“Helloo, how are you?” Jamling Tenzing’s upbeat voice travels through the phone from Nepal.
Following in the footsteps of a successful father is not easy, especially if those footsteps snake up Mount Everest. But in 1996, forty-three years after his father Tenzing Norgay, along with Edmund Hillary, became the first human to conquer the world’s highest mountain, Jamling too stood atop the 29,031ft peak.
It was a bittersweet moment for him because 1996 was one of Everest’s tragic seasons. A zero-visibility blizzard high on the mountain took away eight lives in one night. Jamling, a member of an IMAX crew shooting the climb, saw the heartbreaking sights firsthand. This season is looking bleak too. Eleven people have died so far on Everest and an Indian origin climber, Shrinivas Sainis Dattatraya, is missing.
Jamling, a 58-year-old Indian citizen with a wiry, mountaineer’s body, runs the Tenzing Norgay Adventures trekking company in Darjeeling. He is also an author and motivational speaker. The 70th anniversary of Tenzing and Hillary’s feat is coming up on May 29. Events have been planned in different parts of the world. Amidst all the activity, Jamling spoke to Outlook about the recent rescues on the Annapurna, the dangers of inexperience and other issues related to mountaineering.
In April, three Indian climbers – Anurag Maloo, Baljeet Kaur and Arjun Vajpai – were rescued. Questions are again being raised as to whether everyone attempting major peaks, at times without supplemental oxygen, are experienced enough to take on such challenges. According to you, what are the lessons from the Annapurna episode?
I think one of the most important things to remember is that, when you go on a mountain, or on any adventure, you're always taking a risk. Just two weeks ago, I lost two of my cousins in the Khumbu Icefall on Everest. In any adventure sport, an element of risk is going to be there.
I don't know the exact circumstances of Anurag’s case. I’m glad at least his life was saved. I think this is a lesson for climbers to make sure they're aware of what's happening, and that if anything happens to them, they’re going to risk the lives of other people who will be involved in the rescue operations.
We have a lot of climbers nowadays without much experience. They just climb for the trophy, to get to the top and take a selfie.
So the lesson is don’t climb just for fame, and don’t be hasty.
And don't be arrogant in whatever you do in life. Respect others. In time of need, they're the ones who are going to help you get out of the hole. That's a basic lesson not only for mountaineers, but for all human beings.
Has climate change made mountains more dangerous?
The climate has been changing for thousands of years. So we cannot blame everything on climate change. The important thing is you have to be prepared for such things, especially when you are climbing big mountains. You're going into a hazardous domain. And you have to make sure you have good backing. In Anurag's case, he got very good support from the rescuers (Polish climber Adam Bielecki and Tashi Sherpa of Seven Summit Treks, along with a few other Sherpas, pulled Maloo out of a 70m deep crevasse, in which he fell after grabbing a wrong rope and lay there for about three days).
One of the greatest things nowadays is technology. We have all these beepers and trackers. Even if someone is in a 10ft avalanche, we can find them. I think technology played a very big part in Anurag and Baljeet Kaur’s rescues. They are alive thanks to technology, and thanks to people who risked their own lives to save them. (Baljeet was rescued by Pioneer Expeditions.)
Overcrowding on popular mountains, especially Everest, has also majorly contributed to disasters. The Nepal government has gone from issuing 20 permits in the 1970s for Everest to 400-plus now, and each permit costs $11,000. Has money and the mountaineering-driven economy stopped authorities from imposing stricter rules?
Money is the main force that drives everyone. In 1996, when we climbed Everest and eight climbers died in one night, there were about 60 climbers in one line going up. At that time we thought that was too much. And afterwards everyone gathered together – the government, the climbing community – and decided to restrict the number of permits. But nothing happened eventually and things remained the same. This year I think 475 permits have been issued for Everest. So those many people, along with about 1200 Sherpas, would be on the mountain. Sadly, in our part of the world, something very bad has to happen before rules are imposed. And even then they sometimes aren’t.
You saw death up close during the 1996 expedition. And then you resumed your climb. How does a mountaineer straddle these two states of being?
We passed the bodies of many friends. It's not easy, but it's a reality of mountaineering. You pray for their souls. And then you move on and make sure you don't make the same mistake.