Expeditions Peaks

Mount Everest – The Ultimate Expedition

Written by Maqsood A. Rahim

Mount Everest

Peak name: Mount Everest, Survey Mark XV, Sagarmatha (Nepali), Chomolungma (Tibetian), Zhumulangma (Chinese)

Height: 8848m (29029 ft.)

Location: On Nepal and Tibet border in Himalayan Range, Asia.

Mount Everest attracts climbers worldwide. The novices are more enthusiastic to experience the thrill of the first climb. The more experienced ones improve their feats and guide the new comers. A greater number come to Everest as it is far safer to climb as compared to K2 or Nanga Parbat. Still there are risky zones and allied dangers posed by climatic conditions, winds, altitude sickness above 8000m. The climbing season starts before the monsoons, when the wind speeds are less so reduce resultant risks.

 sPhoto by bigtrip2005

Mountaineering on the highest peak is very costly. The experienced guides charge heavy fees for a turnaround climb. The Nepal government has fixed permit fee of US$ 25’000 per person. It is a good revenue source. The Everest has been summited by about 3’000 individuals so far Although less difficult still about 200 persons died, mostly while descending. Retrieving bodies from death zone is simply impossible. They stay there where they fall and are often visible from climbing routes.

The Great Trigonometric Survey (GTS)

A survey of India was conducted to establish the highest mountain. They determined in 1856 the height of Mount Everest as 29’002 ft. (8840m.). In 2005, another accurate survey fixed the rock top level at 29’017 ft. The ice and snow topping was 3.5m. The final height totaled 29’029 ft. (8848m).

The GTS started in 1808 from Southern India. The team was equipped with 500 kg theodolites, carried by 12 men each. They reached Himalayas by 1830. Nepal refused entry for political reasons and did not budge. British resumed survey in 1847 from border locations 240 km away. Till then Mount Kangchenjunga was considered the highest. The British Surveyor General noted a higher peak 230km away. He marked it peak XV. This find started a series of detailed observations, months long calculations and verifications. In 1852, an Indian mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, was first to declare peak XV highest in the World. After more study, the British also confirmed in 1856 that peak XV was highest.

For comparative analysis, MOUNT MAUNA KEA in Hawaii and MOUNT McKINLEY in Alaska are taller than Everest when measured from sea bed. Mount Mauna Kea totals 10200m, but it is only 4205m above sea level.

Naming the Peak XV

The British surveyors became prejudiced as they were not allowed to enter Nepal. So they ignored Nepali and Tibetan local names, although against the rules of GTS. After much debating, it was proposed to name the peak XV after Colonel Sir George Everest, as Mount Everest. The Royal Geographic Society officially adapted this name in 1865.

Everest Climbing Routes – Mainly Two

•    The Southeast Ridge from Nepal, technically easy and mostly preferred.
•    The Northern Ridge from Tibet, China, seldom used.

Southeast Ridge

This route was discovered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing in 1953. A Base Camp was setup at 5380m (17700 ft) on South side. Air travelers fly to Lukla (2860m) from Kathmandu and trek to Base Camp in 6 / 8 days. The equipments are carried by Yaks or porters. The climbers acclimatize for a few days while Sherpas set ropes across dangerous Khumbu Icefalls. Seracs, Crevices and shifting ice blocks have killed many sherpas. Climbers move before dawn to reach Lhotse face Advance Base Camp (ABC) at 6500m. They cross near Nuptse Base via the narrow passage or “Nuptse Corner” or “Valley of Silence”. From ABC, fixed ropes are used to reach Camp III (7470m.) A quick trot of 500m to Camp IV, crossing “Geneva Spur” and “Yellow Band”, (inter-layered marble e.t.c). On the South Col at 7920m (26000ft.) or “Death Zone”.

Now the climbers have just a few days to attempt summit bid as soon the weather is favorable or descend to Base Camp. From Camp IV, climbers move at mid-night so as to reach summit by mid day. On the way they pass “Balcony (8400m)” for brief rest and to see serene view of peaks and valleys around. Further up they cross rock steps with waist deep snow and serious avalanche hazards. At 8750m South Summit is indicated by a Dome of Ice. Then “Cornice Traverse” where snow clings between rocks. One wrong step on this dangerous portion, to the right means a fall of 3000m on Kangshung face while one step to left means 2400m down the Southwest face. The final obstacle is the 12 meter rock wall or Hillary step at 8760m. Ahead is easy climb to the Summit. Climbers have about half an hour stay to enjoy success before commencing a tough descend.

Northeast Ridge

The Northeast Ridge route starts on North side Tibet. Rongbuk Glacier is traversed to reach Base Camp at 5180m. Climbers ascend Glacier up to base of Changtse for Camp II at 6100m. Camp III (ABC) is at North Col 6500m. Camp IV at 7010m is reached by fixed ropes. Onwards ascends the rocky ridge to Camp V at 7775m. The route crosses the North Face to base of “Yellow Band” and reach Camp VI at 8230m (27000 ft.). The next difficult traverses are First Step 27890-28000 ft, Second Step 28140-28300 ft (includes climbing by metal “Chinese Ladder” left in 1975) and Third Step 28510-28870 ft. From here 50 degree snow slope takes to the final Summit top.

