For centuries, 29,035-foot Mt. Everest has captured the human imagination. First, it was considered sacred by the Nepalese who lived at its base. Later, when the British discovered it to be the highest point in the world, it took on a whole new meaning for people of every nation. As with all superlatives—the longest river, the biggest wave, the steepest rock face—the tallest mountain has since attracted hordes of mountaineers who are driven by the desire to stand on top of the world.
The Great Trigonometric Survey of British India originally spotted the mountain from Darjeeling, India, in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal, nearly 140 miles away. They first named it 'Gamma,' then 'Peak XV,' and finally, in 1865, they settled on 'Mount Everest,' a name that seems to evoke how the mountain stretches ever higher into the heavens, but was actually after Surveyor General Sir George Everest. Local names, however, are more imaginative. The Tibetans call it 'Chomolunga' (Goddess Mother of the World), and the Nepalese know it as 'Sagarmatha' (Ocean Mother/ Head of the Sky).
In 1856, the British Royal Geographic Society declared the summit of Everest to be 29,002 feet, despite the fact that the actual calculation—settled on after years of double-checking for accuracy—was exactly 29,000 feet. The extra two feet were added on arbitrarily so the world wouldn’t think they were estimating. Nowadays, the widely accepted summit is 29,035 feet, but even that may not be accurate (see the next slide).
Using GPS instruments, scientists have calculated that Everest rises a fraction of an inch, and moves a few inches to the northeast, each year. Coupled with the changing snow on Everest’s peak—which can rise as high as 20 feet during monsoon season—the exact height is a moving target.
The Khumbu Icefall, a glacier on the Nepalese side of Everest, is the deadliest zone on the mountain. Covering some 1,800 vertical feet, it houses crevasses as deep as a 12-story-skyscraper, which climbers cross on fixed ropes and ladders. More than 60 people have died to date in the Icefall, killed by falling ice, collapsing seracs and falls into the ever-shifting crevasses.
There’s a big difference between ‘Sherpa’ and ‘sherpa.’ The former refers to an ethnic group living in the Khumbu region of Nepal; while the lowercase latter is the generic term for porters and guides in the Himalayas, which come from a variety of regional castes.
470 million years ago, well before tectonic plates collided, giving rise to the Himalayas, the gray limestone comprising Mt. Everest’s summit was part of the seafloor. Nowadays, as it overlooks the roof of the world, small marine vertebrate fossils can be found on Everest’s frozen flanks.
With 21 summits to his name, Apa Sherpa holds the record for most ascents of Everest. It's no wonder they call him "Super Sherpa," and that we named him to our Active Times 50.
A basic permit costs $8,000 on the Tibetan side, and $10,000 on the Nepalese. From there, independent expeditions—no guides or sherpas—can stay as low as $30K. But the vast majority of today’s mountaineers use sherpas as porters and guides, as well as western expedition guides, which can hike the price up to $65K. For larger groups, the bill can run as high as $100K. And, yes, these numbers are all per person.
A slew of records have been set on Everest:
• American Jordan Romero, 13, became the youngest to summit in May of 2010.
• Nepalese Bahadur Shcerchan, 76, became the oldest on May 26, 2008.
• Erik Weihenmayer, legally blind, summited on May 26, 2001.
• Chhurim, a Nepalese Sherpa, summited twice last May—in the same week.
• Lakpa Gyelu, 35, holds the record for fastest ascent at 10 hours and 56 minutes. But perhaps the most impressive record set was in 1978, when Italian climber Reinhold Messner (pictured) claimed first summit without supplemental oxygen, silencing the disbelievers. He repeated the feat two years later, setting yet another record by doing it solo.
On the Tibetan side there are three camps between Base Camp and the summit; on the Nepalese side, there are four. These pit stops are for much more than rest. In a process known as acclimatization, prospective summiteers will spend weeks climbing up to the summit in increments, in order to build their red-blood cell count (oxygen-rich molecules in our blood stream) to the thinning altitude.
There are many ways to die on Everest: exhaustion, falling rock or ice, crevasse breaks, icefall collapses, illness and acute mountain sickness, to name just a few. But the three leading causes of death—falling, avalanches and exposure/frostbite (in order)—account for more than 50% of the estimated 297 people who’ve perished on the mountain.
Many tons of tents, empty oxygen cylinders, batteries, ropes, packaging, medicine, equipment and other detritus have been abandoned on the mountain. Entire expeditions are occasionally assembled to clean up the garbage, and locals have ‘upcycled’ up to 8 tons of it into art that raises awareness about the big mountain’s big litter problem.
An estimated 225 corpses remain frozen on Everest’s lofty flanks. That's because it costs up to $30,000—not to mention considerable risk to removal parties—to bring a body down from the so-called "Death Zone" to where a helicopter can remove it from the mountain. Most bodies are simply removed from view of the main routes and, if possible, buried. A few, however, remain in sight and have become grim waypoints along the way that climbers use to judge how close they are to the summit.
Today, Everest is a well-known destination for adventure-hungry climbers, but it hasn't always been accessible. The Dalai Lama only allowed foreigners into Tibet in 1920. China reversed the measure upon invading Tibet in 1950, and Nepal responded the same year by opening its borders to foreigners, leading to the famous Hillary/Norgay first summit in 1953.
In 2010, the Nepalese government denied a move to spread Sir Edmund Hillary’s ashes on the summit. The local Lama even stepped in to halt the act of publicity on what they consider a holy site.
For the last (and hardest) 6,000 feet of Everest, you’re really on your own. Not even the best-equipped rescue helicopters can fly above 23,000 feet. To stay aloft in the thin air, they'll often lighten their loads by carrying as little as eight gallons of fuel, restricting their total flight time to around 20 minutes.
In 1924—30 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s famed 'first summit'—George Mallory and Andrew Irvine set out to conquer Everest, only to die trying. Mallory’s body has since been found, but nobody's sure whether the two died on the ascent, or if they made the first-ever summit. Irvine’s corpse is still lost and, with him, his camera. Many believe that the answer of who was first likely lies behind its frozen aperture. For now, though, the mystery abides.
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