KEEN students of monarchist hype will recall that when Her Maj actually had the crown placed on her head – 59 years ago, not 60, so there could be even more red, white and blue celebration to come in 12 months’ time when a nation still seeking things to take our mind off the continuing economic gloom sets to and celebrates the diamond jubilee of the coronation as well – the news came in from the far reaches of the old Empire that Everest had been conquered.
It was a feat hailed as a fitting curtain-raiser for a new Elizabethan age, and any suspicions that the mighty mountain might have been first climbed in the 1930s were put quietly to one side.
But whether it was the 1930s or the 1950s, it was clear that anyone scaling the world’s tallest peak had the right stuff – you needed mountaineering know how, the constitution of an ox and a serious helping of sheer guts to even make it to base camp, never mind hoist the flag at the top.
Fast forward nearly six decades, and is Everest – or Qomolangma, which is what they call it in Tibet, although you can see why it has never caught on – still a formidable challenge for the bravest of the brave, a humbling example of the majesty of our planet and a sobering reminder of how puny we are in comparison to the vastness of wild and untamed nature? Er, no.
You only have to look at the picture snapped by one disgusted mountain ace last week and widely circulated around the world.
Where once Hillary and Tensing battled on bravely against the elements, unable to count on anyone but themselves, on one day last week there were more than 100 expectant Everest conquerors waiting for their turn to step on the summit, have their picture taken and start heading back down – it looked for all the world like the queue for one of the more popular rides at Thorpe Park, though admittedly on a pretty cold day.
If you want to conquer Everest today, the two things you need in abundance are money and a disregard for your own safety.
You’ll need money because the only way to scale the summit is as part of an organised expedition, and prices start at around £30,000 a time.
That’s before you start talking about air fares to Katmandu, reserves of Kendal Mint Cake and spare pairs of sturdy socks.
You’ll have to get into pretty good shape to have any chance of making it to the top, and there are all sorts of things that can go wrong.
Even now climbing Everest is such a commercial operation that it’s not really much more of an adventure than trekking to Machu Picchu or strolling along the Great Wall of China, deaths happen all the time.
So in six decades we have turned the conquest of the world’s highest peak from a challenge to the indomitable human spirit to a costly thrillfest for adrenaline junkies, serving no real purpose but bringing with it the risk of a grisly end.
And that, ladies and gentleman, tells you much of what you need to know about why we’re all doomed, whether we clamp on our crampons and head up the slope or, like most of us, sit back, sigh, and wait for the inevitable end.