by the tawdry, commercial nature of mountain-climbing in today's Nepal, although he would have been happy that tourism had provided jobs for the impoverished Sherpa community.
Indeed, Nepal, still a very poor country, needs the tourist dollars that mountain-climbing provides. The BBC noted that Westerners and Japanese climbers may pay up to $100,000 for permits to climb Everest and for Sherpa guides to accompany them.
But all this cash has come at a terrible cost – namely pollution, trash and excessive commercialism. The Australian newspaper reported that Nepalese and Indian soldiers have removed more than four tons of rubbish this season, but trash remains everywhere at the base camp.
Ayisha Jessa, 31, a climber from London who visited Everest, complained: "There were just people everywhere. It's completely commercialized -- everything is intended for the Western traveler.” Another mountaineer, Graham Hoyland, lamented that Everest is no longer "a wilderness experience -- it's a McDonald's experience.”
As for Hillary, an extremely shy man devoted to nature and Christianity, he was appalled by the subsequent commercialization of his beloved Nepal and the practice of wealthy tourists from the West destroying the pristine beauty of the countryside in the wake of his historic achievement.
Hillary, through his Himalayan Trust Foundation, built schools and health clinics for the Sherpa people he came to admire so much. But he remained adamantly opposed to what he had inadvertently wrought – the commercialization of Everest through tourism and the gradual erosion of local Sherpa culture.
In an 1996 interview with MountainZone.com, Hillary declared: “I think the Nepalese government has to be a bit more restrictive about permission for [tourist/mountaineering] groups… I don't particularly like the commercialized side of mountaineering.”
While admitting that mountaineering expeditions and tourism have brought some financial benefits to the Sherpas, Hillary was concerned about the effects of Western influences on local communities. “Tourism is a very big economic benefit to the Sherpa people and also they have very strong ties to their own social attitudes and their own religion, so fortunately, they're not too influenced by many of our Western attitudes,” he said.
“They are affected a little, I guess. I can remember when I first went into the Himalayan area way back in 1951. Money, for instance, was not important at all to the local people. But now, finance has become just as important to them as it is to us, and this is a change maybe not for the better.”
In 2003, on the 50th anniversary of his famous climb, Hillary again complained about what mountaineering tourism had done to Nepal. He was also very dismissive of contemporary mountaineers who treated the expedition as some kind of party.
The base camp, with about 1,000 people, was "a booze place for drinks and all the other comforts,” Hillary said at a news conference in May 2003, according to the Associated Press. “Just sitting around in a big base camp, knocking back cans of beer, I don’t particularly regard as mountaineering.”
He also suggested at the time that Everest be closed to further expeditions. “For a while, I wondered whether I had done a bad thing, made it too easy for foreigners to come up,” he said.
Norgay’s own grandson, Tashi Tenzing, asked the Nepalese government to enact legislation to preserve the beauty and cleanliness of Everest by limiting future mountaineering trips by tourists.
"Our leaders should understand the value of the mountains," he said. “We should not sell Nepal as a cheap destination."
Such pleas may fall on deaf ears. Earlier this year, the Nepal Tourism Board reported that tourist arrivals to the Himalayan state jumped by 9.8 percent in 2012, following a 21.4 spurt in 2011.
In 2011, more than 700,000 foreign tourists arrived in the country (in 1962, Nepal received only about 6,000 tourists). Moreover, tourism is the country’s biggest single industry and largest source of revenue and foreign exchange. According to TravelBiznews.com, tourism revenues represent about 3.4 percent of Nepalese annual GDP and almost 24 percent of total foreign exchange earnings.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.