Why do people risk life and limb to climb Mount Everest? In one of the most oft recanted episodes of Everest folklore, George Mallory – the ill-fated climber whose disappearance on the mountain in 1924 has prompted almost a century of speculation about his final movements – answered this very question: ‘Because it’s there.’
This persisting question is also what captivated Derek Eland when, a year on from the earthquake that triggered a sequence of deadly avalanches on the mountain, he became Everest Base Camp’s first ever artist-in-residence. He immersed himself in this transient, 1,000-strong, cross-border community, setting up a confessional ‘diary room’ tent in which he invited visitors to ruminate on what drove their endeavours.
Eland was fascinated by the panoply of human experience that manifests itself in this most extreme of environments. He asked each of his participants to articulate their responses on a postcard; by the end of his stay, he had amassed some 200, written in a dozen different languages by people of 25 nationalities.
The postcards form the focal point of Eland’s multimedia exhibition, ‘Being Human at Base Camp’, at Rheged, near Penrith in Eland’s native Cumbria. A sprawling montage of these pastel coloured paper fragments lines the walls of the exhibition space, reminiscent of the wind-ragged festoons of prayer flags that snake around the constellation of tents that makes up Base Camp itself.
The juxtapositions thrown up by this mosaic are stirring, showcasing by turns the resilience, the thrill, the loneliness and the crippling self-doubt that can rise up in this hostile milieu, the intimacy of the viewing experience intensified by the humanising properties of handwriting.
One reads: ‘I’m a trekker from the USA and have felt sick since Namche. Get me down. I want to go home.’ Another, close by, says: ‘Never more alive than when your nearly dead [sic].’ Eminent climber Conrad Anker, who in 1999 found the corpse of Mallory on Everest’s upper reaches, took part, while some of those who wrote postcards went on to be killed on the mountain.
The timing of Eland’s stint at Base Camp is significant. The 2015 earthquake served to add piquancy to growing fault lines in the climbing community in the face of the escalating commercialisation of the world’s highest peak. The previous year, an avalanche claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas on Everest. Increasingly aggrieved at being asked repeatedly to stake their lives to cater to the whims of the wealthy, they staged a widely publicised strike, cutting short the summit season in so doing. This itself came 12 months on from an ugly dispute between Sherpas and several prominent international climbers, an incident which gleaned significant global media coverage and reintroduced the perennial debates around the ethics of Everest to the public’s consciousness.
Perhaps as a response to this, there is a sense of Eland fulfilling a duel role of artist and intermediary, perhaps even an emissary for peace. He depicts a base camp in which the extremity of environment serves to strip inhabitants to a bare, and shared, humanity: a crucible in which differences of nationality and aspiration are rendered incidental, subsumed to a fundamental shared experience.
Likewise, Eland offers up a celebration of the Sherpas, whom he proclaims to be the ‘heroes of Everest’. As homage to Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine, he set about capturing portraits – hazy, black and white, and ethereal – of the Sherpas of Everest using a 1923 Kodak Vest Camera near-identical to the one Irvine is believed to have had on his person at the time of his disappearance in 1924.
In spite of these exercises in conviviality, though, the reasons Everest continues to court such widespread controversy are never far from the surface of Eland’s project. A short film – a series of unnarrated vignettes – tells the story of Chetna, a climber who developed frostbite on her descent from the summit. A rescue team was dispatched, in the dark, to attempt the fraught task of bringing her back down to Base Camp. After the ordeal, she speaks to camera of her gratitude to the Sherpa-led team who gave up their bottled oxygen and carried her to the helicopter landing site below.
But the sight of her semi-conscious form slumped against the ice, her delirious initial attempts to rebuff the insistences of her rescuers has an unpalatable echo of accounts of the death of David Sharp, the lone British climber left for dead close to the summit in 2006. Sharp, an avowed ‘purist’ who set out on his own, initially declined offers of assistance from fellow climbers; as his situation deteriorated and his vitality diminished, he was mistaken for a corpse. Had circumstance been different, Chetna, or even her rescuers, might well have faced the same fate as Sharp. Indeed, there are postcards in Eland’s collection which testify to the little heed paid by some to the incalculable risk of their own unshakable pursuit of this most formidable of goals.
But above all this is a celebration of human nature, its resilience in the face of an environment in which it is scarcely equipped to survive. On Eland’s evidence, Everest means a great many things to a great many people. Each has their reasons for being there, however difficult these might be to reconcile for those not swept inexorably up by its mythology. Of 200 people and nearly as many reasons, though, nobody said they wanted to conquer Everest simply because it’s there.