Nepali Times
To climb or not to climb

Whether Machhapuchhre (6991m) should be opened for mountaineering expeditions or not has been debated. This beautiful mountain, that rises about 24 km due north of Pokhara and often depicted reflecting on the Phewa lake, has become a symbol of the stupendous scenery that Nepal has to offer. Poets, painters, and photographers find inspiration in this soaring pyramid. Nepalis and visitors alike are awe-struck by its nature-sculpted pinnacle of rock and ice that dominates the Annapurna range. What is most impressive is that the terrain rises from a sub-tropical Pokhara, with its banana and bougainvillea at 900 metres above sea level, to nearly 7,000 metres all within a horizontal distance that would take 30 minutes to drive if there were a highway.

A large part of the debate were the views expressed by some Pokhara residents to a news agency. Some said that climbing on Machhapuchhre should not be allowed because it is beautiful and also because it has religious significance. Others felt that further studies should be carried out, and still others believed the opinion of people in nearby villages should be taken before deciding, whether or not to open the mountain.

Let's take these questions one by one. Banning climbing only because the mountain is beautiful has no rationale. The prettiness or otherwise of the mountain cannot determine whether it should be climbed or not. If that were the case, Ama Dablam would also qualify for a ban, and so would Pumori and other beautiful peaks. And how do you quantify something as subjective as beautiful anyway? Isn't Everest beautiful as well, and how about Annapurna II, or Dhaulagiri?

It is the height and the beauty of a mountain that attracts mountaineers. Just look at the statistics: of the 78 expeditions that went to the Khumbu region in 1998, 10 attempted Sagarmatha (for height) while 31 tried Ama Dablam (for beauty). In the Alps, Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border is one of the most beautiful peaks. It was first climbed in 1865, but the rush to climb it has not diminished and the village of Zermatt below it has become one of the most famous tourist resorts in Switzerland. Given that Machhapuchhre is twice as high as Matterhorn, its attraction for tourism is enormous.

The second argument concerns the mountain's religious significance. We can look at examples elsewhere. Machhu Picchu in Peru is today a very important tourist site because of its religious significance. Similarly, on 27 August every year, Mount Fuji is climbed by hordes of Japanese of all ages, praying and enjoying the trek to the top. In Nepal itself there are many other mountains that are actually considered holy but which are open for climbing and some of them even have the names of gods and goddesses: Gauri Shankar, Annapurna, Baudha Himal, Ganesh Himal.

On the question of further study, since Annapurna was conquered 50 years ago, there have been voluminous studies on this mountain range. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project has been there for the last 14 years and it has enough data on tourism and the environment of the area.

The fourth argument calls for seeking the opinion of inhabitants who live at the base of Machhapuchhre. The truth is that of all the 151 peaks opened in Nepal till now, the opinion of the villagers living at their base has never before been a consideration. Why this sudden interest in what the locals are likely to say? Rather, since Macchapuchhre was open for climbing till 1965 and then closed, it becomes important to examine why the peak became off-limits to climbers after that.

It had nothing to do with security or the lack of it. The reason given so far and one that has been internalised by a generation of Nepalis, is that this peak has great religious significance for the Gurung who live below it. That Machhapuchhre is sacred to the Gurungs is nothing more than a myth, and it is easy to speculate that it had something to do with Col JOM Roberts, a British Gurkha officer who led both the reconnaissance (1956) and expedition (1957) teams to the mountain. The climbing team had to retreat just 45 metres short of the summit due to heavy snowfall. Roberts writes in his preface to the account of the expedition, Climbing the Fish's Tail by Wilfred Noyce (London 1958): "Everybody seemed to be climbing mountains in Nepal and I flew at once to Kathmandu in a fever of anxiety lest some trespasser had already had the effrontery to ask permission to attempt Machhapucchre." He continues: "So Machhapuchhre became for me the ideal mountain, a personal possession yet out of this world, unattainable but mine by illogic right, brooding over a country and a people which will shape the rest of my life."

It would seem natural that Roberts should wish that no one should succeed on a mountain he had begun to believe was his own and which he had failed to conquer. In the 1960s, Col Roberts happened to be Military Attache at the British Embassy in Kathmandu and it is not difficult to imagine that his sentimental advice to the Foreign Ministry (that handled expeditions) regarding Machhapuchhre's sanctity influenced the fate of the mountain.

In 1993, I was chairman of the committee formed to suggest suitable Nepali names for peaks with foreign names. I visited the Modi area, meeting villagers to collect required data. Last March, I was at Sandu hot springs of Machhapuchhre village development committee itself. On neither occasion was I able to learn of local names for any snow peak. I, however, did discover some cultural minutiae that may be of interest to readers:

* The people living around Machhapuchhre do not have a specific name for it, but call all the peaks 'kling', which means snow in the Gurung language. Since the peak does not influence their lives directly, it does not hold any importance for them. Therefore, Machhapuchhre does not hold any religious significance.

* For the protection of their sheep and goats, the mountain people perform puja at sites along the route to high pastures during the seasonal migration in spring and autumn. They also revere the nearby rockfaces as hyu-la (a local deity).

The only religious site along the Modi is Tomon on the way to in the Annapurna Sanctuary (Devthali). Thousands of trekkers and scores of climbers trespass the actual venerated site. Why is it that a religious site, Devthali, can be visited by foreigners, but a site without any religious significance, Machhapuchhre, cannot? If there is official concern for the sacredness of Gurung religious places, the logical step to protect them from desecration would be to begin at the Annapurna Sanctuary itself.

Since Machhapuchhre does not hold any religious importance for the Gurung community, there is no reason to debar it from climbing. In fact, the mountain should be made open and permission for first attempt should be granted to the team that commits the largest donation to the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara, through a bidding process. Machhapuchhre is a virgin peak, and if it is opened there will be many expeditions to climb it. In 1998, 31 expeditions came to climb Ama Dabalam and they paid a royalty of $62,000. Machhapuchhre will attract a lot more expeditions, generating more revenue and creating employment opportunities. The peak is not the monopoly of individuals of Pokhara Bazar with their sentimental ego. Machhapuchhre must be utilised for the benefit of people living around it.

(Dr Harka Gurung is a noted geographer and a former tourism minister. He was associated with two international expeditions to Everest, an unsuccessful one in 1971 and a successful one in 1988.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)