The `Four-Minute Mile` of NE Mountaineering History

By Pradip Phanjoubam

No serious thoughts on events in the North East in the past fortnight can be complete without a hearty congratulatory message to the First North East India Top of the World Expedition 2013 to Mount Everest, sponsored by the North Eastern Council, NEC, organized by the Government of Manipur and captained by the Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association, MMTA.

The expedition, as probably most, if not all of us, who follow news of the North East and Manipur, are aware, accomplished the rare feat of putting 10 climbers, including two women and a 16 year old boy, on the highest peak of the world, standing majestically at 8848 meters (about 28,032 ft) above mean sea level. For adventure sports in the North East, this would be no less than the momentous breaking of the ‘4-minute mile’ barrier by Roger Bannister in 1954, removing a psychological mind block which was thought at the time to be a physical human limit, thus making way for generations of runners to follow him to push the record further till today many of the best middle distance runners do a mile in a little over three and a half minutes. The current world record is held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco at 3:43.13 set in 1999 at Rome. The Olympics do not have a mile race, instead it has 1,500 meters race. Had it been otherwise, it is possible the incentive would have pushed the competition tougher and the record further lowered. Guerrouj holds the world record for the 1500 meters race event at 3:26.00, set also in Rome in 1988. Several other athletes have also done it within three and a half minutes.

Bannister and John Landy of Australia were the two bitter rivals chasing the 4-minute mile barrier and though Bannister was the first to cross the barrier, within days, Landy too did it, and from then there has been no question of shutting the floodgates again. Within a year, 24 others also ran the distance within four minutes. Incidentally, there is an enchanting movie called “Four-Minute Mile” capturing this tremendous saga of the sweats and tears, triumphs and heartbreaks that went into the making of this landmark human achievement.

The Everest feat of the North Eastern climbers is of this nature, therefore, is a cause for a well deserved celebration. What they have done is to shatter open a prohibiting psychological inhibition for the entire region.

Until May 18, 2013, before this psychological barrier came tumbling down with three climbers of the team setting foot on the highest point on earth on a dangerously windy morning, Everest was no more than a far dream, perhaps too far, for most mountaineers from the region. But now the dream having been realized with such style and consummate ease  by men and women no doubt of extraordinary grit and determination, but nonetheless as ordinary and everyday as any other North Easterner, the impossible dream would have lost the myths surrounding it, and I am sure more will repeat the feat in the coming years.

What also was loudly brought to everyday consciousness during this expedition is, the sports of mountaineering has undergone tremendous changes, so much so that it is almost unrecognizable from what it was only a few decades ago, in the last century. For instance, once upon a time climbing Mount Everest was thought an impossible challenge. It was in 1924 that the first major attempt was made to ‘conquer’ Everest by two British mountaineers, George Leigh Mallory, a seasoned mountaineer, and his climbing mate, a much younger and inexperienced, Andrew Irvine, whose tragic adventure has today become an enduring legend and myth in the annals of mountaineering. On June 9, 1924, the two were last seen from the base camp only a few hundred meters from the peak when contacts with them were lost because of bad weather. Tragically they also never made it back, and after they were presumed dead, nobody has been able to confirm so far whether they died on the way up to the peak or on the way down from the peak.

Mallory`s body was found at the bottom of a crevice not far from the peak in 1999. He had head injuries which were presumed to be probably the cause of his death, but a Kodak camera he carried with him was missing so it was still not possible to determine for certain whether he and Irvine reached the summit. Irvine`s body is still not found, though in 1975, a member of a Chinese expedition reported sighting amidst a bad storm, the body of a Caucasian looking climber not too far from base camp. Searches later have never yielded results. It is presumed, the body was that of Irvine. If Irvine and the camera is recovered even today, Kodak is hopeful the film in the camera may be still recoverable because of the perennial freezing condition atop Everest. Of the many circumstantial evidences the two may have reached the summit is that Mallory’s sun goggles were in his pocket, suggesting it was getting dark when the accident happened, and it could not have been so late had they given up climbing and decided to turn back without reaching the peak.

