Everest is the highest mountain in the world, standing a stunning 8,848m (29,029ft) above sea level. Interestingly, some claims have been made for other mountains having this honour. Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, for example, is actually the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from its centre. This is due to the way the earth bulges at the equator, putting Chimborazo's peak at 6,384.4km from the middle of the globe1. However, Chimborazo only stands a titchy 2,168m high from sea level; this makes it not even the highest peak in the Andes and less than a quarter of the height of Everest.
Meanwhile, Mauna Kea in Hawaii is probably the tallest as it rises from the sea bed to its peak in one continuous slope to top out at 10,203m from its base. Still, Everest is double Mauna Kea's height of 4,205m from sea level which is generally the baseline the record book people use to determine who wins. People point out the fact that the deepest point on Earth, the Challenger Deep section of the Mariana Trench, is 10,923m below sea level. The whole of Everest could fit into it with over 2km spare. But that's not the point; Everest is still the highest mountain in a world of titchy mountains. Earth is actually a world of small mountains. Olympus Mons, the highest mountain on Mars, for example, is 21,171m high - over double Everest's height.
Creation of a Giant
Everest sits on the border of Nepal, China and Tibet in the Himalayan mountain range. This area of mountains, containing the Himalayas along with the Karakoram, Pamir, Hindu Kush and some minor ranges, makes up what is often called 'the roof of the world'. Between them these ranges contain all the world's biggest mountains over 8,000m and over a hundred separate mountains higher than 7,200m. Yet the ranges are all in motion; new rock is constantly being forced upwards by the crashing action of the Indian into the Eurasian Tectonic plates. Yet, geologically speaking, these ranges are still one of the youngest on the planet; the Indian subcontinent didn't crash into the Eurasian one until around 50million years ago. Moving at a rate of around 5cm northwards a year, most of the Indian plate is slipping below the Eurasian Plate. However, this action is also causing buckling in the Eurasian plate. This buckling force upwards creates around 4mm to 6cm worth of new mountains a year, although erosion does cause some reduction to this.
Discovery and Mapping
Nobody knows who the first human to see Mount Everest was and most probably it happened tens of thousands of years ago. It was, however, given many different names by the people living around it over the centuries. The Sherpa name was Chomolungma which means 'Mother of the Universe' while it has also been called Deodungha, or 'Holy Mountain'. It was probably called many other names by humanity over the years but the first western European to see the mountain was Andrew Waugh who held the post of Surveyor General in British-controlled India. Many places around the world may have been called 'Your Finger, Stupid' after the explorer pointed at the view and asked a local, 'What is that?'.
But with Everest this was not the case. Andrew Waugh was leading an expedition to survey all the mountains of the region. He first saw the mountain in 1847, suspecting that it was bigger than any others nearby. In 1852, Radhanath Sikdar (an Indian mathematician and surveyor from Bengal) confirmed the height of the mountain, establishing that it was the highest known mountain in the world. Waugh was given the task of assigning local names to the scenery. He was unable to discover a local name for the peak so instead, in 1865, he decided to name it after the predecessor of his job, George Everest - and so Mount Everest gained its name and its position became known to the wider world. By the 1960s, the Nepalese Government (who were based in Kathmandu) realised that the mountain had no name in Nepalese and named it Sagarmatha which means 'Head of the Sky'.
Once the mountain was identified as world's highest peak, it became a target for the rapidly-growing new sport of climbing and mountaineering. The first big expedition was on 8 June, 1924 when Andrew Irvine and George Mallory attempted to make the ascent. This failed and both men were lost, becoming the first recorded climbing casualties2.
