Sunrise on Everest

War correspondent and world traveler, ALAN MOOREHEAD is the author of many books and magazine articles. He was born in Australia and makes his home in London.


IT IS an odd experience coming up to the hill stations in the Himalayas now, especially in the winter months when there are not many visitors about. In their day these places were perhaps more British than any others in India, and despite everything the atmosphere lingers on. The spire of St. Andrew’s Church still rises up from the bazaar, and in the boardinghouses (The Labyrinth, Alice Vilia, Beechwood, and Kenilworth) you will still find faded portraits of royalty hanging on the walls. Queen Victoria is indestructible. Hereffigy in marble, surrounded by a square fence of iron spikes, stands there in the center of the town as adamant as granite. “Empress of India,”the inscription runs. “A true woman . . .”

But now, suddenly, the British are not there any more. It is rather like going into an old gold-mining town after the mines have closed down, except that in this case the local mountaineers remain and the gold still exists in the form of t he most stupondous scenery in the world. In time no doubt the indigenous life of Central Asia will flow back over the scene and cover it as effectively as the sea covers a sunken ship, but just at this moment one is constantly looking over one’s shoulder expecting to see some Guards officer coming in from golf, or perhaps his memsahib taking tiffin on a sunny balcony overlooking the valley.

The easiest way up to Darjeeling is to fly for a couple of hours from Calcutta to Bagdora at the foot of the mountains, and then hire a car or get aboard the toy train that takes you straight out of the sweltering Indian plain to the tea gardens and the magnolia forests 7000 feet above. This is one of the true frontiers of the world. Within an hour you are shivering in your tropical clothes, and you marvel that you could ever have wanted to get out of the sunshine into the shade. Abruptly everything is entirely different, and most of all the mountain people with their splendid Mongolian faces and their habit not only of smiling but qf almost; bursting out laughing with pleasure when they meet you on the road.

Even when they are picking tea from the low bushes on the hillsides, or breaking stones at some roadbuilding camp, the women carry their babies slung in little cloth hammocks on their backs, and these babies peer out at the landscape with shining black-button eyes. When they cry the women joggle their shoulders gently up and clown and presently the noise subsides. I have heard a theory that the Sherpas and the other mountaineers are so small because for the first two or three years of their existence they are carried about in these cramped quarters; but whether or not that is true, the fact remains that they are staggeringly strong, cheerful, and handsome. Just at first, too, they all look very much alike and bear a close resemblance to their hero, the Sherpa Tensing, who climbed Mount Everest last year. He lives in Darjeeling and is often seen around the town.

The clothes, of course, help a good deal. It is a normal thing for a man to possess a pair of embroidered felt boots coming up to the knee, and a gold brocaded hat edged with enormous fur earlaps, but some of the priests are much more splendid. They wear yellow padded jackets, scarlet trousers, and a pointed black cap of the kind that is usually associated with magicians in the Middle Ages. When such a figure comes looming through the mountain mists, you too feel like breaking out into warm smiles of welcome.

The other thing that immediately gives you a feeling of having passed out of India into a new country is the bazaars; up in the Himalayas they become more like an open-air public club. Darjeeling bazaar is a frantic mixture of the religious, the profane, and the strictly practical. Most of the stalls, arranged in little streets in the open square, contain bright piles of oranges and pineapples, brass cooking pots, heaps of grain (colored an unexpected pale pink), and the special sort of silver anklets and beaded necklaces in which the women like to invest the family savings. But in the midst of these there are other shops selling holy emblems of the Buddha, more particularly prints and oleographs executed in colors which one can only describe as messy bacon and eggs.

Then, nearby, are the gamblers. There is a passion for gambling among the mountaineers. They squat on the ground with it soft circular leather pad between them. On this they crash down the dice in a wooden cup, emitting at the same time a loud, fierce cry of “Hoy.” The game is played at high speed, and there is a truculent tohell-with-it-all air about the players. Win or lose they grin broadly and, like as not, go off and buy another printed prayer from the stall nearby. High up above them — so unbelievably high that the mind is oppressed with a sense of the futility and puniness of all human affairs — towers the wild panorama of the Himalayas.

On the afternoon I arrived the usual seasonal clouds were hanging thick on the mountain crests, but at that height they are constantly swirling about and changing direction, so that at one moment we saw nothing, and then for an instant a superb crystal pyramid rose out of the storm so far above the earth that it seemed to be floating on its own in space. We stood there for an hour on our hotel balcony watching this spectacle, not perhaps transfixed, but wholly unwilling to go inside out of the freezing cold lest we miss something.

The first object of everybody’s visit to Darjeeling is to catch a glimpse of Everest 120 miles away, and the best way of doing this is to drive out before dawn to Tiger Hill, about 6 miles from Darjeeling and another 1500 feet higher up, and to stand there in the darkness until the sun comes up. Then, with luck, the clouds part and the mountain stands shining there before you. This is the principle of the thing; and since so many thousands have done it before, it is not a really adventurous undertaking. In point of fact, however, I found it to be the most bizarre experience I have had in India and quite unexpectedly moving.

It was bright moonlight when we got up at 4 A.M., and as we half expected, no ear arrived. An hour’s desperate telephoning finally produced a small Sherpa in a very small fourseater. He had the unbothered professional air of a man who has everything under control, and we drove off down the icy road just as fast as the car could be made to skid around the corners. Halfway up Tiger Hill we came to an abrupt stop in the hoarfrost, and then, swathed in blankets, we trudged on up to the top.

