At 8,848 metres, Mount Everest is the world’s highest mountain. Would you ever dream of climbing it? And making your way safely back down to tell the tale? Many have done so. Tragically, many have also tried to, but never returned from the mountain’s icy, rocky slopes. Here’s a look at the culture of climbing the world’s greatest mountain.
On 29 May 1953, the New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa-mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to successfully reach the summit of Mount Everest. But in the decades leading up to this day, many climbers and expedition parties had been enthralled and seduced by the idea of climbing the world’s highest mountain, and many attempted to do so. One of these men was George Mallory, an English mountaineer who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s, and he might have even reached the top.
During a 1924 expedition, Mallory and his climbing partner both disappeared forever on the mountain’s north-east ridge during their attempt to make what would have famously been the first ever ascent of Everest. The pair were last seen when they were about 245 metres from the summit. Whether he or his climbing partner ever reached the summit before they died remains a mystery. Since then, the mountain has attracted more and more climbers every year to Base Camp – the rudimentary campsite below the mountain that is used as a launching point and return base for expeditions.
Climbing Modern Everest?
These days, there are two main climbing routes up Everest. One approaches the summit from the south in Nepal (the standard route) and the other from the north in Tibet. Most attempts are made during April and May before the summer monsoon season. As monsoon season approaches, a change in the weather conditions reduces the average wind speeds high on the mountain, making it easier for climbers to summit. For the standard southern approach to the climb, mountaineers fly into Kathmandu and spend several days here arranging climbing gear, going through logistics, and stocking up on food and supplies. Climbers then fly into Lukla, in the north-eastern region of Nepal, and make their way overland to Everest Base Camp. The altitude at Base Camp for the southern route is already over 5 300 metres so climbers spend about one or two weeks here or more, acclimatising their bodies. To begin the ascent, climbers must then pass through Everest’s notorious Khumbu Icefall multiple times. Even with safe climbing methods, this section is extremely dangerous due to shifting ice and deep crevasses. Once through the Khumbu Icefall, climbers reach Camp 1 at 6 065 metres, and then make their way to Camp 2 (6,492 metres) before having to ascend the sheer wall of ice named the Lhotse Face to get to Camp 3 (7,470 metres).
After this, they cross a section of the climb called the Geneva Spur to reach Camp 4 (7,925 metres), and push on to Camp 5 (7,925 metres) where many climbers spend their first night in the so-called ‘Death Zone’ – the altitude at which the oxygen available for breathing is dangerously low. The majority of climbers use bottled oxygen in order to reach the summit, although some have reached the top successfully without it. If all is going well, and if weather conditions allow, climbers head up to an altitude of 8,440 metres to a spot called The Balcony, which offers the opportunity for a brief rest from climbing, and then on to the Hillary Step which is one of the most challenging elements of the climb. Once they have negotiated this, they must trek the final few feet to reach the summit.
It all sounds straightforward on paper but of course it’s not! Once a climber has reached the top, their Everest adventure is far from over. Statistically, coming back down from the peak is far more dangerous than ascending it – and most accidents occur during this time. While Everest is not the most technically difficult mountain to climb, the challenge in reaching its summit lies in dealing successfully with debilitating effects of altitude and freezing temperatures – and negotiating the ever-present danger of extreme weather shifts, avalanches and rock falls, and the physical and mental effects of over-exhaustion. The previously mentioned George Mallory is famously quoted as having replied to the question ‘Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?’ with the statement, ‘Because it’s there’.
These most famous three words in mountaineering have been at the heart of why countless mountaineers have succeeded – and failed – in climbing Mount Everest. We are presented with life, and therefore we live it. We are presented with a big mountain, and therefore we attempt to climb it. Just because it’s there!
• The majority of climbers use bottled oxygen in order to reach the summit. The Italian Reinhold Messner was the first to climb the mountain without oxygen, along with Peter Habeler, in 1978. Two years later, Messner surpassed the achievement, reaching the summit solo – and again without bottled oxygen.
• On 23 May 2013, Japan’s Yuichiro Miura again became the oldest person to reach the summit of Everest, at the age of 80.
• These days, mountaineers that attempt Everest are highly experienced. However, in the last few years, there have also been a large number of lesser experienced (but still capable) climbers that have hired professional mountaineering guides to assist them to the top. Because of this, the main route to Everest’s summit has been clogged with people during the few days each year when weather conditions are right for the attempt.
• On 19 May 1975, Junko Tabei, a Japanese mountain climber, became the first ever woman to reach the mountain’s summit.