Conquering Mount Everest

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Podcast Transcript

You are probably well aware that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth. 

Because of its status as the highest point on Earth, it has attracted thousands of people who have climbed to the summit.

In the process, it has also killed hundreds of people who died in the attempt.

Learn more about the history of trying to climb Mount Everest on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, lies on the border of China and Nepal in the Himalayan mountains. 

Just to be pedantic, it is only the tallest mountain depending on how you measure it.  It is the highest point above sea level on Earth. 

However, it is not the point on the Earth that is furthest from the center of the Earth or the point which is closest to space. That would be Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, and the reason this is the point furthest from the center has to do with the fact that it is near the equator. The Earth bulges just slightly enough to make up for the difference in height between it and Everest.

Likewise, if you measure from the base of a mountain to the top, Everest is also not the largest. That would be Mona Kea in Hawaii, which has a base that extends to the bottom of the ocean. If you just consider base to peak on land, then it would be Mount Denali in Alaska.

That nitpicking aside, for the purpose of this episode Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world coming in at a whopping 8,848.86 meters or  29,031.7 feet.

It actually took a lot of work to figure out that Everest was in fact the tallest mountain in the world. 

In 1802 the British began an effort to survey the entire continent of India in what was known as the Great Trigonometrical Survey.  It was an extremely difficult project as the surveyors had to battle malaria and monsoons. 

28 years after the start of the project, they had reached the foothills of the Himalayas. The problem was, Nepal, unlike India, wasn’t controlled by the British and westerners were not welcome. 

The project was restarted in 1847 with observations of the Himalayan peaks from outside of Nepal, which could be seen about 200 kilometers in the distance. 

From this, it was determined in 1847 that Mount Kangchenjunga was the tallest mountain in the world. 

However, as more measurements were made, another peak was discovered that was even taller. 

Using the data from the survey team, in 1852 an Indian mathematician named Radhanath Sikdar was the first person in the world to calculate and determine that the mountain known at that time as Peak XV, was the tallest in the world. 

He calculated it to be exactly 29,000 feet, however, his bosses added two feet to the total, just because such a round number would look suspicious. 

During the survey, the British tried to name Himalayan peaks using local names, however, because they couldn’t enter Nepal, they didn’t know of any local name for the mountain. So the decision was made to name the peak after the Surveyor General of India, ??Sir George Everest. 

Today, it is known by several different names in different languages. In Nepali it is Sa-gar-m?t-h?, in Tibetan it is Cho-mo-lung-ma, and in Chinese, it is Zh?mùl?ngm? f?ng. (Chu-mu-lang-ma fung)

Once you know what the tallest mountain is, of course, someone is going to try to climb it. 

There were no attempts to climb Everest through the entirety of the 19th century. Mountain climbing was extremely difficult and technical innovations that would make an attempt possible didn’t exist yet. 

Moreover, no one could enter Nepal, so even if someone wanted to make an attempt, it wasn’t possible. 

The real beginning of Everest exploration can be said to have begun with the 1921 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition.

This was not an attempt to climb Everest, it was really just an opportunity to figure out how to get close to the mountain, and then once there, figure out what some approaches up the mountain might have been possible. 

The expedition was required because almost next to nothing was known about it outside of Nepal and Tibet. 

The expedition started from Tibet because Nepal was still closed to outsiders in 1921. They explored the north side of Everest because that was what was available to them. 

The leader of the expedition was Charles Howard-Bury, but the lead climber was a man by the name of George Mallory, who was visiting the Himalayas for the first time. 

The 1921 reconnaissance expedition set the stage for the very first attempt to climb Everest in 1922. 

By this time, both the north and south poles had been explored, and climbing the world’s tallest peak became the last, great achievement in exploring the globe. As the British hadn’t been first to either pole, they wanted to be first to what was called the “third pole”

The first summit expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society. They planned it for April and May, which would be after winter, but before the monsoons arrived. 

The thing which this attempt did, which had never been done before, was used bottled oxygen. 

What made an Everest attempt so different than any other mountaineering effort was the extreme height. Humans had no real experience at such an altitude. At the time of the attempt, the flight altitude record was about the same as the height of Everest. 

There was debate amongst the members of the expedition if using oxygen constituted “fair means”. Eventually, it was decided that above what is known as the death zone, which is above 8,000 meters or 26,000 feet, it was simply necessary for survival. This decision was actually based on research done on high altitude aviation during the first world war.

The team consisted of 13 British, and about 150 Nepalese and Tibetan porters, most of them being used to get supplies to base camp.

The attempt was on the North Face of Everest because that was the only option available at the time. 

