Everest and the Early Expeditions
What’s in a name one might say, but it took thirteen years to decide on a name for Peak XV. There was much debate among the British themselves as some favored a local name while others supported the idea of naming it after Sir George Everest, predecessor of Sir Andrew Waugh, the Survey General of the Trigonometric Survey of India at the time. Many Nepali names like Devdhuga, Gauri Shanker and Bhairavthan were put forward by various British officials and German explorers but were dismissed along with already existing names like Chomolungma which was used by Sherpas of the Khumbu region. Finally the Royal Geographic Society settled the issue by naming it Mt. Everest in 1865.
At 8,848 meters, Everest is a giant among mountains. The highest mountains in the other continents are relatively small in comparison eg. Mt.Elbrus in Europe (Russia) is only 5,642 m, Aconcagua in South America (Andes, Argentina) is 6,959 m, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa (Tanzania) is 5,895m and Mt. McKinley (now officially renamed Denali), in North America (Alaska) is 6,104m. The famous Mt. Blanc, the highest in the Alps is 4,807m and the Matterhorn in the Pennine Alps is 4,478m. In late Sir Hillary’s native country New Zealand, the highest peak, Mt. Cook is only 3,753m after landslide supposedly reduced its height from 3,764m. There are fourteen mountains above 8000m in the Himalaya, eight of which lie in Nepal.
Soon after the epic climb of 1953 by Hillary and Tenzing, their expedition leader John Hunt was of the opinion that interest in climbing this peak would subside. However contrary to his belief more and more people wanted to climb it, discovering new routes never climbed before. There was a mad rush of people from countries all over the world to become the first to summit from their respective countries. The Swiss who almost beat the British in 1952 finally conquered the peak in 1956, followed by the Chinese in 1960. This Chinese expedition made it to the top climbing up the Tibetan North Col route from the other side of the mountain. Then in 1965, an Indian Expedition made a successful bid and for one Sherpa named Nawang Gombu, it was his second ascent (the first person to climb the mountain twice). From 1966 to 1969, the mountains were closed to expeditions due to military activity on the border region.
In late ’69, the mountains were re-opened to expeditions and the first to take advantage was a Japanese national who in 1970 wanted to try the extraordinary. He skied down the mountain and wrote a book about it. Three years later in 1973, an Italian expedition succeeded in putting eight climbers on the summit. Each expedition seemed to want to achieve what had never been done before. It was another Japanese expedition that went up during the post-monsoon period and was successful too. Spring is considered the ideal time to climb as the weather is generally good. Then in 1975, it was time for a Japanese ladies’ expedition to head up the mountain. Climbing up with a Sherpa, Junko Tabei reached the summit and became the first woman to reach the top of Everest. The Chinese were not to be outdone and they followed soon after by putting eight Tibetans and a Chinese national on the summit including Mrs. Phantog, a Tibetan woman. At the time, most expeditions were going up the South Col route from Nepal or the North Col route from Tibet. Attention now turned to finding new routes up the mountain. In 1975 Englishman Doug Scott and Scotsman Dougal Haston, climbed up the South West face of Everest and made it to the summit. They were the first Britons to conquer the highest mountain. They had set a new trend. However the next two climbers to go up had something quite different on their minds and it would challenge their brains as well. On 8th May 1978 a Tyrolean (Tyrol is an autonomous province in southern Italy) named Reinhold Messner and Austrian Peter Habeler reached the summit without the aid of bottled oxygen. At the time experts believed one could not survive Everest without the aid of bottled oxygen. However, some brain cells are lost due to lack of oxygen in the brain. The duo did suffer some temporary impairment but recovered fully on returning to lower altitudes.
The world was in for some amazing feats on Everest and the man to stun the world with his outrageous achievements was none other than Reinhold Messner. He shook the world with his daring solo climb in 1980 making headline news. One would think that was quite a feat, but he was not one to rest on his laurels. He went on to climb all 14 peaks above 8000m becoming the first one to do so and started a new challenge for those who came after him. Eight of these peaks as mentioned earlier lie in Nepal, five are in Pakistan and one in Tibet.
In 1979, The Chinese government declared eight peaks open to foreigners for climbing including Everest. They went on to place a metal tripod on the summit so mountaineers could take a photo next to it to prove they’d reached the summit. Messner had achieved his solo bid via Tibet. In ’79 a Yugoslav team became the first to climb from the West ridge and succeeded. Then in 1980, another first; a Polish expedition made the first winter ascent. Next it was a Sino-Japanese expedition that same year which took the North East Ridge route to reach the top. The Russians found their own challenge and summited via the South West face in 1982. Another year and another route; it was the Americans who first climbed up the East Kangshung face in 1983.
Everest inspired all manner of record attempts and in 1985, Dick Bass came up with something new. He became the oldest person to climb the peak at the age of 55. As if that were not enough, he went on to become the first person to climb the highest points in all seven continents, thus starting a new trend that has been emulated by many climbers.
It was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of commercializing mountain climbing. Rob Hall was a famous mountaineer from New Zealand. He started Adventure Consultants that would look for paying clients who were willing to pay as much as US $ 65,000 to be guided up the mountain. Scott Fisher, the American guide opened his own company called Mountain Madness and Todd Burleson’s outfit was known as Alpine Ascents. This was back in the ‘90s and many of their clients were not even mountaineers but ambitious amateurs with spare cash to throw around. There was fierce completion among these entrepreneurs and they did not shy away from enticing each other’s clients by offering better rates. Both Rob Hall and Scott Fisher died on the mountain trying to take their clients to the top in the infamous tragedy of 1996. Jon Krakauer from Outside magazine was a member of Rob Hall’s expedition who survived and wrote his best-seller “Into Thin Air”. His very well-written and detailed book highlights all the shortcomings and dangers of commercialized expeditions.
Besides commercialized climbs there have been a rising number of people trying to break records. Of course there are those like Apa Sherpa who break records in the course of doing their job which is guiding expeditions to the summit of Everest. Apa Sherpa has reached the summit an astounding 21 times and the surprising fact is that Phurba Tashi has equaled his record without drawing much attention. At the time of writing, Yuichiro Miura of Japan is recognized as the oldest person to have summitted at the age of 80 years and 224 days. The youngest to climb is Jordan Romero of the United States at the age of 13 years 10 months and 10 days. The longest stay on the summit was recorded by Babu Chhiri Sherpa who spent 21 hours at the top. A blind person has succeeded and so has an amputee. The list goes on.
Along with the many success stories that we have heard, there have been many, many tragedies on the mountain. From the early days, mountaineers have lost their lives in various different ways. Some have suffered from high altitude sickness while others have fallen off the cliffs. Many have lost their way in the blizzards while some have been victims of bad weather and avalanches or have fallen into crevices. The most widely talked about disaster has been the one in 1996 when eight people lost their lives on the mountain. Numerous books were written and published by the survivors and the best- selling book “Into Thin Air” became a very popular film making the event widely known around the world. Among the books that were published is the amazing story of Beck Weathers entitled “Left for Dead” about his miraculous survival or resurrection after he was left lying on the snow by rescuers, presuming he was dead. Another interesting book is “The Climb” by the Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev (died during the winter ascent of Annapurna in 1997) who was hired by Fisher to help his clients on the mountain. He takes a different view of the events that unfolded during the tragedy and somewhat contradicts the accusations made by Krakauer. Many climbers came to his defense and in fact his daring feat of rescuing clients during the storm on Everest was described by some as the most amazing rescue in mountaineering history.
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