One of the reconstructed stories is, the experienced Mallory met with an accident and fell down the crevice. When it became certain his injuries were fatal and he would not be able to make it back, the younger climber cut the rope and proceeded alone for base camp. The Kodak camera Mallory had with him was probably handed over to Irvine too. However, he too, inexperienced and demoralized, did not make it to safety, and probably died on the way, of hypothermia, exhaustion and dehydration, not far away from base camp. Interestingly, two climbers recently retraced the route Mallory and Irvine took using the same climbing gears they would have used, demonstrating it was not impossible they could have reached the top. For more read this National Geographic feature

If the two did make it to the top, they would be the first to have climbed Mount Everest, nearly 30 years ahead of another great mountaineer and philanthropist, New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, who accomplished the feat on May 29, 1953. There can be no doubt whatsoever Hillary and Tenzing`s achievement were superhuman, but the mountaineering world cannot be blamed for the lingering doubt if they were indeed the first to set foot on the highest peak of the world. Hillary`s own comment on this should be accepted and treated as final. He once remarked in Kathmandu that conquering a peak is not just about climbing it, but also about returning alive after doing so. The recent Northeast Top of the World Expedition, did precisely this and therefore their achievement is complete and total in all senses of the words.

But if Mallory and Irvine did reach the peak in June, 1925, on an empirical scale, the degree of difficulty they would have had to overcome would be much more than those faced by Hillary and Tenzing, and no point mentioning it, today`s climbers. In 1924 mountaineering equipments were rudimentary. National Geographic in a recent issue has come out with a comparison of climbing equipments, &utm_medium=Email& utm_content=adventure_201 30504&utm_campaign =Content#/everest-altimeters_66610_600x450.jpg
and it is amazing the kind of transformations that have taken place in these decades of mountaineering. In 1924 and to a lesser extent, 1953, the climber would also have had to virtually discover their way to the top, knowing little or nothing of what nature of obstacles they would be facing on the way. Today climbers know each and every possible route to the summit down to the barest detail, and therefore what equipments to carry depending on the route decided upon. This being what it is, there is today virtually a traffic jam of climbers on Mount Everest summit route each year, and the Nepal government actually has to ration the number of climbers to be allowed to attempt summiting Everest each climbing season. In fact, cleaning up the wastes, despite strict restrictions against leaving them, from base camp and beyond, today has become a major task involving many NGOs and volunteer agencies.

In 1924 when Mallory and Irvine set out for their mission, many thought this was madness as the feat then was considered impossible and too dangerous. At a pre-expedition press meet, a reporter asked Mallory why he wanted to climb Everest. His one line answer has today become the most profoundly defining statement of mankind’s spirit of adventure.

He said: “Because it is there.”

Many today think he said this off the cuff, at a loss for words and having nothing else to reply the query. That is, he did not contemplate the meaning of the words he pronounced. Yet, nobody will doubt the beauty and profundity of these words. Adventure is about accepting challenges, and whatever is there and not explored is a challenge to the human spirit to explore and understand. I deliberately avoid the term ‘conquer’ here for its connotation of a very Victorian sense of grand hegemony, marked by an ego-centric and thereby vain, self pride.

In any contemplation of great mountaineers, two other monumental figures come to mind. One of them is Reinhold Messner, The ethnic German Italian from South Tyrol in northern Apline Italy. Messner has climbed every one of the 14 peaks in the world over 8,000 meters (26,000 ft) high. He is the first to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, first with a climbing partner and then in the next expedition, he repeated this feat in a solo climb. To climb Everest without supplementary oxygen is fearsome enough feat, just as to climb Everest solo is an equally terrifying project. But to do both in a single expedition is simply superhuman and beyond words. I have had the good fortune to visit one of Messner’s homes in South Tyrol, one which is today a mountaineering museum. The place is located high up on the Alps on the way to the Austrian border at the Brenner Pass, the highway to the place flanked by towering, vertical dolomite rock faces where, if you scan intently enough, chances are you would spot tiny figures of rock-climbers in the distance, usually in pairs, scaling these impossible rock faces.

Many consider Messner the greatest mountaineer ever. But there is a younger challenger to this coveted status — Ang Rita, the humble Sherpa from Nepal. As observers we see him as a challenger to this status, but it is unlikely the great Sherpa, would be bothered or aware of his fame at all. Rita has climbed Mount Everest for an unthinkable 10 times, each time without supplementary oxygen, from every possible directions Everest can be climbed, earning him the nickname, the Snow Lion. He has also climbed Kanchenjunga in winter, another unthinkable feat. Messner showed the way and Rita carried the banner further. If he had the resources, probably he would have gladly climbed any other peak in the world too.

Here then is a story told and retold in the annals of all heroic deeds. Mallory and Irvine in 1924 may not have returned alive but they showed scaling Everest was not impossible. Hillary and Tenzing confirmed this in 1953. And today impossible is no longer an adjective in the vocabulary of Everest expeditions. Even climbers from remote and impoverished North East would vouch this now. However, they must not forget, as in all other fields of heroic achievements, they too have these great pioneers to thank for what they are capable of today, just as future mountaineers from the region would have them to thank for breaking the `4 minute mile` of the mountaineering history of the region.



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