The attempt was a failure and a pretty bad one at that. They managed to make an advanced base camp at 6,400 meters or  21,000 feet. From there they made three attempts at the summit. The first was without oxygen and the second with oxygen. In both attempts, they set records for the highest altitude ever climbed, but neither attempt was successful.

On the third attempt, they caused an avalanche which killed seven porters. 

They were first, but by no means the last, people to die on Everest. 

The next attempt was in 1924. Again, they had to make an attempt on the North Face of the mountain which was in China. 

In many ways, it was similar to the first attempt in 1922. They made camp at a very high altitude and made three attempts at the summit. 

The first failed. The second set a new altitude record at 8,570 meters, just 300 meters from the summit. 

The third attempt was made by George Mallory, the only person on all three expeditions to Everest, and Andrew Irving. They set out and never returned. 

The disappearance of Mallory and Irving became something of a legend in Everest expeditions because no one knows if they reached the summit or not. 

Their bodies were found on a special expedition to find their remains in 1999. The camera that they had with them, which could have been documented if they had reached the summit, was never found. 

Attempts to reach the summit of Everest didn’t go much better after 1924.

One guy, ??a British eccentric named Maurice Willson, tried to solo Everest in 1934 and died. 

There was a 1936 British expedition that was a total failure, and they didn’t even reach the heights they did 12 years earlier. 

There were failed attempts in 1938 and 1947.

Then, however, something happened that changed everything. Nepal opened itself up to outsiders. 

It turned out, the north face of Everest was the hard way to do it. 

There were expeditions to Nepal for recognizance of the south slope in 1950 and 1951, with a Swiss team making the first attempt on the south face in 1952. 

The Swiss attempt was conducted by the mountaineer Raymond Lambert and a local Nepalese by the name of Tenzing Norgay. 

What many of the expeditions had discovered is that the local Sherpa people who lived in the mountains were really good at extreme altitudes. Instead of just hiring them as porters, the Swiss expedition brought a Sherpa on board as part of a tandem team to try to make the summit. 

They broke the 1924 altitude record but didn’t reach the summit. 

In 1953, all the pieces finally came together. A British expedition was going to use the route on the south face, work closer with Sherpas, and utilize what they learned on the previous expeditions. 

The expedition was lead by British Army Colonel John Hunt. The plan was similar to other attempts. Get to a high base camp, and then make three attempts at the summit, with three different pairs of climbers, on three separate days. 

The first team to try to summit was Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon. They came within 100 meters of the summit. 

The second attempt was made by New Zealander Edmond Hillary and the sherpa from the 1952 Swiss expedition, Tenzing Norgay. 

They managed to reach the summit at 11:30 am on May 29, 1953.

They spent about 15 minutes at the summit taking photos before beginning the descent back down. 

News of the accomplishment arrived in London on the morning of June 2, just hours before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

There was debate and controversy for years about which of the two men actually stood on the summit first. Neither of them ever said anything when the news reached the world. However, Norgay eventually confessed in his biography in 1955 that Hillary had been there a few steps before him.

Once Everest has been summited, it was then a matter of people doing it with various qualifiers. 

The next four people to the summit were all Swiss in 1956. 

In 1960, a Chinese team managed to become the first to reach the summit from the north face.

In 1975, Junko Tabei of Japan became the first woman to reach the summit.

In 1978, Reinhold Messner of Italy and Peter Habeler of Austria made the first ascent without the use of supplemental oxygen. That year Franz Oppurg of Austria was the first to reach the summit solo.

In 1980, Messner later became the first person to solo Everest without oxygen.

Also that year, a Polish team because the first to summit in the middle of winter. 

Since then, the number of people reaching the summit of Everest each year has exploded. 

As of January 2021, 6,014 have reached the summit of Everest. 

Kami Rita Sherpa of Nepal has reached the summit a record 25 times. 

American Jordan Romero reached the summit at the age of 13 years and 10 months old in 2010, the youngest person ever to do so.

In 2013, Y?ichir? Miura of Japan became the oldest person to reach the summit at the age of 80.

Many people are complaining that the challenge of climbing one of the world’s most difficult summits is now gone. If you are willing to spend enough money, usually between $30,000 and $100,000 dollars, you too can take a stab at climbing the world’s tallest mountain. 

There have literally been traffic jams at the top of the mountain as people had to wait in line to reach the summit.

To date, 309 people have died climbing Everest, which means your odds of dying are about 5%. It has gotten safer over time, but every year people die, and many of those bodies are still on the mountain because they are too difficult to return. 

If you are one of those who wonder why people feel the need to climb Mount Everest, it probably is because the old joke is true. 

Because it’s there.