Reaching new heights

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
What does the future hold for Mount Everest? Students entering the 2003 Young Geographer of the Year competition came up with visions of underground cities and mountain-top prisons. Rex Walford reports.

Fifty years ago this month, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing mounted the south-east ridge of Everest to complete the conquest of the world's tallest mountain; an iconic climb in more senses than one, since the news of the success of this Royal Geographical Society-sponsored expedition was released to the waiting crowds on the morning of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation.

Only 100 years before, the mountain had lain largely unknown and unmapped.

Now its peak is mounted with increasing frequency. One day in 1999, 18 climbers - one of them a 15-year-old boy - reached the top within an hour and 45 minutes of each other and the news was released by global satellite communication system to the waiting world by the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism.

There can be few more potent signs of the way the world has changed and is changing - a world which modern school geography seeks to understand and interpret. This year's Young Geographer of the Year competition asked students (in three age categories: under-12, 13 to 15, and 16 to 18) to write a magazine article entitled: "Everest - Yesterday's Exploration, Today's Package Holiday, Tomorrow's...?"

As one of the judges, I was struck by the variety and imagination of many of the hundreds of entries. We read about visions of the future which stretched from seeing the mountain developed as a Mecca for extreme-sports enthusiasts and a regular destination for day-trippers and school-journeys, to ones which saw future metropolises on the slopes, or underground cities deep in the heart of the rock-formations. Although a proportion of entries took an apocalyptic view and envisaged the mountain becoming "the world's largest rubbish-heap" or "highest junk-yard", the theme of environmental disaster was by no means as frequent as we had expected. Resolutely optimistic visions prevailed in some quarters. Everest was seen as a major international park or a supreme example of a managed environment. One entrant lyrically envisaged it as a future "frontier of paradise".

Supporters of more dramatic theories about global warming saw the mountain as a future water-world, Noah's Ark, or even akin to a "defrosted turkey".

But the possible unexpected benign side-effects of climate change were also responsible for projecting it as a potential Torremolinos or Disney-fied theme park.

Some socially adventurous entrants speculated about Everest as a site for celebrity weddings or the ultimate youth hostel; as a location for a hospital for sick children or, in one case, as a "Cold Mountain Penitentiary" - the theory being that if you locked up the world's most dangerous criminals in an air-conditioned block near the top, nobody would want to break out.

Most entries were backed up with sound research on the geography of the region to justify the points they made (even where speculation was excessively fanciful) and were written in a lively style. In some cases, imaginative reconstructions of the past, and empathy with the social situation of the Sherpa communities who live nearby, provided distinctive viewpoints.

Trapped in the midst of a bread-and-butter approach to school geography, which seems to have been spawned by the current weight and content of the national curriculum, it looked as if many of the entrants had welcomed the chance to be visionary as well as to exercise their analytical and research skills.

From age nine upwards, entrants were ingenious and imaginative about the possible future of Everest. I got the strong impression that the individuality and liveliness of many of the entries bore testimony to the fact that this project was anything but a dutiful class exercise set by a harassed geography teacher to gain some relief. The geography school curriculum needs more opportunities like this, which are designed to encourage future citizens to think positively about the fast-changing world in which they live.

Rex Walford is a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge and a past president of the Geographical Association Judges included Mary Cruickshank, assistant editor, TES Teacher; Sarah James, marketing manager, Geographical; and Judith Mansell, education officer, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Winning entries can be found at www.tes.co.uk and will be published in Geographical. Prizes will be awarded at an anniversary celebration on May 29. The competition is organised by Geographical and supported by The TES, the Mount Everest Foundation, Collins Publishers and Ordnance Survey

2003 YOUNG GEOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR COMPETITION RESULTS

Senior Geographer of the Year

Alison Banwell, Bournemouth School for Girls, Dorset

Runners-up

Katie Taylor, Bishop Stopford School, Kettering, Northants Sarah Storey, Torquay Grammar School for Girls, Devon Imran Khimji, Chigwell School, Essex.

Young Geographer of the Year

Kate Burden, Oxford High School, Oxford.

Runners-up

Jennie Mason, Wycombe Abbey School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire Alex Agass, Headington School, Oxford Takaki Chiuchi, Westminster School, London.

Junior Geographer of the Year

Hannah Rich, St Joseph's College, Stoke-on-Trent.

Runners-up

Harriet Siebenaller, the Lawn Junior School, Swindon, Wiltshire Laurie Belgrave, Windlesham House School, Washington, West Sussex Tom Herrington, Reigate Grammar School, Surrey.

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