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The new peak years
For those who thought mountaineering - and climbing the world's highest peak, the Everest - was a passion of the young, increasing numbers of 50+ climbers are proving them wrong. As senior citizens from around the world want to climb the Everest, Nepal finds itself debating age and its limitations.
What is common to Bill Burke, a former American corporate lawyer, Jan Smith, a clinical psychologist from Melbourne, and Eiko Funahashi, a patent lawyer from Tokyo? They are all grandparents sharing the same towering passion - Mt Everest. And this spring, they were all headed for the world's highest mountain, hoping to stand on top of its 8, 848m summit.
When they first conquered Mt Everest in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary was a robust 34 years and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa five years older. But today, 50+ seems the average age for male climbers while the women have crossed the mid-40 s. Burke is a sprightly 69, Smith a 67-year-old grandmother and Funahashi is pushing 72.
The most extreme case was that of Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay, Nepal's former foreign minister and a Gandhian who, as a young student in Benaras, participated in the Quit India movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Upadhyay, a formidable footballer in his youth, attempted to scale Mt Everest this spring, so he could show what octogenarians were capable of, and also become the oldest man to tame the mountain, breaking the record set by fellow Nepali Bahadur Sherchan in 2008, scaling the Everest at the age of 76.
Unfortunately, Upadhyay died of high altitude sickness while making his attempt. But his death has not deterred the 'retiree brigade'. Burke, for instance, is not just planning to ascend Mt Everest but to do a double summit. The Californian took up climbing at the age of 60, when average people hang up their adventure boots. Since then, he has climbed the seven highest summits in the seven continents, including Mt Everest in 2009 when he was 67. This year, he's planning to summit Mt Everest from the north via Tibet as well as from the south through Nepal.
Matsumoto Tatsuo, a 71-year-old Japanese man, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, made several earlier attempts to scale Mt Everest but was cheated out of victory by bad weather. Unbeaten, not only is he back this spring, but accompanying him is his Brazilian guide of earlier expeditions, Helena Coelho, 58.
Of the 13 Indian women eyeing the summit this season, Premlata Agrawal, a housewife from Jharkhand, will not only become the first Marwari woman to accomplish the feat if she is successful, but also the oldest Indian woman to do so - at the age of 48. Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to summit Mt Everest, was 30 when she did it. Interestingly, Agrawal's family is proud of the idea that she'd become the oldest Indian woman 'Everester' if she reaches the top.
In a way then, Everest expeditions are becoming a new women's emancipation movement, heralding a situation where women are proud of their age and thereby nullify sexist 'age' jokes centred on them. And then, 'Mr Everest' himself - Apa Sherpa, the living legend from Nepal who climbed the mountain the 21st time this season, breaking his own awesome record - is 51. He makes 50+ seem just the right age for climbing the world's highest peak.
Yet, Upadhyay's death could lead to a change. It could revive the debate about mountaineers' age and in future, perhaps turn the
Everest into no country for old men. Although in 2001-02, Nepal fixed 16 years as the minimum age to attempt the Everest, there is no upper limit. Now, respected members of Nepal's mountaineering fraternity are saying there should be an upper age limit too.
"In my opinion, Nepal should impose an upper age limit, " says Ang Tshering Sherpa, past president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. "The NMA president and general secretary are out of the country currently. But once they return, the board will draft recommendations and send them to the tourism ministry. " Until then, the retirees' brigade can move closer to its dream, of conquering the world's highest and most magical mountain.
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