EVEREST: THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE
“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?” - Robert Browning
Iceland CEO Malcolm Walker writes:
I was seven years old in 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to stand on the summit of Everest and live to tell the tale. They actually reached the top on 29 May, but the quality of communications in those days meant that the news was not broken until The Times ran the story on 2 June, the day of the Queen’s Coronation. Hillary was a New Zealander and Tenzing a Nepalese Sherpa, but they were the representatives of a British expedition and their success added lustre to a truly great day for national morale. Everyone had a sense of history being made, and it seemed that anything might be possible for Britain as it entered its new Elizabethan age. Like the American moon landings 16 years later, it was one of those moments of exploration history that people remember for the rest of their lives.
I can’t say that it fired an instant desire in me to climb Everest, but it was always there in the back of my mind as the ultimate challenge. So when my pal Graham Kirkham took me to the North Pole in 2009 and David Hempleman-Adams suggested that it might be within my grasp, I did not see how I could turn the chance down.
As it happens, more people have stood on the summit of Everest than at the North Pole, but the physical challenges are rather different. The main risk on our Polar expedition was the age of the Russian helicopter that flew us there. On Everest, there is extreme altitude, intense cold and the associated risks of frostbite, hypothermia and snow blindness, plus the ever-present danger of avalanches and the intense physical effort needed to attempt the final push to the summit after many weeks of acclimatisation.
My son Richard and I made our first high altitude climb only in January 2011, when we successfully reached the summit of Kilimanjaro at 19,341ft (5,895m). Given our lack of experience, we have set ourselves the responsible personal objective of reaching the North Col of Everest at 23,031ft (7,020m) while our team of practised climbers takes responsibility for planting the Iceland Foods flag at the summit.
How high?Everest has been recognised as the world’s highest peak since 1852, when the British trigonometric survey of India calculated its height as exactly 29,000ft – though that sounded such a suspiciously round number that the officially published figure that held sway until my schooldays was 29,002ft. Modern science has now refined that to 29,029ft or 8,848m, though debate continues about whether it is technically correct to include the estimated 11ft of snow covering the rock peak.
The shifting of the Asian tectonic plates means that the whole Himalayan range is increasing in height by an estimated 4 – 10cm a year, so clearly it will only become a bigger challenge the longer we leave it.
Why Everest?The mountain was named by the British Surveyor General of India, Paul Waugh, in honour of his predecessor and former boss Sir George Everest (who pronounced his name Eve-rist, while the mountain is universally known as Ever-est; just as well Waugh did not name it after himself or we’d still be arguing whether the right pronunciation was Mount Woff or Mount War).
Given the plethora of lakes, peaks, points and waterfalls named after Queen Victoria and her family, it seems slightly strange that the highest point on the planet should have been named after such a comparatively obscure imperial functionary, and that the name should have stuck for so long.
Being a pretty striking feature of the local landscape, Everest naturally had a name before the British Empire happened along. It was most commonly known by the Tibetans as Chomolungma, often translated as “Mother Goddess of the Earth”. Though, since “chomo” apparently means “cow”, a more prosaic, literal translation seems to be “lady cow” (anyone ever met a gentleman cow?)
Perhaps surprisingly, far from trampling all over local traditions, the British surveyors tried to use established names wherever possible, but the fact that both Tibet and Nepal were closed to foreigners at the time meant that the local names for what became Mount Everest passed them by. So, despite the opposition of Sir George Everest himself, his name was officially adopted for the mountain by the Royal Geographical Society in 1865.
Who first caught the Everest bug?
Around the same time that the British surveyors were having their giant theodolites lugged around the plains of India, tweed-clad British gentlemen were discovering the joys of mountaineering in the Alps. One of their number, the surgeon Clinton Thomas Dent, is generally credited with being the first person to suggest that an ascent of Everest might be feasible in his 1885 book, Above the Snow Line.
Mallory and Irvine
The first serious Western attempts to climb Everest came in the three British expeditions led from the Nepalese side by George Mallory between 1921 and 1924. The use of bottled oxygen by George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce, who reached 25,500ft on the expedition of 1922, was condemned as “unsportsmanlike” by most climbers at the time – including Mallory himself, who changed his mind after concluding that it would not be possible to reach the summit without it.
On his third and final expedition of 1924 Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine were seen by a fellow member of the expedition on the summit ridge, fuelling decades of speculation about whether they had conquered the peak before their mysterious disappearance. This was only increased when Mallory’s well-preserved body was discovered by an expedition in 1999, since his pockets did not contain the photograph of his wife which, according to his daughter, he had pledged to leave behind on the summit. The body of Irvine remains to be found – along with the elusive camera that might yet contain proof of their achievement.
Mallory is famous for answering the question “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with the pithy “Because it’s there” – though admittedly, in some accounts, only because a journalist had irritated him with repeated stupid questions.
We do not know whether he would have had an equally memorable response to the question of whether the conquest of a mountain should be credited to the first person to reach the top, or the first also to return alive. But his son John pronounced that “To me the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is half done if you don't get down again” and Sir Edmund Hillary, unsurprisingly, often expressed similar opinions about the importance of getting down. Other famous mountaineers have likened reaching a summit and failing to make a safe descent to swimming to the middle of an ocean and drowning.
On the other hand, if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had perished on their way back from the Moon, would history have denied them the credit of being the first men there? Clearly photographic evidence makes the crucial difference.