A number of other attempts were made until the British expedition of 1953. This was led by the British mountaineer John Hunt and involved sending climbing teams up the mountain. The first two climbers, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, got to within 300 feet of the summit on 26 May, but with heavy hearts were forced to turn back due to sheer exhaustion. The second team was made up of a New Zealander by the name of Edmund Hillary and a local Nepalese Sherpa by the name of Tenzing Norgay. At 11:30am on 29 May, 1953 the pair reached the summit and stood on the top of the world. As any mountaineer will tell you, though, that's only half the battle. Many more climbers have died descending Everest than actually climbing it, underestimating the great perils of the journey down. Hillary and Norgay did not and returned to Base Camp successful. Many years after the event Tenzig Norgay told the press that it had actually been Hillary who had become the first man to stand on the summit: the record books still included both their names, though, as the first climbers. The news quickly spread around the world and by the time the team had left Everest Base Camp and returned to Kathmandu, Hillary and the expedition leader John Hunt had received a knighthood each. Tenzig Norgay was not a citizen of the Commonwealth so was unable to receive a knighthood: instead, he received the George Medal.
A Mountain of Firsts
Everest has seen many first successful climbs and other first ascents since that day in May, 1953. With its position as the highest mountain in the world, Everest is the subject of many mountaineering stories and adventures. It generates statistics all the time as climbers try to add their names to the record books. For example, those climbing Everest usually wear supplementary oxygen masks and tanks due to the lack of breathable air above 26,242ft (8,000m). It was thought that this was the only way to climb the mountain successfully until Reinhold Messner's expedition succeeded in summiting without oxygen on 8 May, 1978. Messner went on to become a legendary figure and arguably the world's best climber when on 20 August, 1980, he summited Everest while climbing solo without oxygen.
Firsts regarding Everest are numerous; the first woman to reach the summit was Junko Tabei of Japan on 16 May, 1975, while the person to go from sea level to the summit was Tim Macartney-Snape on 11 May, 1990. The current youngest climber is Temba Tsheri who was 15 years old when he summited on the 22 May, 2001. The oldest climber to date is Sherman Bull who was 64 when he reached the peak on 25 May, 2001. Everest has been climbed in the winter by L Cichy and K Wielicki of Poland on 17 February, 1980, and even by a blind person, Erik Weihenmeyer, on 25 May, 2001.
What makes all of these feats so impressive is that mountains over 8,000m are all in the 'Death Zone'. In this area, the height of the mountain and the sheer faces make rescue impossible. If a climber gets into difficulty here they have to save themselves as outside help will not appear3. There are currently about 120 bodies of climbers still frozen into the ice on Everest; the effort it would take to remove them and the danger involved makes it safer just to leave them where they fell. Around 2,062 people have succeeded in the climb but it has caused the deaths of 203 climbers. The most dangerous area is the Khumbu Ice Fall, and most deaths are attributed to avalanches. The dangers are subject to many big debates about morality within the climbing community. If a climber sees that another climber is in trouble should they stop to help when they are almost certainly putting their own life and possibly members of their own support team's lives in serious danger as well? Even with modern technology and techniques, climbing the mountain is still a serious endeavour; in the fatal 1996 season 16 climbers were killed on the mountain.
The Big Ones
Of the mountains above 8,000m, Mount Everest is the tallest. The others are as follows:
- K2 on the Chinese-Pakistan border at 8,611m4.
