When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest, Hillary describes turning to his climbing partner to extend his hand for “a square Anglo-Saxon handshake.” Norgay ignored the gesture and grabbed Hillary in a crushing bearhug. When they came down the mountain, they were global superstars, heroes of an era, achievers of the impossible. They were lauded, became synonymous with Everest, and eventually they went on with their lives.
Hillary continued climbing after his summit. He was part of the first party to reach the South Pole with motor vehicles. He led an expedition down the Ganges river, appeared on the TV show “What’s My Line?” and narrowly avoided dying in two airplane crashes through random luck, marrying the widowed wife of the guide who took his place on the second flight. He flew a twin engine plane with Neil Armstrong to the North Pole, becoming the first person to stand on both poles and the summit of Everest. He became a diplomat, an ambassador, was knighted and awarded the highest honors in the UK, New Zealand and Nepal, and was often called on to give his comments on the state of Everest. But most of all, Sir Ed founded the Himalayan Trust in 1960. The Trust has built dozens of schools in Sherpa villages, two hospitals, pipelines to bring water to villages and vaccines that saved thousands from smallpox. Ironically, they also built the airstrip in Lukla, making it easier for tourists to make their way to base camp from the Southeast. He died in 2008, most of his ashes scattered in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, a portion going to a Nepalese monastery near Everest, with plans to scatter his ashes on Everest scrubbed by Sherpas due to Chomolungma’s status as a Goddess Mother of the World.
Tenzing Norgay was given the highest civilian honors by the UK, Nepal and India after summiting. He became the first Director of Field Training of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, India. He married three times in all and had six children. One of them, Jamling, joined Hillary’s son, Peter, in summiting Everest in 1996 to commemorate their fathers’ initial summits. Tenzing started Tenzing Norgay Adventures, which provided guided adventures in and around the Himalayas — but only as far as Everest base camp. Jamling now runs it. Tenzing died in 1986, the year after Texas oilman Richard Bass became the first to summit Everest and achieve the Seven Summits, opening the door to inexperienced dreamers with money to follow after, able to reach their dream with the help of professional climbing expeditions and guides and Sherpa teams. Tenzing’s climbing partner, Sir Ed, was among the thousands of Darjeeling townspeople and hundreds of climbers who attended his cremation in the place Norgay had come to love most.
Countless climbers after them have died on Everest. Even more have turned away, unable to summit, unable to raise the funds or the momentum to try again. Others, after summiting, continue to climb, in pursuit of the Seven Summits, or the next big challenge. Some never climb again. Some are haunted by it — the survivors of the 1996 disaster, Mark Inglis, the double amputee who came across David Sharp’s body and sparked a worldwide controversy, the climbers of 2014 and 2015’s tragic seasons.
The Sherpas continue to pack up and climb the mountain, to doctor the icefall, to string the ropes. The adventure guides rope in new clients, try to strategize how to get to the top, to get other people to their dreams. The obsesssives sit in the comfort of their everyday lives and dream of it. Base Camp, The Death Zone, The Summit. They pore over books and documentaries, trying to understand what it’s like to attempt Everest, to stand on the roof of the world. The rest of the world, the majority of the world, pays no attention to Everest, regarding it as a foolish lark, a deadly sport when it’s brought to their attention by news headlines, by stories of Everest.
Mount Everest is a place of stories. The mountain itself and how it’s progressed from an unconquerable mystery to a victim of modern commercialization. The climbers and how they’ve gone from the elite adventurers to the idle rich who want a new trophy for their wall. The Sherpas and how they’re always ignored — from Tenzing Norgay having to settle for a George Medal from Queen Elizabeth II instead of a knighting to the icefall doctors whose deaths become a footnote. The bodies and how they’ve gone from morbid reminder to Everest landmark to interesting anecdote. These stories, if they’re told, are told in reportage and autobiographies and blog entries and in YouTube videos, under shrinking newspaper headlines.
