summit of achievement

summit of achievement is an excerpt from RUNNING CONTRA DICTION and the flight of a soul athlete –  available on Amazon and all good bookshops

Ed shifted in his seat, looked around and found what he was looking for – a distraction. One hundred and fifty pages of it, mostly photographs. On the shelf at his shoulder was Everest – The Summit of Achievement.  Ed flicked through some facts and acknowledgements in the introduction but was then held by the smiling portrait of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet who had written the foreword.

While acknowledging Hillary and Tenzing’s successful bid to reach the summit in 1953 as an inspiring and positive example of what human beings can achieve, the result of great planning, teamwork and individual effort, The Dalai Lama also pointed out that it was another instance of human ability to dominate the world we live in.

While messages of congratulation flooded in from around the world to celebrate this proud achievement – which coincided in Britain with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – the Tibetans were struggling to come to terms with the Chinese Communist occupation.

The Dalai Lama added that the mountains were sacred to the Tibetans. Rather than climb to the top of them, a Tibetan would make salutations by offering juniper incense smoke in their direction and piously walking around them. They didn’t need to go to the summit – Tibetan vocabulary did not even have word for the top of a mountain.

If climbing the mountain was the only way to complete a journey, Tibetan travellers respectfully add a stone to the cairns at the top of the pass with a shout of “Lha-gyal-lo — Victory to the gods!”

A mountain was not something to be conquered but a place where they could meditate undisturbed, and conquer their minds.

At least as awesome as the story of climbing the mountain was the account of mapping India and the Himalayas and all formidable obstacles – physical, psychological, political and technical – that generations of cartographic teams had to overcome. It had cost a fortune in lives and money, and generated the most complex mathematical equations known to the pre-computer age.

Tibet had been a blank space on the world map for many years until, in 1856, a mountain inside Tibet called Chomolungma was surveyed from a viewing point in India and was found to be the highest mountain in the world. It was given a new name and became an object of obsession.

In was the era of empires and expeditions, Tibet’s anonymity was effectively over but somehow only a handful of Westerners made it into Tibet. Until 1904. In 1904 the Brits officially tricked and terrorised their way in so that they could keep a closer eye on other countries looking to expand their borders. And in 1921 the first reconnaissance climbing expedition was permitted, intent on scaling the world’s greatest mountains; the enormous difficulties and dangers involved only adding to the appeal.

Ed had trekked to Everest base camp, albeit seventy years later, and he could imagine the uneasy contrast; how the same object could stimulate quite different responses in human beings?  The line of pale-skinned and hairy mountaineers salivating over the mountain-prize walking passed the tents of the nomads of Beyeul Khembalung who for generations had survived by grazing their animals in these high pastures. For the nomads life was already a delicate balance, and then these self-indulgent hobbyists arrived…

The following year, 1922, the mountaineers were back, not for reconnaissance, this was the first expedition to actually climb Mt Everest. One of the conditions on the “passports” granted by the Dalai Lama was “no guns and no killing — including the animals”.  The visitors kept their word – the animals were not hunted and the mountaineers remarked on how tame the wildlife was. However, seven Tibetan porters were killed during this unsuccessful attempt, swept to their deaths in an avalanche on the slopes leading to the North Col.

Dzatrul Rinpoche, the Abbot of nearby Rongbuk Monastery, wrote, “I was filled with compassion for their lot who underwent suffering for such unnecessary work.”

Dzatrul Rinpoche was asking the question – Why? Many observers were asking the question — Why?  And George Mallory provided the famous answer: Because it is there.

Two years later in 1924, on the next unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit of Everest, George Mallory died because it is there.  At this point Ed found a book mark, a slip of yellow card-paper, he turned it to read the handwritten notations; All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” Blaise Pascal.  GM died because he couldn’t leave it there. He died like most of us will, trying to understand that basic human desire – to explore.

We see a mountain, and we need to stand on top of it. The Majesty is lost on us. Like Adam who could not leave the apple on the tree. We see the fruit as something outside of ourselves and need to own it. That is where every story begins.

Ed said “Oh” out loud. It was an involuntary sound. He closed the book on his left hand, holding the yellow bookmark away from himself in his right hand, and shut his eyes, and hoped his head would not explode.

He paced up and down. Threw sticks on the fire. Sat back in the chair. He was relaxed. As relaxed as he could be. His right-leg bobbing up and down like a sewing machine. And his mind was calm, the only calmness he knew, just the standard undercurrent of constant thinking and distraction. He went back to the Everest book and Hillary and Tenzing’s triumph in 1953. Of course that was not the end of the Everest climbing story – how could it be?  The euphoria is short-lived, the mountaineers were already focussed on the next challenge. Next it had to be attempted with route variations and added complications, and without oxygen.

Another bookmark: Each success leaves them thirsty for more. Like drinking salt-water. Hardly an accomplishment at all. And then everyone wanted a go, and the trekking routes began to suffer the effects of mass tourism. Ed had been one of those “white-eyed visitors” looking for a high-point in their life. The book quoted a Sherpani from Namche Bazar who compared westerners to cattle. Happy to wander about aimlessly all day long, constantly getting sick, and how you had to lead them by the nose over difficult terrain or else they fell off the trail. But if you fed them well, they’d produce a lot of milk.  There was a contribution from the leader of an Everest Pollution Control Committee, who also happened to be the Abbot of Thyangboche Monastery, who said,

“Practical initiatives and measures for conservation were missing the main point, that only by changing the minds of those who come to Khumbu will they be able to stop the bad effects of tourism”.

Only by changing the minds. Sometimes when you heard something like that, the shock and awe was enough to open a door, and you could see and feel the validity of that truth. The Abbot of Thyangboche Monastery should be President of the World, not chairman of a litter campaign! For a moment Ed really understood something. He made a note. How we think creates so much distress and debris. Arrogance, anxiety and stress manifest in our outer world as ever more clutter and confusion.


Ed resented these Everest pioneers , maybe because they were a mirror for his guilt. These “conquerors” with their double-barrelled names and public-school attitude were more like gold-diggers than mountaineers. Then he found in the back of the book an appendix with all the different expeditions and a biography of the team members. Like Theodore Howard Somervell (1890 – 1975). Mr Somervell received a double first in natural sciences at Cambridge and qualified as a surgeon in time to be plunged into the horrors of World War I. As well as being an experienced alpine climber – he was a core member of the 1922 and 1924 teams – he was a talented landscape painter and musician. After the Everest expeditions he turned his back on a prestigious surgeon’s job in London and instead worked as missionary doctor in southern India for nearly forty years before retiring to the Lake District.

This didn’t really fit with the self-indulgent hobbyist picture Ed had been painting. Wanting to climb a mountain did not make someone a bad person, any more than being Tibetan made someone a saint.



summit of achievement is an excerpt from RUNNING CONTRA DICTION and the flight of a soul athlete –  available on Amazon and all good bookshops

Published by mattpadwick

Kum Nye (Tibetan Yoga teacher),author

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