Today, almost anyone with US$ 65,000 can be carried by guides to the world's highest peak. Thus already more than 2000 people have climbed it. But the statistic that for every 10 people who reach the summit one dies reminds us that opening the route has been one of the greatest challenges in History.
While high mountains had been climbed in antiquity, modern mountaineering was born in 1786, after Swiss naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure launched a prize for whomever get to climb the Mont Blanc, considered the highest in Europe. Soon famous peaks like Kilimanjaro in Africa, Aconcagua in South America and McKinley in Alaska have been scaled.
In 1852, Indian mathematician Radhanath Sickdhar discovered by trigonometry that a mountain beyond the border of Nepal rose nearly 8850 m, that is, it was the highest in the world. As its Tibetan name, Chomolungma, was not known, it was unusually named after an important British surveyor, George Everest.
In 1893 Francis Younghusband considered an expedition to Tibet to climb it, but by that time the country was closed to Westerners. Still, in 1913 John Noel secretly came to 65 km of Mount Everest, being able to identify its summit.
THE ROUTE BY THE NORTH SIDE
In 1921, the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club of London, as financiers and organizers, finally obtained the diplomatic permission. Led by Charles Howard-Bury, they explored the Himalayas, found a route that would get them closer to Everest and became the first humans to climb its slopes.
The climbing strategy was to establish a line of progressively higher camps, through which a caravan would carry equipment and supplies, returning to lower camps to regain strength and protection from the weather. The motto was "climb high, sleep low". As they were acclimating they could rise the mark a bit more. This plan was slow, requiring many supplies and was expensive, but it was safer.
As it needed much labor, they hired a local tribe called Sherpa.
So, on 24 September, George Mallory, Guy Bullock and surveyor Oliver Wheeler made it to a tiny and precarious plateau at 7066 meters of altitude: the North Col, a saddle where Mount Everest separates from Mount Changtse. But then the terrible wind stopped them.
The following year, led by Charlie Bruce, they succeeded in establishing five camps on the slopes, the last at 7772 m. On 27 May, physicist George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce reached 8320 m. On 7 June, the tragedy: an avalanche killed seven Sherpas.
In an interview published by the New York Times on 18 March 1923 ("Climbing Mount Everest is Work for Supermen"), Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. His straightforward reply became famous: the mere existence of such a possibility was sufficient enough reason to do so.
In 1924, again with Charlie Bruce as leader, they managed to establish six camps on the slopes, the highest at 8170 m. Thereafter, on 5 June Edward Norton climbed up to 8573 m, the highest place that a human being had ever accessed. Three days later Mallory and Andrew Irvine left for a second attempt. But evening came and they did not return, nor the next day. Years later, in 1933, another expedition found Irvine's ice ax. Mallory's frozen body was discovered only in 1999. His companion is still missing to this day.
Subsequent attempts were in 1933 (led by Hugh Ruttledge), 1935 (Eric Shipton), 1936 (Ruttledge) and 1938 (Harold Tilman), without surpassing Norton's mark.
Around this time the first "rich tourists" also came to Everest. Trying to climb almost singlehandedly, Maurice Wilson was frozen at 6000 meters altitude in 1934. In 1947, Earl Denman was saved because he mused to face a storm, at 6700 m.
THE ROUTE BY THE SOUTH SIDE
In 1950 China annexed Tibet and again the northern route was closed. Nepal agreed to open its territory, and from then on expeditions would be made through the south side of the mountain.
In 1951, led by Eric Shipton, they went up by the glacial (ice river) Khumbu, climbing a frozen waterfall, but then a huge crack in the ice stopped them.
In 1952 competition appeared: a Swiss expedition, led by Edouard Wyss-Dunant. These crossed the great Glacial crack with a rope bridge and climbed up to a precarious plateau, called South Col, a saddle located at 7880 m altitude, where Mount Everest separates from Mount Lhotse. From there Raymond Lambert and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay climbed to 8290 m, where they spent the night in miserable conditions. When they were getting as close as only 250 meters from the summit, on 28 May, a blizzard came upon them.
The Swiss waited for another chance, after the storms of summer (monsoon). Led by Gabriel Chevalley, again they reached the South Col. They climbed 90 meters more, but the mountain killed a Sherpa, the weather worsened and all returned.
