In early April 1953, a gangling man with a lantern jaw stood alongside a shorter dark-skinned man in high meadow outside Thyangboche, Nepal, studying the way to the northeast. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa were seven weeks away from becoming household names, and 50 years later the celebrations of Everest’s conquest have already begun. There are commemorative climbs planned, the Queen will host a gala jubilee dinner. The Hillary Step will loom again.
And there will be nods to the hundreds who’ve followed, as if that were something to boast about.
Fifty years is actually a very long time to an ingenious race. Fifty years after the internal combustion engine, Henry Ford perfected the Model T. Fifty years after the Wright brothers, ordinary Americans could cross the Atlantic on a whim. Fifty years after the double helix, we have miracle cures and Dolly the sheep.
Nothing like that can be said of Everest. We might have expected a river of humanity to follow the brave climbers-there’s been barely a trickle. Base camp is barred to all but a handful of the enterprising rich, and the trail up from there remains chancy and vertiginous. When postman Doug Hansen dared to reprise Sir Edmund’s feat in 1996, he slipped woozily to his death from the summit, even as eight others died in a horror show of reckless guides and sudden weather. Everest’s slopes are littered with corpses in various states of glaciation, and the South Col has become a landfill for oxygen bottles, crampons, and excrement.
For all those who say that ’53 is a monument to human daring, how many will acknowledge that the years since have been a monument to human diffidence?
I believe it’s time we commit ourselves to the proposition that even an ordinary person has the right to say, “I climbed Everest, too.” It’s time that a road is built up the mountain.
It goes without saying that a highway up Everest is a daunting task. “If there’s a will, there’s probably a way,” Jim Spaid, the roadway construction engineer for the State of Washington, concedes. “But it would have to be a very strong will.”
Fair enough, but it’s not like Ed Hillary woke up one day 50 years ago and decided he was going to climb Mount Everest. The British had sent major expeditions up the hill for more than 30 years before that. A lot of money was spent, several men lost their lives (notably George Mallory, who said, “Because it’s there.”).
The Times of London was firmly behind the project, as I think the television networks would have to be now if my idea is to gain any traction. “Everyone to Everest” would require the cooperation of several governments, and an international coalition to apply pressure to the balky, backward Nepalis (though if such a coalition did not materialize, America could do it on its own, calling the Brits to their former glory, too).
It’s no stretch to say that Detroit is willing. Television ads that show S.U.V.’s navigating absurd terrains would seem to have Everest as a not so-hidden agenda. Bob Wilson of the Colorado Department of Transportation says that cars will sputter in thin air over 16,000 feet, but the answer to that is that Mallory died in, ’24 in tweed and hobnail boots; a successful summit involved the perfection of a lot of new gear, from Primus stoves to down jackets to crampons, and this job will demand similar innovations.
The market is huge. What wouldn’t Donald Trump, or you or I, pay for a drink at a bar on the South Col with its majestic views? Licensing of Everest and Everest Road images would be tightly controlled, even the sale of bumper stickers saying “This Car Climbed Everest” (or if that’s not to your taste, a round white sticker for the rear windshield, with a black circle and the letters EVT).
A doubter says, “It’s one thing to get a highway up to Base Camp at 17,000 feet following trekking trails, but after that, there is the Khumbu Glacier and Icefall, a matrix of crevasses in which house-sized pieces of ice tumble hundreds of feet. How do you get a car through that?”
I’m no engineer, but roadmakers have tackled challenges that rival the shoulders of Everest. There are frozen roads on permafrost in Alaska and a cog railway and road to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado, which is half Everest’s height. Shelf roads in Colorado have been blasted on 80-degree slopes, says CDOT’s Wilson.
“You could save yourself a lot of trouble by tunneling under the Khumbu,” says Rob Buchanan, a contributing editor to Outside magazine. “The French have punched many holes through the Alps, including under Mont Blanc.”
As for the knife edge of the southeastern summit ridge, Mr. Buchanan recommends flattening portions of it. “This road could save a lot of lives,” he says.
The real obstacle here is not granite, it’s a 50-year failure of imagination. Henry Ford was mocked in his time when he dreamed that every household should have a working car, now it is our turn to imagine the schoolgirl in kickpleats and the wrinkled war veteran alike, stepping from the bus, their faces lit up by the highest light the world has to offer.
A blueprint, a blasting cap, a switchback or two, and there you are, atop the Hillary Step.
Let them hump it from there, I say. Let our little road curl to a halt, and the Explorers and Aztecs park on a slant at the overlook. Preserve the summit exactly as Sir Edmund and Tenzing found it, we should commit ourselves to that now, and demand the same commitment from the Chinese, if they build a road from the north, as I expect they will.
Still, this being one of the world’s great spaces, one can’t help but envision touches that frame the experience: Sherpas in maroon pantaloons and perhaps even some gold braid to accompany people the last hundred feet, white George Segal figures of Sir Edmund and Tenzing outside an educational center something like the natural-looking centers in stone and beams that the Interior Department has helped to build that blend into the landscape at some of the Indian reservations out west, and a gift shop selling black-and-white postcards showing where Mallory sleeps, where Jon Krakauer napped while Beck Weathers froze, where Sandy Pittman did or did not get short-roped.
This is big, I know, this is big big big, this is where big goes when bigger has gone off to bed and biggest is just a littleness on the valley floor. But dream with me, dare, step out, imagine, and for anyone with a breath of discouragement, two words: revolving restaurant.