How do you make a Nepali angry? Easy, just blurt out that Mt Everest is in China or, worse still, in India and watch your listener explode. If you are lucky, you'll get away with a lecture on the geography of the Himalaya and a warning never to repeat the faux pas.
Indeed, with the possible exception of the canard that the Buddha was born in India, few other half-truths insense Nepalis. Thanks in part to 50 years of relentless state-led publicity campaigns through school textbooks, Radio Nepal, Gorkhapatra, public speeches and annual rituals, Everest evokes intense loyalty among Nepalis-something that businesses everywhere try to create and nurture among their consumers through expensive branding exercises. It doesn't take a great leap to make the connection: Everest has been co-opted for the business of buying and selling. Businesses undoubtedly hope the magic of association, some of what Everest stands for in the public imagination-purity, solidity, stability, reliability and even prestige-will rub off on their goods and services.
Kathmandu's New Baneswor probably has the highest concentration of Everest branding. Everest Bank (signifying stability?) stands right next to Everest Nursing Home (reliability?), across which is the Everest Hotel (solidity, and not icy service?), who in turn, gets a share of its clients from, among others, Everest Expeditions and Tours (prestige?). The Valley is dotted with Everest Momos, Everest Bakery Caf?s, Everest Handicrafts and Everest Nets. In fact, there are so many variously shaped and sized Everest named goods and services that it is surprising that no Nepali chow-chow mogul has come up with Everest Noodles.
With its rather insipid slogan "Mt Everest & More", Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) seems determined to attract more tourists. But as its own data shows, between 1999-2001 twice as many visitors-73,377 to be precise-came to Nepal for "holiday and pleasure" than for mountaineering and trekking, which attracted only 33,000 thousand tourists. Amidst the Everest celebrations this week, it's worth asking whether NTB has done a good job marketing our mountains or whether most visitors to Nepal, contrary to popular belief, actually prefer to do something else other than climb or visit mountains.
It's not only homegrown businesses that are enamoured with Everest. Foreign business school professors too have succumbed to the gritty charms of logistical and emotional challenges that the world's tallest mountain poses. In an article titled "Leadership Lessons of Mt Everest" in the Harvard Business Review, October 2001, Wharton academic Michael Useem writes about taking a group of MBA students on a hike across 128km of the Nepali Himalaya ("one of nature's most demanding classrooms") to master the four principles of leadership, and learn the importance of communication and teamwork.
Earlier, in the Fall 1998 edition of Wharton Alumni Magazine, Useem described how another trek across the Everest region was helpful for his students to come up with innovative business ideas. Likewise, in a number of management schools, that recent bestseller, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer, has apparently become required reading, with appropriate lessons distilled for applications in corporate settings. Given how Everest has become an inspiration for business practices worldwide, one wonders when the Human Resource Department of our own FNCCI will organise an Everest trek to instill leadership among its members, the captains of our commerce and industry.