Adrian Hamilton: The downside of getting to the top of Everest

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The Independent Online

The climbing season for Everest is in full swing, with the first double amputee up to the top on Tuesday, the youngest Britons (both 19) yesterday, and the first British couple to follow among the hundreds who will climb the world's highest mountain this year, as last.

No disrespect to Mark Inglis, who has just reached the top walking on two artificial legs. He at least is planning to spend some of the money he has raised on the disabled sherpas in the region. Nor indeed does one wish to belittle the efforts of those who climb to the top to show what can be done by the physically impaired.

But it must be said that this succession of Westerners trying to prove themselves and display their pluck is bought at a cost. It is bought at a cost to the place, as the litter piles up, the paths are worn down and the environment abused by the expanding logistics needed to provide for all these people. And it is bought at the cost of the sherpas, who are the people who have to deliver the goods and protect the climbers, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.

To the climbers and the media who cover their feats, getting the lame and the blind (yes, there has been a blind climb, too) up the mountain is a huge achievement. To an increasing number of local sherpas, they have become a real burden. The bigger the physical challenge, the more disadvantaged the climber, the more the responsibility falls on the sherpas, who don't usually get a mention in the stories.

Of course, Everest brings in much needed revenue to one of the world's poorest countries. It's all very well for environmentalists to talk of the ecological damage, but if it wasn't for the Western climbers there'd be Nepalese communities facing starvation. But then they are facing starvation in no small degree because of what the British have done in disbanding the Gurkha regiments and devastating the remittances that once kept villages going. Intent on cutting costs, British ministers have shown precious little sympathy for the plight of the Gurkhas. It has taken a remorseless campaign by retired British officers, a resort to law and the support of the royals to get any kind of fair treatment for the redundant soldiers.

Worse, while the climbs up Everest go on - and are allowed to go on by the warring factions because of their economic importance - the country as a whole has been wracked by a Maoist insurgency and regime crisis made all the worse by the decision of the European Union, largely at Britain's behest, to support the anti-democratic, and disastrous, king during the last year of troubles.

Now that His Royal Majesty has been overthrown, or at least rendered impotent, neither Britain nor the EU seem to have any plan of how to help the country. It's for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to wrap themselves in the cloak of generosity to Africa, but Britain does have a real responsibility for Nepal's plight and, just because it's difficult and in an unfashionable part of the world, it doesn't mean that we should evade it.

One doesn't mean by that that Britain is the cause of Nepal's woes and solely responsible for their solution. The whole issue of post-colonial obligations has become so overlaid by questions of victimhood and blame that it's actually become more, not less, difficult to get the imperial powers to accept responsibility today. There's only so much guilt that any generation can carry for their forebears and only so much use in demanding apologies.

Slavery is an exception, or ought to be. It's not that the European powers were alone in carrying it out. They weren't. But the sheer scale of the operation, the ruthless commercial logic with which it was carried out, was exceptional, and terrible - as great in its magnitude as the Holocaust and longer in its perpetration. Whether an apology assuages the guilt, or helps matters now, is a debatable point - and is being debated thanks to an initiative by historians in Bristol.

But at the very least the debate should force the question on to the curriculum of school study. It might also serve to dampen some of the self-righteousness that has marked British, and French, celebrations of their part in abolishing slavery. We were able to abolish it because we were party to it.

The responsibilities today for the colonialism of yesterday are more difficult to define. But if nothing else, they impose on us a duty of understanding. And that we seem singularly reluctant to undertake, in Nepal as elsewhere. BBC Radio 4 is at the moment running a fascinating series to go alongside its new The Sceptred Isle: Empire series, with a parallel set of programmes to give the view of the Empire from the other side.

The first this week, by the Ghanaian writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes, pointed out that the British introduction of their idea of education disempowered the women, traditionally responsible for teaching the young in the villages, and forced on the children a wholly European view of history and culture. At least it was education, but one sees the point. What seemed, and still seems, so beneficent to others looks anything but from the other end of the telescope.

It's a great thing to climb Mount Everest, no doubt, particularly if you're a teenager or missing half your limbs. But from the other side, it could be seen as all too reminiscent of John Buchan and the Empire - a burden on the natives to further a white man's self-indulgence.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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