AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

Another Ascent of the World's Highest Peak-Qomolangma

Another Ascent of the World’s Highest Peak—Qomolangma, (no author given). Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1975. 118 pages, many black-and-white and color photos.

It is all too easy to make fun of the Chinese on Everest. By Western standards, their 1975 ascent of the north ridge represents overkill at its most excessive—a team of hundreds (the number is not specified, but includes 70 scientists and 36 women) just to place nine climbers on the summit, a convoy of trucks to deliver fresh vegetables at Base Camp, mobs of Tibetans to cheer them on from Lhasa. The 1960 Chinese “ascent” generated a storm of controversy, when alleged summit photos were demonstrated to have been taken from a point somewhat below the summit. This time the Chinese clearly did make the top, leaving a metal tripod there to aid in triangulation. But, the Western climber is tempted to say, so what?

Another Ascent of the World’s Highest Peak—Qomolangma, a glossy, well-translated propaganda brochure, allows us to try to comprehend the achievement in Chinese terms. To this reader, at least, those terms seem contradictory. Much is made of the triumph as a combined effort of the whole Chinese people, “for whom there are no unscalable heights or unvanquishable fortresses.” The achievement really belongs to “the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the movement to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius.” Yet the nine summit climbers are among the few team members named, and their individual portraits single them out for glory. The apparent crux, a nasty bulge in the Second Step, is led by Sodnam Norbu, who is identified for that feat as conspicuously as, say, Buhl on the Eiger.

Another claim of the manifesto is that, in Mao’s words, “Whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too.” One woman, Phanthog, reached the summit, and 15 others broke the Chinese women’s altitude record by reaching 7600 meters. But the women are praised for their efforts in the patronizing accents familiar to bourgeois capitalism (“Not a word of complaint was heard from them … they tackled névé, crevasses, and ice walls in excellent form.…”).

There is an emphasis on Science reminiscent of the late-19th-Century arctic expeditions. Yet the tangible discoveries of the teams of surveyors, atmospheric physicists, high-altitude physiologists, glaciologists and geologists remain unclear—beyond determining the altitude of Qomolangma to the nearest centimeter.

When not downright contradictory, Chinese values strike the Western climber as puzzling. The loss of Comrade Wu Tsungyueh, who “died a hero’s death after holding out to the last,” is nevertheless treated almost apologetically. The reasons why New China supports mountaineering include “the interests of socialist economic reconstruction and the building of national defense,” as well as instilling the lesson to fear “neither hardship nor death.” There is unabashed talk about the “conquest of nature.”

Most deeply anathematic to the Westerner is the compulsory cheerfulness exhibited on every page, along with the extreme regimentation. In all the photos everyone is smiling, even the factory workers producing down jackets and pack frames. Training consists of an endless single-file trudge up a lowland hill, and Base-Camp exercises are conducted in perfect ranks and files. The caption of a photo in which two climbers are grinning at each other reads, “Helping each other on with packs before setting out on an acclimatization march”; another, “The protective nylon rope, linking the climbers together, is highly treasured as a tie of comradeship.”

The Chinese are careful not to risk Western comparisons. But the 1960 ascent is unblinkingly advanced as fact. And the 20-meter wall in the Second Step is cryptically upgraded as follows : “It has been described in relevant foreign literature as too great an obstacle to warrant any further attempts on it.” Presumably the British of the ’20s and ’30s? At any rate, Sodnam Norbu made quick work of it with an aluminum ladder.

David Roberts