Early Climbing History

  • In 1921, George Mallory explored Everest base, discovered northern approach making a non-serious attempt  climbed up to 7000m.
  • In 1922, George Finch reached 8320m using bottled oxygen.
  • In 1924, Mallory and Bruce attempted but failed by weather.
  • In 1924, again Norton and Somervell climbed 8558m in good weather.
  • On 8th June 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine went via North Col. – and Never Returned.
  • In 1952, Swiss expedition led by Edouard Wyss – Dunant reached Khumbu Icefall and ascended South Col. To 7986m.
  • In 1953, British Expedition led by John Hunt. Tom Bourbillon and Charles Evans were just 100m short of Summit, but returned exhausted on 26th May, 1953. Two days later Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa) reached Summit at 11:30 am on 29th May 1953. British Queen Elizabeth II immediately made him Knight in the Order of the British Empire (KBE) and Tenzing was awarded George Medal by UK. John Hunt was made a life Peer in Britain.

First attempt without Oxygen

On 8th May 1978, Reinhold Messner (Italy) and Peter Habeler (Austria) Summited successfully, without oxygen. On 20th August, 1980 Messner went solo, without help and oxygen for the first time via the more difficult Northwest route successfully.


Climbing Mt. Everest without (bottled) oxygen. Sometime between 1 and 2 in the afternoon on May 8, 1978, Messner and Peter Habeler achieved what was believed to be impossible — the first ascent of Mt. Everest

First Winter Ascend

In 1980, Polish team led by Andrzej Zawada, Leszek Cichy, and Krzysztof Wielicki became the first to reach Summit during the winter season.

Disaster 1996

In 1996 season 15 climbers died while descending. Eight of them died on 11th May alone. Reportedly oxygen level in the air fell suddenly by 14% on that day. This disaster was given worldwide coverage by all media.

Rescue Controversy

In 2006, a climber got stranded 450m below Summit, under an over hung rock. No one attempted his rescue. When descending, people are tired low on oxygen and lack strength for pull up. Any rescue attempting physically unfit could end in more deaths. Sometime later an Australian climber Lincoln Hall was rescued by ascending four climbers. But they had to give up their Summit attempt. Therefore, fully equipped Sherpa Rescue teams are essential, for retrieving the injured and disabled.

2008 Summer Olympic Torch Summit

China has recently constructed a l30 km long road from its Tingri County to Base Camp on Northeast route. China also routed 2008 Olympic Torch Relay over the Everest, on way to Beijing.

Death Zone

The term death zone applies to altitudes higher than 8000m (26246 ft). The potential risks are increased. Oxygen level in air is reduced by 30%. The storms are stronger exposing climbers to death by slipping and falling. The temperatures can fall suddenly resulting in frost bites. The high winds could last days causing survival problems and make retreat difficult. An injured person cannot walk, impossible to be carried by climbers or by helicopter. The left behind 150 dead bodies so far, cannot be retrieved and can be seen lying frozen below along the climbing routes.

Using Bottled Oxygen

Above 8000m use of Oxygen is considered a standard. Climbers need mental alertness in low oxygen air, low temperatures and tough weathers. The critics claim that oxygen encourages immature climbers to take chances risking their own and others lives. On the day of disaster, of 11th May 1996, there were 34 climbers jammed at Hillary Step (8760m) that delayed all.

Thefts and other Crimes

Reports of theft of supplies during climbing are repeating and could be life threatening. Michael Kolas in his book, High Crimes, details gambling and prostitution by unethical guides and Sherpa are taking place enroute to Summit, including frauds in sale of oxygen bottles.

Records of Successful Ultimate Climbers

  • The youngest Summiter-15 year old Nepali Sherpa girl, Ming Kipa.
  • The youngest non-Nepali 17 year old Malibu resident Johnny Strange (2009)
  • Apa Sherpa has climbed maximum, 19 times till May 2009
  • The oldest climber 76 years old Min Bahadur Sherchan (25th May 2009)
  • The fastest ascend in 2007, Austrian Christian Stangl, from Camp III to Summit, 10 km distance in 16 hours and 42 minutes.
  • The fastest ascend over Southeast Ridge, 17 km by a French Marc Batard in 22 hours and 30 minutes (in 1988).
  • The fastest ascend over Southeast Ridge, 17 km by a Nepali Pemba Dorjie Sherpa in 8 hours and 10 minutes, using oxygen (2004).

Animal Life at high altitude

Climbers have spotted a black jumping Spider at about 7000m in Crevices feeding on probably stray insects pushed up by high winds. Birds seen include Chough and Bar-headed, Goose probably living on food and even corpses left behind.

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Maqsood A. Rahim

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