Mortals on Mount Olympus: A History of Climbing Everest

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

Called Chomolungma (“goddess mother of the world“) in Tibet and Sagarmatha (“goddess of the sky“) in Nepal, Mount Everest once went by the pedestrian name of Peak XV among Westerners. That was before surveyors established that it was the highest mountain on Earth, a fact that came as something of a surprise-Peak XV had seemed lost in the crowd of other formidable Himalayan peaks, many of which gave the illusion of greater height.

In 1852 the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India measured Everest's elevation as 29,002 feet above sea level. This remarkably accurate figure remained the officially accepted height for more than one hundred years. In 1955 it was adjusted by a mere 26 feet to 29,028 (8,848 m). The mountain received its official name in 1865 in honor of Sir George Everest, the British Surveyor General from 1830-1843 who had mapped the Indian subcontinent. He had some reservations about having his name bestowed on the peak, arguing that the mountain should retain its local appellation, the standard policy of geographical societies.

Pretenders to the Throne

Before the Survey of India, a number of other mountains ranked supreme in the eyes of the world. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Andean peak Chimboraso was considered the highest. At a relatively unremarkable 20,561 feet (6,267 m), it is in fact nowhere near the highest, surpassed by about thirty other Andean peaks and several dozen in the Himalayas. In 1809, the Himalayan peak Dhaulagiri (26,810 ft.; 8,172 m) was declared the ultimate, only to be shunted aside in 1840 by Kanchenjunga (28,208 ft.; 8,598 m), which today ranks third. Everest's status has been unrivaled for the last century-and-a-half, but not without a few threats.

The most recent challenge came from a 1986 American expedition climbing K2 (28,250 ft., 8,611 m) in the Karakoram range. According to their measurements, K2 was actually 29,284 feet, beating Everest by a cool 256 feet. Had this figure been accepted, mountaineering history would have required drastic revision: Everest would have taken a back seat to K2, no longer the ne plus ultra of geographical extremes.

The Third Pole

Once the North and South Poles had been reached by explorers, the next geographical feat to capture the international imagination was Everest, often called the Third Pole. Attempts to climb Everest began in the 1921, when the forbidden kingdom of Tibet opened its borders to outsiders. On June 8, 1924, two members of a British expedition, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, attempted the summit. Famous for his retort to the press-“because it's there“-when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory had already failed twice at reaching the summit. The two men were last spotted “going strong“ for the top until the clouds perpetually swirling around Everest engulfed them. They vanished for good. Mallory's body was not found for another 75 years, and it did not clear up the mystery as to whether the two men made it to the top before the mountain killed them.

Ten more expeditions over a period of thirty years failed to conquer Everest, with 13 losing their lives. Then, on May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand beekeeper, and Tenzing Norgay, an acclaimed Sherpa climber, became the first to reach the roof of the world. Their climb was made from the Nepalese side, which had eased its restrictions on foreigners at about the same time that Tibet, invaded in 1950 by China, shut its borders. World famous overnight, Hillary became a hero of the British empire-the news reached London just in time for Elizabeth II's coronation-and Norgay was touted as a symbol of national pride by three separate nations: Nepal, Tibet, and India.

Into the Death Zone

Although not considered one of the most technically challenging mountains to climb (K2 is more difficult), the dangers of Everest include avalanches, crevasses, ferocious winds up to 125 mph, sudden storms, temperatures of 40°F below zero, and oxygen deprivation. In the “death zone“-above 25,000 feet-the air holds only a third as much oxygen as at sea level, heightening the chances of hypothermia, frostbite, high-altitude pulmonary edema (when the lungs fatally fill with fluid) and high-altitude cerebral edema (when the oxygen-starved brain swells up). Even when breathing bottled oxygen, climbers experience extreme fatigue, impaired judgment and coordination, headaches, nausea, double vision, and sometimes hallucinations. Expeditions spend weeks, sometimes months, acclimatizing, and usually attempt Everest only in May and October, avoiding the winter snows and the summer monsoons.

After Hillary and Norgay's ascent of Everest, other records were broken, including the first ascent by a woman, the first solo ascent, the first to traverse up one route and down another, and the first descent on skis. Yet none of these records compared to the next true milestone: climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen. As far back as Mallory, who called the use of bottled oxygen “unsporting,“ climbers found they had no alternative. Yet on May 8, 1978, two Tyrolean mountaineers, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, achieved the impossible. Messner had resolved that nothing would come between him and the mountain; he would climb Everest without supplemental oxygen or not at all. At the summit he described himself as “nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung.“ Incredulous, some disputed the veracity of an oxygenless climb. Yet two years later Messner quelled all skepticism when on August 20, 1980, he again ascended Everest without oxygen, this time solo. Climbing without oxygen has now become de rigueur among the climbing elite, and by 1996 more than 60 men and women had reached the top relying on their own gasping lungs.

An Icy Graveyard

Between 1922 and 2010, Everest has been climbed by more than 5,000 people from 85 countries. More than 200 have lost their lives, the odds being one-in-six of not making it down alive. The dead are left where they perish because the effects of the altitude make it nearly impossible to drag bodies off the mountain. Those ascending Everest pass through an icy graveyard littered with remnants of old tents and equipment, empty oxygen canisters, and frozen corpses.

In the past few years, media access to Everest has mushroomed: live Internet reports have been sent from the mountain (using solar energy); an Imax film crew has documented a climb, returning two years in a row before attaining the summit; and Jon Krakauer's bestselling account about an Everest ascent gone wrong, Into Thin Air, has introduced cwm, col, sirdar, short-rope, and Hillary Step into the vocabulary of mainstream America. There are now guided trips up the mountain, fanning debate about the commercialization of Everest. Purists like Hillary lament the lack of respect for the mountain and Young Turks boast they can get nearly anyone up the mountain as long as they're in decent physical shape and have $65,000 to spare. One reason for the recent media attention is the novelty of comparatively ordinary people venturing up a Mount Parnassus formerly limited to gods like Messner and Hillary. Pathologists and postal workers now follow in their footsteps. Another reason is the appalling waste of human life. In May 1996, eight lost their lives in the single greatest disaster on the mountain-yet it did not stop others from attempting the climb just weeks later, resulting in four more deaths. The total for the year was fifteen. The following May, another nine mountaineers died. As the number of climbers grow, so does the death toll, with Everest taking down world-class climbers and novice adventurers alike.

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