It was the precise moment to arrive. A dark red furnace light was coming up over the eastern rim of the world from the direction of Tibet, and presently the streak of peculiar applegreen that one sees only at dawn began to expand along the horizon. By now it was plain that while all the rest of the sky was clear, a heavy bank of cloud lay over the spot where Everest was supposed to be.

Some genius of the conventional has erected a sort of concrete bandstand on the crest of Tiger Hill, and we stood there stamping our feet in the frost and peering out into the uncertain light. The Sherpa chose this moment to express the view that our chances of seeing Everest were absolutely nil. For weeks at a time, he added gloomily, the clouds never shifted from that quarter, and nearly everyone he brought up here went away disappointed. When we asked why we had not been warned of this he answered, with some reason, that we would have come anyway.

At ibis point a lady from Boston in a mink cape and a young soldier on leave from Korea suddenly appeared on the bandstand. To this day I do not know how they got there or what they were doing in India, but it seemed a perfectly rational visitation at the lime; something like a casual meeting on the deck of the Queen Mary or at Niagara Falls. The young man’s pajamas were showing under the cuffs of his trousers. We exchanged sandwiches from our breakfast parcels, and presently an equally unexplained Mongolian boy appeared with a pot of hot tea which we laced with whisky. This brought a sprightly note into the conversation. Bangkok, the lady announced, was a dismal place and Calcutta was not much better. Directly she got down off these mountains she proposed to make for the Khyber Pass. It seemed that she had an airline ticket that enabled her to go anywhere in the world, and just now she was concentrating on some of the more unlikely spots she had discovered on the map. She drew her cape more firmly round her shoulders and stared out uncompromisingly in the direction of China,

Meanwhile bewildering things were happening around us. All the valleys below were filled with a lake of formless gray mist, and out of this the sun came up, red-hot. Its first rays hit the slopes of Kinchinjunga, which is only a few hundred feet lower than Everest and has never been climbed. Immediately the snow there turned a pale fresh yellow and all the underside of the long cloud from Everest developed a tinge I had never seen before, a purplish-pink and of a lexture like the finest muslin. Everest itself remained firmly hidden.

After nearly an hour had gone by I walked over to the edge of the hilltop and picked up one of the printed Buddhist prayers which had fluttered down to the ground from a pole nearby. The paper was torn and sodden with frost, but one could still make out a few lines of script and a border design of fishes. I brought it back to the bandstand and held it up lo the mountains as a prayer of my own. A few minutes later the Sherpa came up and directed our attention to a faint grayish-white patch among the clouds in the distance. That, he said, was a small segment of the lower slopes of Everest. We were enchanted. It was not so much what we saw, for that was nothing at all, as it was the childish pleasure of knowing that from now on we should be able to say that we had seen the mountain. A few seconds later the gray patch was gone.

The sun, however, was strengthening very rapidly. Presently all Kinchinjunga opened out before us; and since it was so much nearer than Everest, only 45 miles away, it was a much finer sight. A plume of white cloud was blowing off the final crest into an ice-blue sky, and we could now define the silhouettes of all the other peaks around us, especially the actual pass, a great V-shaped declivity in the highest mountains, that leads into Tibet. I imagine it would be impossible for anyone to look at this sight without a strong feeling of mystery and excitement.

Then, suddenly, all Everest broke into view. The cloud bank divided along its length, one half lifting clear up into the sky; and there, against a pale blue background, was the great pyramid of the mountain. It was pure white. The top is very sharp, but from this angle the higher slopes appear to lead down gently into the crests below.

I recall feeling something a good deal stronger than pleasure at this vision: it was more like a sensation of triumph; and I don’t remember ever having experienced anything quite like it before. From this distance the mountain was not much higher than the surrounding peaks, but it had a mesmeric effect, and one concentrated upon it to the exclusion of everything else. One began to comprehend just what it was that drove successive expeditions on until they got to the top; this was the ultimate allowed to the human eye, and there were no other landmarks on this earth beyond it. Even to stand there on the bandstand on Tiger Hill made you feel that you had touched one of the limits of human experience.

Beyond Everest the mountains roll away apparently without end into China and Tibet. To the south all India lies below. And because the horizon is a continuous succession of jagged peaks, you have the illusion that you are in the center of a circle and somewhat above it. This tends to give you a slight sensation of drunken glory, such as divers are said to have when they go down to great depths in the ocean. What Hillary and Tensing must have felt when they got to the top can hardly be imagined, except that Tensing himself put the matter very well. “I thought of God,”he said, “and the nobility of his works.”And he added simply, “The happiness comes after.”

As we were looking, the sun shone out more and more boldly on that white triangle in the sky, and for another hour the mountain remained poised before us; it was still there, reaching upward, when we came down from the hilltop at seven o’clock and got into the car. We realized then how bitterly we should have been disappointed if the clouds had not lifted and in just that way. The lady from Boston vanished somewhere, presumably in the direction of the Khyber Pass. The rest of us drove back to Darjeeling. It was still unbearably cold, and the pain of getting into a hot bath at the hotel was excruciating. I noticed with surprise that we had forgotten to drink the rest of the whisky.