Two years before Mallory and Irvine famously
walked into history, disappearing high on Everest, an avalanche above the
North Col took the lives of seven Sherpas. These first recorded climbing
deaths were commemorated with a stone plaque, engraved with the names of those
who perished, set in a cairn at the North Col.
Nearly 70 years on the Canadian Everest
Expedition found a single fragment of this plaque. In the words of the
expedition leader, Peter Austen, “The
cairn had been dismantled and scattered by persons unknown. All the rest has
been taken by other people over the years to who knows where.”
The remaining piece, engraved with the name “Pema”
found its way back to Canada after the expedition and remained there in
obscurity for the next 14 years.
Earlier this month the
nine inch by four inch fragment reappeared on the global auction site eBay
described as “the
showpiece for anycollector/mountaineer interested in the Mallory saga.
In mint condition… the object is basically priceless but bids
of 50000 US $ and up are expected”.
later the auction closed without a single bid, but it certainly hadn’t gone
Back in Britain reaction was anything but favourable to what
was seen by some as “graverobbing”. By coincidence the auction
coincided with a debate on the ethics of memorials on mountains. The John Muir
Trust in Scotland had recently announced its intention to remove all memorials
from the summit of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, and relocate them in
a new memorial garden at the base of the mountain. The UK climbing and outdoor
community were “horrified” by the idea of auctioning such an item, and
the result was a series of emails to the seller deploring his actions. At this
point it emerged, in response to the emails, that the seller
hoping some rich climber would buy this and donate it to a mountaineering
museum. We could then use the $ for schools and health in the khumbu. This is
better than having it sitting under a rock /pa”.
The question still
remains of whether memorials have any place on mountains, or whether they
should be relocated to a more suitable location where memory of the deceased
doesn’t infringe on the natural beauty that attracted them there in the first
place. In some ways it is fitting that this first memorial from the slopes of
Everest, which has been subsequently followed by countless others, should
highlight the question.
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