From the Thirties to the Fifties
Further British Everest expeditions, this time from the Tibetan side of the mountain, were led by Hugh Ruttledge in 1933 and 1936, but did not get higher than 28,116ft. A true British eccentric called Maurice Wilson perished in a solo attempt to reach the summit in 1934. A further official British expedition in 1938, led by Bill Tilman, reached 27,000ft. Nepalese monks concluded that the summit of Everest must contain a golden cow which the foreigners wanted to take home.
After the little local difficulties of the Second World War, and the opening of Nepal’s borders to foreigners in 1950 (just as the Chinese closed down Tibet) the British returned in 1951 with an exploratory expedition led by Eric Shipton.
A Swiss expedition of 1952 set a new altitude record of 28,200ft, attained by Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay, moving expedition member AndrÈ Roch to comment that “The trouble with Everest is not that it is a very hard mountain. It is just a little bit too high.”
Hillary and Tenzing
The ninth British Everest expedition of 1953 finally cracked the summit at their second attempt at 11.30am on 29 May, after the initial summit party of Tom Bourdilon and Charles Evans had turned back 300ft short of their goal, but after blazing a trail and leaving additional supplies of oxygen for those who were to follow them. So Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay secured their place in history. Hillary and expedition leader John Hunt were honoured with knighthoods; Tenzing received the George Medal. Although presented at the time as a team effort, Tenzing later conceded that Hillary had been the first to put his foot on the summit. Only Tenzing appears in the photographs of their great achievement because, as Hillary explained, “Tenzing did not know how to operate the camera and the top of Everest was no place to start teaching him how to use it.”
From 1953 to 2011
After the British success in 1953, a Swiss expedition placed four men on the summit of Everest in 1956. A Chinese team claimed to have been the first to reach the summit from the Tibetan side in 1960. Junko Tabei of Japan became the first woman to climb Everest in 1975. After that the records become, perhaps, of more specialist interest, involving the pioneering of new routes or techniques. They include:
- 1978: first successful summit climb without oxygen by Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler.
- 1980: first winter ascent, completed 17 February by a team from Poland.
- 1980: first solo summit climb without oxygen by Reinhold Messner.
- 1988: first paraglider descent from the summit by Jean-Marc Boivin.
By 1993, climbing Everest had become popular enough to attract commercial expeditions. In 1996, 15 people died making summit attempts – eight of them on one day alone, 11 May. The sheer number of climbers on the mountain was beginning to create dangerous bottlenecks and delays, which combined with freak weather to cause the tragedy. Similar scenes of potentially fatal delays caused by long queues of under-qualified climbers featured in the 2006 Discovery Channel series Everest: Beyond the Limit which also revealed how many climbers had climbed past the dying British climber David Sharp on their ascent without making any attempt to rescue him. Sir Edmund Hillary commented that “I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying.”
So why climb Everest?A longer and perhaps more convincing rationale than George Mallory’s was provided by Mark Inglis, the double amputee from New Zealand who had already lost both his legs to frostbite while mountaineering, and who reached the summit on his two prosthetic limbs in 2006.
“Why Everest? Well, it’s the pinnacle, really. It’s the highest. And if you can stand on top of that hill, then the amount of power it can give you for the rest of your life is just … if you can do that, you can do anything.”
And why not climb Everest?The biggest drawback to taking up the Everest challenge is the far from insignificant risk of never coming back. The deaths of 216 people attempting to climb the mountain have been documented since 1922. Chillingly, some 150 bodies have never been recovered, and many of them remain exposed alongside the main climbing routes.
In the Death Zone above 8,000m or 26,000ft, climbers face conditions that represent the very limit of what it is humanly possible to endure. Temperatures on the summit average minus 30_C even in the climbing season, or below minus 50_C when the typical seasonal wind chill is taken into account (and can reach minus 73_C when the wind really gets up). Although I have had plenty of experience of industrial freezers running at minus 20_C, they do not come anywhere close to this.
At Death Zone temperatures, any exposed skin freezes instantly, carrying a high risk of losing fingers and toes (or worse) to frostbite. Atmospheric pressure is only a third of what it is at sea level, meaning that the air contains only around 30 per cent of the oxygen to which we are accustomed. As a result, the human body uses up its store of oxygen faster than breathing can replenish it, so that without supplementary oxygen the experience has been likened to being slowly choked, while at the same time trying to complete one of the hardest physical tasks imaginable. No wonder that many climbers experience hallucinations, and that so many succumb to “summit fever” – an absolute determination to reach the top when the only sane course is to turn back.
And if you do reach the summit, you face the daunting fact that 80 per cent of mountaineering accidents occur during the descent, when climbers are tired after the supreme effort of reaching the summit.
Are we mad?That must be for others to judge. All I can say is that nothing motivates me more strongly, in business and in my private life, than people telling me that something can’t be done. Indeed, for many years I had in my office the motto “Those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt me trying.” I’d love to think that I could make it to the summit myself. After all, I am only 65, the same age as Sir Ranulph Fiennes was when he became the oldest Briton to complete a successful climb of Everest in 2007. And we are both spring chickens compared with the current world record holder Min Bahadur Sherchan, who reached the summit on 25 May 2008 at the age of 76.
Nevertheless, I have been persuaded that it would be irresponsible and dangerous for someone with my very limited experience to commit myself to braving the Death Zone, which is why Richard and I have set ourselves the personal target of making it as far as the North Col – at 23,031ft (7,020m), still higher than the tallest peaks on every Continent apart from Asia.
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