Climbing history of Mount Everest
There is quite a lot of books and also internet pages describing the climbing history of Mount Everest. We would like to restrict ourselves to a couple of important topics. Our perspective will mainly be focused on the north side.
The discovery of the world's highest mountain
The detailed survey of the summits of the Himayalas by British surveyors between 1847 and 1854 was not an easy task, since Nepal was closed to foreigners. The high mountains were measured from distances of sometimes more than 200 km. In the year 1856, as one of the result it was clear that Peak XV, with a height of 29002 feet, had to be the world's highest mountain. Unaware of local names, Surveyor General Andrew Waugh proposed to name the mountain after his predecessor, George Everest. This name prevailed until today, although the mountain has two local names - Chomolungma in Tibetan, Sagarmatha in Nepali.
Taking the technical means of the 19th century into consideration, the precision of the surveys of that time is astonishing - the altitude computed in 1856 differs from the latest survey (8850 m) only by 10 meters. Until middle of the 30s, time and again there are rumours about mountains higher than Everest. Candidates were Nyenchentangla, which later turned out to be only 7162 m high, and also Minya Konka (7556 m). The latter enjoyed(?) a visit by us last year, see Minya Konka 2001.
Around the turn of the century, the first good photographs of Mount Everest are made. It takes until the twenties until a first expedition reaches the area. The reconnaissance of 1921 can find a feasible way to the north ridge and can clarify the topography which was very unclear till then. The British expedition of 1922 is thwarted by bad weather but reaches an altitude of 27300 feet (8320 m).
More British expeditions are visiting the mountain in the thirties. The extraordinarily bad weather doesn't allow a summit success in 1933. Frank Smythe reaches the same altitude as Norton in 1924.
After world war II, Tibet was no more accessible for western visitors. After a - once again British - reconnaissance expedition in 1951, a Swiss expedition takes the route through the Khumbu icefall but must turn back only 300 meters below the summit. The British expedition of 1953 finally is successful - Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reach the summit on May 29, 1953. Three years later, a Swiss expedition carries out the second summit climb.
In 1960, a gigantic Chinese expedition with more than 200 members tries to reach the summit on the north route. Three participants reach the summit in the middle of the night. Due to the lack of evidence and the very ideologically formulated reports there was a long dispute about this climb, but meanwhile it is generally accepted.
In 1963, the Americans Unsoeld and Hornbein master the thirs route, the west ridge. This expedition also makes the first traverse of the summit (from the west ridge to the south ridge).
In 1975 there is another Chinese expedition on the north side. They erect the famous tripod on the summit which serves as a survey mark. The Tibetan Phantog is the second woman on the summit, only eleven days after Japanese Junko Tabei who ascended on the south route. The Chinese expedition of 1975 also puts up the ladder at the second step.
In 1978, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler can prove that the summit can be reached without artificial oxygen. By far a less known fact is that already in fall of that year, Hans Engl reaches the summit as the first German without additional oxygen.
In 1983, an American expedition climbs the huge east face.
Since then the mountain was climbed on more than a dozen different routes. The numbers of climbers on these - often exotic, very difficult and/or dangerous - routes, however, are marginal compared to the normal routes.
During the 90s, a kind of mass tourism developped on the two main routes. In order to contrast with the masses, many believed (and believe) that they have to set up a record. There were ski and snowboard descents from the summit, and many more things. The youngest climber gets younger and younger, and the oldest climber gets older and older. It seemed that everybody - just by spending enough money - could reach the summit. The sufficient criterion seemed to be having climbed a 4000 m peak before. If not, having seen a 5000 m peak might qualify as well... These climbs have no alpinistic motivation - for many, Mount Everest has degraded to a tool to compete in vanity. A pity, since the unique height gives an interesting touch. It should be enough if only those who are interested in the mountain would go there.
Already before the disaster of 1996 it was clear that the idea of a summit success for every paying client was only an illusion. No 8000 m peak can be climbed without any risk. Mountaineering experience reduces the risk, but it can never be made zero.
Probably it is only a matter of time until the first climber will summit with water wings or something comparably stupid. Just because nobody before did it. But, this will not be one of us; we want - with a bit of luck - to climb this mountain in the fairest possible way. What fairness is, what might me unnecessary and what really is important, is everybody's own decision in the end.
© 2002 Hartmut Bielefeldt
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