History was made by a group of young Nepali men away from home last week, while less than a dozen political heads have kept us locked in a state of senseless and toxic amusement here. A surreal video of 10 Nepali men singing national anthem atop the second highest mountain in the world, K2 in Pakistan, went viral on social media. This justifiably made millions of Nepalis swell with pride and bow in respect for their audacity, grit and wisdom.
Their exact stories of hard work, dedication, sacrifice and team spirit are yet to emerge in detail but by all accounts, it’s a great feat. K2, the “Savage Mountain,” hadn't been conquered in winter, till now. And a team of Nepali climbers permanently intervening to write a climbing history of this scale is a revenge on history.
Freddie Wilkinson, a writer and climbing guide, wrote in The New York Times: “Last month two expeditions of Nepali climbers converged on the Godwin Austen Glacier in a remote corner of Pakistan to attempt the feat. Neither of the groups was there to guide wealthy Western clients to the top and then take back seats to their accomplishments, as Nepalis in general and ethnic Sherpa in particular often do as the hired help. They were climbing for themselves.”
The leaders of the two Nepali teams that came together to achieve a winter ascent of the K2, Nirmal Purja and Mingma Sherpa, are two such champions.
Purja had joined the British Army at 18, and served in the special forces. Mingma G Sherpa comes from a family of climbing guides. His father had lost fingers to frostbite after tying the laces of his client’s boots on Everest. Purja made a record climbing all 8,000-plus peaks in six months and six days, while Sherpa has stood on top of Everest five times and K2 twice.
From 1950 to 1964, all 14 of the world’s mountains above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) were climbed for the first time, and local guides, working for paltry sums, were used in a thankless manner. What began as a competing ground in the high Himalayas for countries during the Cold War, has evolved as a pursuit of vanity for the super-rich. This has taken the form of exploitation in what has often been called 'High Altitude Colonialism'.
It's a great irony that 'climbing for ourselves' is still a privilege for Nepali climbers. Nepalis with immense potential have been betrayed by the political instability within, and the external factors also haven't been supportive. Globalization, and the accompanying technological revolutions, were expected to flatten the world, but we see a continuation of the unjustified privileges of the previous era.
Every nation that's left out has its own tragic story. Nepal at the moment has almost 95 percent of its population under 65 years of age. Almost 65 is in the working age group, ie 15 to 65. Despite these promising statistics, our GDP per capita remains just over a thousand dollars.
Our economy shadows our politics. Volatile, unpredictable and mostly unreliable (experts say the official statistics don't represent the actual scale) our economy hasn't been able to build a supportive base for any kind of sports or other creative endeavors. As a society we haven't worked on providing institutionalized support to the efforts of committed individuals like these 10 climbers who made us proud. The achievements that Nepal has made in different fields have been made by individual champions or teams lead by outstanding leaders who fought the odds at every step.
In 2012, Sano Babu Sunuwar, a paraglider who had started his journey as a river guide in Pokhara, attempted what would be considered an audacious endeavor by all standards. He got hold of a Sherpa friend of his, and together they climbed Everest, and jumped from there and kayaked through the gorges to the rivers down below to the Bay of Bengal. From the top of the highest peak in the world to the sea level, this amazing journey got the duo the Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year 2012 award.
But in 2018 when Sunuwar wanted to hold the world championship of paragliding in Nepal, government bodies did everything possible to make things difficult for the team. Finally, a small amount was passed for the event by the ministry of tourism, which, the organizers told me, was mostly spent on ministry officials themselves. Sunuwar runs his own paragliding school and has been working hard to pay the dues of the event till date.
When great champions make us proud and give us those rare chest-thumping moments as Nepali citizens, we must remember the apathy these endeavors face from the society, government and the corporate world in general. If we do not work to set up institutions to support these champions, these moments will be rarer still.