The occidentalisation of the Everest
Nepal is a popular destination for 'adventure tourists', not least because of Mount Everest. In making the observation that a movie mimics life, Vaishna Roy, in this critique of the Hollywood movie Everest, laments that the magnificence that is the Everest has long been turned into an arena 'where dollars can create a messy hash of Disneyfied tourism, jingoism and machismo'.
THERE is a prophetic moment early in the movie Everest, when a long line of climbers is waiting to cross a gorge using a rope bridge during an acclimatisation exercise. Texan climber Beck Weathers finally gets his turn, and he is midway on the terrifyingly flimsy rope contraption when a strong gale loosens a cache of snow that almost knocks him off into the abyss below. Expedition leader Rob Hall climbs across to help him and asks if he is okay. Beck turns around and snaps that he didn't pay $65,000 to stand in queue; he could have had that back home at Wal-Mart.
In many ways, that moment underlines the movie. Because Everest somehow never manages to make you hold your breath in awe for the feats of bravery undertaken. Instead, it just fills you with scorn for the foolhardiness of the climbers and the rampant commercialism of what should ideally be only a high-endurance sport, or left well alone. That moment encapsulates the sort of throwaway bravado that climbing the Everest has been reduced to.
Everest is, of course, the classic Hollywood adventure movie, where you are invited to admire a band of courageous men and women who brave all odds to overcome an impossible challenge, in this case, the world's highest peak. But I think it's time for even Hollywood to invest a little more subtlety into its efforts. Yes, we all know that it is the ultimate propaganda tool of the civilised West, and the most brilliant move in cultural colonialism since the British launched English-medium schools in far-flung colonies. But one still hopes, somewhat naively I suppose, for a modicum of nuance.
So, you have these bunches of adrenaline-high, overwhelmingly white, rock-star climbers thronging the foothills of the Everest to tick off another 'been there, done that' box on their impressive bucket lists. The atmosphere at the base camp is annoyingly like a Goa beach, with hordes of climbers lounging about on deck chairs, asking stupid questions like 'Do you speak English?' to the Sherpas, swigging liquor, dancing to lounge music and worrying about espresso coffee. In fact, that is exactly what it is - climbing reduced to tourism, where you pay $65,000 a pop to grab Facebook bragging rights about how you made it to the top of the world.
But here's the thing. Remember those reality shows on Discovery Channel called 'Survival' or 'Stranded' or 'Marooned' or something similar? There's always one solitary man on a tropical island trying to make it out alive, surviving on grubs and hacking at the undergrowth with a machete. Then, at a tense moment when he is millimetres away from being stung by a vicious scorpion, it strikes you that he is not exactly that alone, is he? There is a sophisticated TV crew just yards away with bacon sandwiches and a thermos of coffee.
In just such an awkward moment in the film, there are these intrepid climbers gasping and struggling up a steep and icy slope, hooking their carabiners with numb fingers to the fixed ropes that snake up the mountainside, when you have a eureka moment. Who fixed those fixed ropes anyway? And you realise that a whole team of Sherpas has already climbed up ahead, not only fixing the ropes that will be the lifeline for the adventure climbers but carrying all their supplies as well and laying out extra oxygen cylinders at all the crucial nodes.
If it was difficult before, it becomes impossible after this to take the climbers as seriously as they take themselves. If we must make a movie about the fortitude and courage it takes a human being to climb the Everest, it is laughable that we make the Sherpas invisible. Is courage only white in colour?
Yes, the film has Sherpas, but their characterisation is extraordinarily patronising. One is given a line where he gets to show off (of all useless skills on a climbing expedition) his fluent English. Two others are shown sulking and quarrelling as the bwana kindly explains why everyone must work together to survive. They next make an appearance when the brave mountaineers need to be rescued from the impossibly dangerous situation into which their stupidity has landed them.
In the campsites, across the dinner table, there's a whole bunch of clich‚d stuff about how they are climbing the mountain because it is there, how it's about attitude and not altitude, about how they climb so that their children know what they are made of and so forth. What we don't get to see are the Sherpas reaching way ahead of each group, pitching the dining tents, the toilet tents and first-aid tents, setting up the chairs and tables and dishing out hot soup at 18,000 feet.
Sure, they do it for money. But if that makes them any less courageous, then why laud the courage of a Rob Hall, whose outfit 'Adventure Consultants' is the one that charges clients $65,000 a climb? Why make a hero of a Scott Fischer, who heads adventure travel group 'Mountain Madness', and whose endless bravado not only grates on the nerves but ultimately kills him on the peak?
Everest is based on the true story of the disastrous 1996 expedition when eight climbers lost their lives not just due to the fierce blizzard that struck the peak but also due to some rash decisions taken by expedition leaders and the sheer crowding on the peak. That year, there were several commercial operators on the Everest and around 40 people were attempting the summit.
At Hillary Step, the final leg, a queue waited to hook up to the single fixed line. This meant that when 2 p.m. arrived, the last safe hour at which the climbers absolutely had to begin their descent, most climbers had not even reached the top. Instead of immediately returning to Camp IV, Rob Hall decided to help the older and inexperienced Doug Hansen begin the last ascent well after 2 p.m. Doug made the peak but both of them died in the descent, caught squarely in the blizzard. When somebody has paid all his life savings to make this trip, it becomes difficult to insist that he turn back when the summit is in sight. It's this commercialisation that has coloured how and why the mountain is climbed.
To talk of logjams and bottlenecks on the Everest appears like an absurdity but that's just what climbing it has been reduced to: a quick-fix adventure high that you can buy and make comfortable by paying lots of money. Tour operators offer one 'personal Sherpa' per climber and fresh meats and fruits flown in by choppers. They promise 'nutritious Western menus', 'imported snacks' and 'propane barbeque grills and ovens' for baked treats. There is even a cocktail hour with appetisers! One website talks of a 'carpeted, heated and solar-lit toilet and shower tent'. From muffins and crŠpes with Nutella to heated toilets and chip-and-dip with your Martini, the occidentalisation of the Everest is complete. Now, keeping up with the Joneses is not just about getting the bigger Merc, it's also about getting more selfies on the world's most dangerous spots.
If there's one thing missing in the movie, and in climbers today, it is respect - for the magnificence that is the Everest. When the climbers reach the peak, the first thing they do is plant a puny little flag of their country in the snow. Really? You are on top of the world and all you can think of is stupid geographical boundaries and national pride?
But the movie, after all, is just mimicking real life. The world's most astonishing natural phenomena have long been turned into arenas where dollars can create a messy hash of Disneyfied tourism, jingoism and machismo.
Vaishna Roy is Associate Editor of The Hindu daily in India, and edits the paper's Sunday Magazine. This article is reproduced from The Hindu's thREAD blog (www.thehindu.com/thread).