Monday, April 25, 2011

Hillary, the First? Really?

Nawang Gombu died very recently.

Why should anyone who doesn't know him (yes, it's a him) really care beyond the whole "sorry for your loss" thing? Well, he presents an interesting conundrum that highlights Western privilege and presumptiveness while also pointing a big well, huh, at medical science.

Gombu was the youngest Sherpa on Sir Edmund Hillary's journey to the summit. Gombu didn't summit on is first trip, but he made it the second time around with some other guy's expedition. The only reason anyone beyond Nepal cares that Gombu passed on is because of his connection to Hillary. And really, doesn't that just say it all?

Hillary was the "first" to successfully climb Mt. Everest and Gombu was the "first" to climb Everest twice. My conundrum is simply this: how do you know that Hillary was the first? First white guy, yeah, I'll buy that. First person ever? No one has decided to climb Himilayan mountains, just because they're there, until the 20th century? In billions of years of geological history and millions of years of homo history, no one thought, hey, let's kick this pig, until bored British gentry went gallivanting across hill and dale? Why do I not believe that?

There is a slight problem with this. Everest does have about 848 meters of mountain above the death zone. That would be the maximum altitude where there's enough oxygen to sustain human life. Above that, well, there's not much oxygen to breathe. Idio--climbers take oxygen with them so they can get to the top without asphyxiating on sheer stupidity. Now, it's possible to do the climb without it. People have done it in the 20th century. The folks who live around Everest are not only acclimitized to the weather, they're acclimitized to living well above sea level already. Oxygen saturation issues are less problematic for them than people who live in London most of the time.

So, yeah, Hillary is the first one we specifically know about because he's the guy in the Trivia Pursuit game and the record books (they're kept by Europeans, y'know). But is he the first ever, or just the first white guy? I'm betting his just the first white guy and someone else has been there before him. The sun does not rise and set because of the Occident. The world does not turn because of the Occident. The "First" anything does not belong to the Occident simply because they want it.