“Mao’s Mountaineers”: the Chinese “great leap” on the roof of the world


Mountaineers of Mao”, by Cédric Gras, Stock, 298 pages, 20.90 euros.

It is the story of a “first” that China strives to celebrate, but about the authenticity of which the world of mountaineering has never ceased to cast serious doubts: that of the supposed conquest of the then virgin Tibetan side of Qomolongma (Everest, 8,848 meters), the highest peak on the planet, on May 27, 1960, by Mao Zedong’s “mountaineers”.

In the testimonies of Russian mountaineers compiled as part of research for Stalin’s Mountaineers (Stock, 2020) – which won him the 2020 Albert-Londres Book Prize – Cédric Gras, an adventurous geographer with a passion for Upper Asia, discovered that at the end of the 1950s, Soviet climbers had ” form “ of the “proletarians” Chinese ” in shape “ And ” devout Maoists”with a view to a common expedition aimed at signifying the superiority of socialist mountaineering over that, Western and bourgeois, which had already deflowered the majority of the fourteen summits over 8,000 meters on the planet.

At the end of the 1950s, China experienced its Great Leap Forward. Tibet – which is home to Everest – is under its control, and it is important to literally take Maoist ideology and propaganda “to the top” by placing a bust of the Great Helmsman flanked by the Chinese standard on the Roof of the World.

Qomolangma is “a state affair in which we invest huge sums”describes Cédric Gras. “Maoist Himalayanism is above all political and not the freedom of a Westerner who loves altitude. »

Ice axes swapped for submachine guns

Of the half-billion citizens who inhabited China at the time, dozens of women and men who had never seen the mountain – with the exception of Tibetan recruits essentially assigned to portering duties – were “designated volunteers” for the accomplishment of the noble mission.

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Originally planned for 1959, the conquest of the Tibetan side of Qomonlangma was postponed until the revolt in Lhasa was put down. THE “Mao Mountaineers” they traded ice axes for submachine guns and the Sino-Russian “mountaineering” alliance fizzled out.

If the “assault line” – composed of Han Xu Jing and Liu Lianma, Wang Fuzhuou, QuYinhua, and the Tibetan Gonpo Dorje – has unquestionably risen high on the Roof of the World, no evidence to date attests to his presence at the summit. And the official accounts, presumably concocted from Beijing, are often farce.

Thus the crossing of the “second step”, a problematic rocky vertical passage, located at an altitude of 8,600 meters, for which one of the climbers would have done the short ladder to his comrades ” in socks “, their ice crampons being attached to their shoes, before hoisting them on his shoulders…

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