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Sagarmatha – AKA Mount Everest

We are often fascinated by extremes. The fastest; the hottest; the longest; the smallest. Growing up a mountain devotee the highest mountain on earth always loomed in my imagination. Everest was the pinnacle of it all, literally the roof of our planet. Pipe dreams of summiting have never really died, no matter how old I become. For now, I’ll have to settle with writing a brief intro to this beast.

Situated on the border of Nepal and Tibet, Everest rises above the Tibet Plateau and tops out at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet) above sea level.  The crag has many names: Sagarmatha means “goddess of the sky”  in Nepali; Chomolungma translates to “Holy Mother” from Tibetan; Zhumulangma is roughly the same in Mandarin; Deodungha  comes from Darjeeling and means “Holy Mountain.” British surveyors settled on honoring Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India, despite Everest’s protestations.

View from south of Everest - the highest mountain on the planet - photo by Papa Lima Whiskey 2

The crown of the Great Himalaya Range, Everest is so high its peak sits in the jet stream. The mountain is essentially the result of the collision of two continental plates. The Indian-Australian Plate slammed and is still slamming into the Eurasian Plate. When continental plates meet, one is subducted, meaning it is forced below the other; at the borders of the plates, mountain ranges form. Because the plates are actively colliding, Everest and the Himalayas are still growing. Each year Everest moves a few inches northeast and grows a fraction of an inch taller.

Despite the immensity, it was not considered the highest point in the world until the 1850s. Scientists knew it was one of the tallest, but because of access issues to Tibet and Nepal in the 19th-century measurements were taken from great distances. When the complex calculations – light refraction, barometric pressure, and temperature cause problems with the math at long distances – were finally confirmed, the status as the highest mountain in the world started to attract climbing attempts.

Himalayan plate tectonics - © PBS/NOVA

Climbing Sagarmatha is difficult for many reasons. As noted above, the jet stream brings extraordinarily high winds and makes scaling the mountain nearly impossible. However, two brief windows appear each year where winds abate before and after the monsoon season. Nearly every expedition occurs in these short periods.

High altitudes present another significant issue. Everest is famed for what is known as the Death Zone, the region above 7,600 meters (25,000 feet). Here oxygen levels are 1/3 what they are at sea level. In the Death Zone climbers have higher pulses, rapid breathing, and trouble digesting food. Add it all up and you have the recipe for a literal wasting away of the human body. Climbers attempt to limit time spent in the Death Zone; it’s like walking into the winter areas in Breath of the Wild with no cold resistance. Eventually, you gotta get out.

And then, of course, you have the temperature. It’s cold. Really cold. The warmest average daytime temperature in July is only about −2 °F (−19 °C) on the summit; in January, the coldest month, summit temperatures average −33 °F (−36 °C) and can drop as low as −76 °F (−60 °C).  Frostbite is a tremendous problem.

All these issues are in addition to the difficulty of the ascent. Avalanches, glacial crevasses, and falls are constant possibilities.  The Khumbu Icefall,  the South Col,  and the Hilary Step are famous features of the mountain. As an aside – the Hillary Step may be gone. An earthquake in the past decade may have completely destroyed the famous cog.

The Hillary Step - one of the final bosses on the summit approach - it may now be gone forever due to an earthquake in 2015

In the 1920s, summit attempts began in earnest. Mountaineer George Mallory organized multiple parties in multiple years to ponder routes, establish camps, and slowly assault the mountain. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory uttered the famous line: “Because it’s there.” In 1922 he and the party made progress, but an avalanche killed seven men. In 1924 Edward Norton made it to 8,170 meters (28,100 feet). Mallory and Andrew Irvine then attempted to reach the peak. The two entered into mountain-climbing lore, but never returned to camp. They were sighted high on the mountain, near the top, but to this day it is a debate as to whether they made it to the summit or exactly how high they made it if they did not reach the peak. The saga of Mallory and Irvine is a fascinating one that – spoiler alert – stretches all the way to 1999 (and will certainly be the topic of a future issue of the newsletter). 

Attempts continued through the 1930s with no success, before being sidelined by World War II. The 1950s saw mountaineers return to the region. In 1953 the first documented, successful ascent was made by Tenzing Norgay, a Tibetan, and Edmund Hillary, of New Zealand. Neither man would take credit for making the first step at the top. On the way down, Hillary noted to another member of the expedition: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” Norgay and Hillary became international stars and mountain legends.

Tenzing Norgay at the summit of Everest in 1953 - photo by Edmund Hillary

Since the first ascent, thousands of people have climbed Everest. Hundreds have perished. Because of conditions on the mountain, bodies are often unable to be removed. Due to environmental conditions, corpses are often preserved and eerily watch the progress of those alive, sometimes becoming macabre landmarks along the way (one famous example is called Green Boots). 

The climbing season of 1996 is notable for its disaster. Fifteen people died during the year, including 8 in one summit attempt. The harrowing experience was documented by the fantastic writer, Jon Krakauer, in a book called Into Thin Air. Krakauer’s mix of climbing and literary expertise makes this tome (and many of his others) essential reading for anyone interested in mountains or adventure. Another survivor, Beck Weathers, wrote about the climb. Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest features some of the most incredible survival tidbits I’ve ever encountered.

Any discussion on Everest would be remiss to omit the importance of Sherpas. They are natives to the region, who are incredibly adapted for high-altitude climes. Non-natives often make the headlines, but the Sherpas are the real deal on the mountain. They carry gear, they set lines, they make it possible for those of us who come from all over the world to make the attempt on Everest. They usually do so without fanfare. 

What does not go without fanfare is the mystique and beauty of the world’s highest mountain. As long as humans exist we will be called to earth’s highest point, beckoned by a dream to stand on top of the world.

Sherpas carrying heavy loads to Camp Four on the South Col, 25,000 feet above seal level, safeguarded by fixed ropes on Everest’s “Yellow Band,” May 9, 1996 - Photo © Jon Krakauer
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