Some people make up stories. That’s what we did. High Crimes. Five years since I first started writing notes on it, with a line about gunfire in the Khumbu Icefall and what could make that happen. Three years since Chris and Alison at Monkeybrain said yes, since Ibrahim and I met and decided to start started working on it. Two years since our first issue came out. A year since we were nominated for two Eisner awards. And now we’re here, at the end. This is our summit as much as it is Zan’s, or the Agents, or Mars. We’ve gotten where we always dreamed we would go, and now we have to figure out what to do in the aftermath of that.
It’s kind of hard to believe, the way it must be hard to believe when you’re at the summit of Everest. All this work, all this effort, and then you’re there, this place you’ve dreamed of being for years. So much has happened for Ibrahim and I since we started this book together. Our lives are completely different from where they were when we began talking over Ibrahim’s drafting table in the Tranquility Base studio, helpfully introduced by Joe Keatinge. And so much of it is due to High Crimes, a book we believed in with all our hearts and that people responded to so beyond our expectations.
Thanks for coming along with us on this long and winding road, for hanging in for the long pauses, for always being as excited as we were for a new issue, for being heartbroken by all the bits that made us sad, for loving the parts we couldn’t wait to show you, for taking a chance on a little digital-only book by a couple of dudes you’d probably never heard of before. To all the artists who submitted pinups, for all the reviewers who gave us coverage, for all our fellow creators for spreading the word, for liking our book, for blowing our minds with the notion that maybe what we were doing was as good as the books they made, books that helped shape us.
High Crimes was never easy. There were entire issues that were a stomach ache to write, there were months where we had to take on other jobs to pay the bills, to make space for it, there were too many all-nighters to count, too little sleep to be had on every issue and in the final frantic run-up to us wrapping everything for the trade. But we wouldn’t change a thing. As heartbreaking as it is to say goodbye to Zan Jensen, as inevitable as the ending always felt, we got to tell the story we wanted to tell, without having to compromise a thing. That might not be as monumental in comparison to standing on the roof of the world, but it feels pretty fucking close to us.
Special thanks to:
- Chris Roberson and Allison Baker for giving the greenlight, for asking me to pitch a Monkeybrain book — “pitch us the book you most want to do” to be achingly specific. I didn’t even have to think twice and they didn’t hesitate to say yes. There would never have been a High Crimes without them.
- The publisher who turned us down twice. This book might not have ever existed, certainly not the book you’re reading now, without you saying no.
- The rest of Team High Crimes: Lesley Atlansky, who ably flatted and color assisted and tweaked pages in the back half of the run to save Ibrahim countless hours. Shawn Aldridge, who provided lettering assists and saved me heaps of agony deliberating over every word and phrase. Jim Gibbons, our editor at Dark Horse, who asked if we’d like to publish the collected edition with them and gave us a hardcover without much of a fight and served as the first sounding board for completed issues and helped us wrap the book in time to meet our print deadline.
- The readers, too many to name, who became our friends, who held our hands when we were nervous, who would hit us up on twitter to ask when the next issue was coming out, who told their friends about it, who bought our convention print editions, our buttons, our stickers, our shirts, who reblogged us, who made us think we weren’t crazy.
- The climbers, whose mania inspired everything, whose stories influenced our own, who made the insanity we unfolded seem slightly more feasible, who inadvertently provided us with photos and footage of the climb and accounts of their attempts that gave nuance to a story by two dudes who’d never attempt the summit.
- The Sherpas, the only reason any of us are here right now — me writing this and you reading it. The backbone of Everest, the ones who sweat and struggle and die so adventurers can scratch another dream off their lists, who do it for a fraction of the money that professional guides get paid, who have to watch their sacred mountain crawling with those who see it as an obstacle and not something greater, something divine, something to be in awe of, rather than to challenge.
Here, as I wrap the very last missing piece of High Crimes, the experience is bookended by two quotes. The first, from George Mallory — who had no idea he would die on Everest, whose summit is still disputed, whose body rests under a cairn of rocks 27,000 feet up the North face of the mountain — responding when asked why he’d even attempt such a thing as this, “Because it’s there.” The other is from Sir Edmund Hillary, who summed up his achievement as the first person to conquer Everest as unsentimentally as possible, with as much joy as a man who’s been through the wringer could muster. As he and Tenzing Norgay descended from the summit, Sir Ed approached his lifelong friend and fellow expeditioner George Lowe, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”