In 1953, the annual permit was again granted to the Royal Geographical Society. John Hunt was elected leader, and him, with the help of medical doctors, preselected the pairings Edmund Hillary with Tenzing Norgay and physicist Tom Bourdillon with Dr. Charles Evans for the summit. On 10 March everybody departed from Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, with 8300 kg of equipment and supplies distributed on the shoulders of 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides and 15 climbers, for a 280 km trek to the Everest foothill. They stopped for three weeks in the monastery of Thyangboche, at 3658 m, to acclimatize.
Base Camp was established on 12 April, near the icefall of the Khumbu Glacier. They set up the second camp in the frozen waterfall itself, although it was too dangerous and it was abandoned. The third camp was placed above the Frozen Waterfall; the fourth, which they called Advanced Base, at 6460 m, reaching the Circus (frozen lake) Occidental. From there they changed direction slightly: instead of climbing straight up the slope of Mount Everest, first they went up the slope of Mount Lhotse, and then from here they would cross the South Col back to Everest, a maneuver that would place them at nearly 8000 m of altitude. Thus, via three more camps, they managed to lift 345 kg of cargo, including three tents, to what would be Camp 8 on the South Col.
THE LAST 300 METERS
Hunt decided to prepare a ninth camp, this one advancing over Everest. On 26 May they carried its first cargo up to 8340 m. Hunt and Da Namgyal donated their own oxygen apparatus and returned to Camp 8 on South Col without this help. Upon arrival back down to this previous camp, Hunt fainted. Bourdillon & Evans, who were equipped with oxygen apparatus of high-performance, continued up as high as possible. With a supreme effort they reached the South Summit (8751 m) at 1:00 P. M. of that day. Bourdillon, the younger fellow, insisted on going on and advanced a little longer, but then he heard Evans: if you were not in Camp 8 on the South Col before nightfall, you could die. The next mission for these four people would be to get off the mountain: their exhaustion was irreversible.
From below the final team had arrived: George Lowe, Alfred Gregory, Ang Nyima, Tenzing and Hillary. No one else after them was able to get up to the South Col. The party left it on 28 May with the second cargo, and at 8500 m founded Camp 9: a tent, a kerosene stove, a pressure cooker, food, two sleeping bags and oxygen tanks. Its inhabitants would be Tenzing and Hillary. Meanwhile, the rest returned down.
Hillary, 33 and 1,95 m, was a former beekeeper whose love for Nature led him to explore the Alps of his native New Zealand. He was a veteran of the 1951 expedition.
Tenzing, 39, was a former high-mountain shepherd hired by the expeditions of 1935, 1936 and 1938. Then he was named foreman of the Sherpas by the Swiss.
At 3:30 A. M. Tenzing and Hillary woke up. ("Tiger of the Snows", copyright 1955 by Tenzing Norgay and James Ramsey Ullman, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York. Condensed in "The Great Books of Selections, I. Collection of 21 works of success", Reader's Digest Mexico, Mexico City, 1962 ). They fed almost by force, because their digestive systems were almost unresponsive, and melted snow for hydration, as much as they could. They put their equipment on and at 6:30 the pair left the tent: the wind, which had howled all night, was stopping, and the sky was clear. Now the success of the expedition depended on these two men. They reached the South Summit at 9 A. M.. Shortly thereafter they found the final hurdle to the summit: a rock wall, vertical, of 17 m. On one side a patch of ice was attached to the rock, and they got between it and the wall to climb. They continued. The mountain was becoming more and more narrow. At this point, by looking at the sides they began to see Tibet, which was to the north side. Joined by a rope, they continued opening footsteps in the ice with ax strikes, until at 11:30 A. M on 29 May 1953, they looked up and saw a last mound of snow of a few meters in diameter. Next, it was just walking a few steps to place their feet on top of the world.
They had achieved victory and hugged each other vigorously. Then Hillary began documenting with his camera: a human on the summit (Tenzing), and the north, south, east and west slopes of the mountain where they were standing. The Sherpa made an offering of candies to the mountain and buried in the snow a color pencil commended by his little daughter. The Westerner left the crucifix of the expedition leader. For the first time in their lives, if they wanted to see mountains they should not look up, but downwards. And right there, the Sherpa spoke to Chomolungma thanking her.
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