- Kanchenjunga on the Indian Nepalese border at 8,586m
- Lhotse on the Chinese-Nepalese border at 8,516m
- Makalu on the Chinese-Nepalese border at 8,463m
- Cho Oyu on the Chinese-Nepalese border at 8,201m
- Dhaulagiri in Nepal at 8,167m
- Manaslu in Nepal at 8,163m
- Nanga Parbat in Pakistan at 8,125m5
- Annapurna in Nepal at 8,091m
- Gasherbrum I on the Chinese Pakistani border at 8,068m
- Broad Peak on the Chinese Pakistani border at 8,047m
- Gasherbrum II on the Chinese Pakistani border at 8,035m
- Shishapangma in China at 8,027m
To date6 only 26 men have ever climbed all of these peaks. The first to do this was, again, the legendary climber Reinhold Messner. He started his series of ascents in 1970, finally summiting on Lhotse and Makalu in 1986. Here are the first ten to do it:
- Reinhold Messner from 1970 - 1986 - Italian
- Jerzy Kukuczka from 1979 - 1987 - Polish
- Erhard Loretan from 1982 - 1995 - Swiss
- Carlos Carsolio from 1985 - 1996 - Mexican
- Krzysztof Wielicki from 1980 - 1996 - Polish
- Juanito Oiarzabal from 1985 - 1999 - Spanish/Basque
- Sergio Martini from 1976 - 2000 - Italian
- Hong-Gil Um from 1988 - 2000 - Korean
- Park Young Seok from 1993 - 2001 - Korean
- Alberto Inurrategi from 1991 - 2002 - Spanish/Basque
Climbing The Rock
Mount Everest can be lethal; do not even think of going there until you have done a lot of research.
The most common route up the mountain is via the south-east ridge and a climber will start their ascent with a six- to eight-day hike to Base Camp at an altitude of 5,380m on Everest's south face. They will generally then spend anything up to two weeks at Base Camp to let their body adjust to the lack of oxygen in the air. While at the camp, the Sherpas will begin to set up bridges, ropes and ladders over the ever-moving crevasses in the Khumbu Icefall (the most dangerous area of the mountain and the first day's climb). After passing the Khumbu, climbers will set up at Camp I just above the icefall at 6,065m. The next day involves a mix of climbing and walking up the gentle slope of the Western Cwm glacial valley to Camp II at the base of the Lhotse face. After stopping here at 6,500m the climbers will proceed up the Lhotse face on a series of fixed ropes to Camp III at 7,470m. From Camp III to Camp IV is a mere 500m but it involves scrambling with fixed ropes over the ice-covered rocks of the Geneva Spur and The Yellow Band. Camp IV at 7,920m on the South Col is now firmly in the Death zone of the mountain. Due to the limited supplies they can carry, climbers will now only have a weather window of two or three days to go for the top. If the conditions don't suit a summit attempt, all the climbing will have been in vain and the expedition will be forced to turn around.
With some luck, the conditions will be right and the climbers will set off around midnight; climbing is done at night as at these high altitudes a lack of cloud cover will very quickly cause the sun to turn the hard ice into dangerous slush. Reaching the Balcony at sunrise the climbers will get a brief moment to catch their breath and admire the view at 8,400m before pushing on up the ridge for the South Summit at 8,750m. The climbers will then follow a knife-edged ridge path known as the Cornice Traverse where a single misstep could cause a 2,400m fall on one side or a 3,050m fall on the other. From the Cornice the climbers will ascend the Hillary Step at 8,760m. This 12m-high rock wall is an imposing feature at this altitude and one which Hillary and Tenzig Norgay actually climbed; these days the modern climbers will use ropes fixed in place by previous Sherpa expeditions. After this climb the expedition has a patch of rough ground to cover before they reach the small gravelly summit. They will generally spend no more than half an hour at the top of the world before they are forced to leave. The team must make it back down to Camp IV before their oxygen runs out or the weather changes. In all, they will have climbed for around 10 or 12 hours to reach the peak and they still have got another few days to climb back down to Base Camp.
Tourism and Pollution
Everest's fame has caused two reactions that go hand in hand. Many tourists to the area take the long trek up through the Himalayas to stand at Base Camp and gaze up at the mountain and the teams preparing to climb. These influxes of people have caused major problems with litter building up around the mountain. In fact, there have been so many discarded oxygen bottles from climbing expeditions and other pieces of rubbish scattered around the camp that environmental groups and campaigners have organised expeditions just to clean up the trash from Base Camp. Other effects of global warming have seen Himalayan glaciers melt and cause floods in the area. Like many of nature's wildernesses Everest is fast becoming ruined and people need to act quickly and responsibly to maintain this ever-growing beauty.