Located along the border of Nepal and Tibet, Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain on the planet and an eternal symbol of exploration and adventure. The massive Himalayan peak has been the crown jewel of mountaineering for decades and now draws hundreds of climbers on an annual basis, making it the by far the most popular of the 8000 meter peaks. Here are ten more things you should know about Everest.
Everest is 29,029 feet in height. Or is it?
When Everest was originally surveyed back in 1856 its height was measured at 29,002 feet. That remained the mountain’s official altitude until it was resurveyed nearly a century later and it was determined that it was actually closer to 29,029 feet in height. That number was called into question in 1999 however when a team took a GPS reading from the summit that indicated the height was actually 29,035 feet above sea level. Both Nepal and China continue to recognize 29,029 feet as the official number, but plans are afoot to measure Everest once more, this time using precision modern instruments, to determine the correct height once and for all.
It was first climbed in 1953. Or was it?
The official first ascent of Everest took place on May 29, 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first two men to stand on the summit and then safely descend. But there are some in the mountaineering community who believe that they were actually the second team to reach the top. Back in 1924, George Mallory and his partner Andrew “Sandy” Irvine were spotted just 800 feet beneath the summit and moving up the final ridge. Shortly there after, clouds moved in to shroud the mountain and the two British climbers were never seen alive again. We may never know if Mallory and Irvine reached the top but it remains the subject of much debate amongst climbers to this day.
Mallory and Irvine’s camera is the Holy Grail of mountaineering
In 1999 a group of mountaineers that included the likes of Conrad Anker and Jake Norton went in search of Mallory and Irvine’s remains in hopes of solving the mystery of whether or not they actually reached the top. That team managed to discover the body of Mallory some 75 years after he went missing but unfortunately he was not carrying the camera that could potentially hold evidence of a successful summit. It is now believed that the camera was with Irvine when he met his ultimate fate and where it rests now is anyone’s guess. Over the past few years there have been several expeditions mounted to search for Irvine’s remains but so far they has not been located. If and when it is found, the camera could put to rest mountaineering’s most enduring mystery.
The mountain is sacred to the Sherpas
To the indigenous people who live in the shadow of Everest, the mountain is seen as sacred ground. They call it Chomolungma, which means the Mother Goddess of the World. It is their belief that the spirit of their deity lives in the mountain itself and before they ever set foot on it they first must ask for permission in a special ceremony known as the Puja. In fact, every mountaineer who comes to Everest participates in a Puja before they start their climb. During the ceremony they ask for safe passage to the summit and protection from harm while they tread the Mother Goddess’ hallowed ground. It is a tradition that marks the official start of any Everest expedition and no Sherpa would think of going up the mountain without conducting the ceremony first.
There are two main routes to the summit
While there are numerous routes to the summit of Everest, the vast majority of the climbers restrict themselves to just two of them. The most popular of those routes winds its way up the South Col on the Nepali side of the mountain. This is the same path that Hillary and Norgay took on their historic first ascent and over the years the majority of successful summiteers have followed in their footsteps. The second most popular route follows the Northeast Ridge on the Chinese-controlled Tibetan side of Everest. The North Side of the mountain is less crowded but arguably more challenging, although both have their share of difficulties. For instance, climbers going up the South Col route must make their way through the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, located just above Base Camp. More climbers have perished in the Icefall than any other section of the mountain, which is an indication of just how treacherous it can be. On the North Side climbers must negotiate a series of technical rock climbs known as the steps. The Second Step is so challenging that a ladder is installed each spring to assist climbers on the ascent. Without it, very few would ever summit along that route.
Everest isn’t nearly as deadly as mainstream media would lead you to believe
Make no mistake, climbing Everest can be a dangerous undertaking and caution is always required. But if you were to believe some of the reports in the mainstream press each spring, you’d think that it is a fool’s errand to even try. To put things in proper perspective, during the spring 2013 climbing season more than 600 people successfully reached the summit and nine people lost their lives in the attempt. Every death on the mountain is a sad one of course, but those numbers indicate that 1.5% of those who attempt Everest perish in the process. That pales in comparison to K2, which has a death rate that is closer to 25% and Annapurna, where a staggering 38% of climbers die trying to reach the summit. Those two peaks make Everest seem like a walk in the park.
The record for most climbs by a single person is 21
Climbing Everest requires a great deal of stamina, skill and dedication, not to mention a healthy dose of luck. Reaching the summit is an accomplishment to be celebrated and for most climbers it is a once in a lifetime experience. But for one man climbing Everest has become a way of life that has lasted for more than two decades. Apa Sherpa, who is sometimes referred to as the “Super Sherpa,” is a legend in the mountaineering community. Over the course of his storied career as a guide he summited Everest a mind boggling 21 times before his retirement in 2012. That is a record that has since been matched by another Sherpa named Phurba Tashi, who will have a chance to eclipse that mark next year. By the way, the westerner with the most successful summits is American Dave Hahn, a guide who has stood on top of Everest 15 times and counting.
A Sherpa sets the speed record
For most alpinists the final summit push on Everest requires 3-4 days of climbing as they make their way up to a series of high camps before ultimately heading to the top at long last. But on May 24, 2004 one climber wanted to see just how fast he could make the ascent if he traveled as quickly as humanly possible. On that day, Pemba Dorje Sherpa left Base Camp on the South Side and rocketed up the South Col route all the way to the summit. He covered the distance in an astounding 8 hours, 10 minutes, gaining 11,325 feet and setting a new speed record in the process. Since then, numerous challengers have attempted to break that record, but all have come up short. If this record is to ever be broken it will take a super-human effort indeed.
Reinhold Messner redefines modern mountaineering on Everest
Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner is arguably the greatest alpinist of all time and has a list of accomplishments that is second to none. For instance, it was Messner who first proved it was possible to climb an 8000-meter peak without supplemental oxygen when he and Peter Haebeler did just that on Everest in 1978. Two years later, he returned to the mountain to set the bar even higher. In the summer of 1980, Messner completed the first solo summit of the mountain, climbing completely alone and in Alpine style. That climb redefined what was possible on the big mountains, opening the door for other bold mountaineers to follow in Messner’s very large footsteps.
You can ski the mountain
Yes, it is possible to ski Everest. That is, if you are a world-class skier and mountaineer. There are no lifts or lodges here of course, but the mountain has been skied on a number of occasions, including Yuichiro Miura’s famous descent back in 1970, which was chronicled in the Academy Award winning documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. But Miura only climbed up to about 27,000 feet and didn’t ski the full length of the mountain. The first descent from the summit wouldn’t come until 2000 when Davorin Karnicar achieved that impressive feat. After stepping into his skies and pointing them down the hill, he skied for an incredible five hours, dropping 12,000 feet on his way back to Base Camp on the South Side.