For an insider look at what is happening to the sport of mountaineering in the Himalaya, especially on the world’s highest mountain, David Durkan’s quirky new book Penguins on Everest may be the place to start.
Durkan is a Welsh climber who lives in Norway and has been to Nepal 35 times in the last 30 years. He used to be the editor of Mountain Magazine, and founded the charity, Mountain People. Penguins on Everest is a frontal assault on the commercialisation of mountaineering and how this has turned Everest Pvt Ltd into a product to be bought and sold like any other commodity.
The book is full of mocking references to ‘the trade route’ up Everest, the ‘climbing theme park’, ‘instant ego-expeditions’ which are like ‘geriatric golf courses of mountaineering’ and follow the ‘package holiday expedition model’. No wonder, the Everest expedition industry sees free Alpine-style climbing as ‘irresponsible and indefensible’ because it puts mountaineers in danger. Durkan’s argument is that mountaineering should be all about exploring the unknown and confronting dangers without reducing the mountain to suit the climber’s safety standards.
‘Climbing Everest had moved away from climbing and exploration towards individual gratification and glorification…to be a first of something,’ he writes.
On the back cover flap of the book is a picture taken on the North Face of Everest a few years ago in which a long line of climbers is jumarring up a fixed rope. None of the mountaineers has an ice axe, which leads Durkan to conclude that they are not ‘climbing’ but ‘ascending’. The ‘Everest tourists’ remind Durkan of penguins, hence the title of the book, with an apology to penguins ‘who may feel slighted’.
Penguins on Everest is an idiosyncratic, disjointed and polemical memoir, and its stream-of-consciousness style with frequent personalized digressions may be infuriating to many readers, even those who agree with the author. Durkan makes no apologies for being judgemental about the devaluation of mountaineering, and has got like-minded Himalayan climber Doug Scott to write a fittingly hard-hitting preface in which he laments that ‘the very soul of mountaineering is under siege’. How can those climbing on fixed ropes to pre-fixed camps worthy of being called mountaineers?
The evolution of the Everest industry has impacted on the Sherpas, who form the backbone of expedition-style climbing and depend on it for their livelihood. The tectonic stress between the two styles of climbing has been building up in the 60 years since Hillary and Tenzing’s first ascent, and erupted on the Western Cwm last month when Sherpas and three free climbers from Europe clashed.
The first successful British expedition on Everest in 1953 was already a harbinger of the trend. It was originally supposed to be led by explorer and climber, Eric Shipton, but such was the importance of the climb to British prestige, and the logistics of a large national expedition was so similar to a military operation, that ex-army man, John Hunt, got to lead it. The first ascent was called a ‘victory’, Everest was finally ‘vanquished’ and ‘conquered’.
Even as a boy, Durkan was inspired by early explorer-climbers like Heinrich Harrer (Seven Years in Tibet) and Maurice Herzog (Annapurna) who went up unknown mountains climbing in literally uncharted territory. The book devotes a whole chapter to Herzog and his adventures on Annapurna. Perhaps the golden age of mountaineering is gone forever, but Durkan makes an impassioned plea to understand, protect and practice the innate values of mountaineering.
Penguins on Everest
by David Durkan
Swami Kailash Publications, 2012