The 100 years of fate and death of Everest on the roof of the world

(CNN) – It’s a fact that all schoolchildren know: Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world.

It’s a truth that seems old and inevitable, an unassailable certainty that attracts hundreds of mountaineers each year to attempt the summit – because, in the words of George Mallory, one of the first mountaineers to conquer it, “he is here”.

However, this fascination with the mountain whose historical Tibetan name is Qomolangma (“Holy Mother”) is a modern phenomenon and the first mission to reconnoitre its slopes was completed just a century ago, on October 25, 1921.

It’s the story of how Mount Everest became the ultimate adventure challenge of our time.

Become the greatest

In the 19th century, the British Empire was a global industrial superpower, geared towards exploration and mastery. Places, people, and even time itself – a standardized time system was first introduced on British railways in 1847 – all had to be classified and measured.

The Great Trigonometrical Survey was a 70-year project of the East India Company that applied this scientific precision to the Indian subcontinent, demarcating the British territories in India and the height of the Himalayan peaks.

There had been a number of former contenders for the title of “highest mountain in the world”: the Chimborazo in the Andes. Nanda Devi and Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas.

It was in 1856 that the ancient XV peak – soon to be Mount Everest – was officially declared to be the world’s tallest mountain above sea level, at 29,002 feet (8,839.8 meters. Its official height is now a little higher – 8,849). meters).

Acquire an English name

“People have been waiting for years to measure some of these peaks because it seemed then that no one had any way to reach them, let alone climb them,” says Craig Storti, author of “The Hunt for Mount Everest” , published this month.

Peak XV was on the border of Nepal and Tibet (now an autonomous region of China) and both were closed to foreigners.

The height of the mountain was calculated through a series of triangulation measurements taken some 170 kilometers from Darjeeling, India.

Andrew Waugh, British Surveyor General of India, successfully argued that as both countries were inaccessible a local name could not be found and that Peak XV was to be named after his predecessor in the role, George Everest.

Everest, who initially opposed the honor bestowed upon him, was not directly involved in the discovery of the mountain and never had the opportunity to see it. (By the way, we said it wrong: his last name was pronounced “Eev-rest”).

Openness to foreigners

It is believed that the human history of Everest began around 925 with the construction of the Rongkuk Monastery on the north side of the mountain, Storti writes. But the first known attempt at ascension was the British Reconnaissance Expedition which set out in 1921.

The Lhasa Convention of 1904, following the British invasion led by Francis Younghusband, was the trade deal that formed the wedge for the British to enter Tibet.

The 1921 expedition was led by Anglo-Irish explorer Charles Howard-Bury and included George Mallory, who would die on an Everest expedition in 1924, his remains not being recovered until 75 years later.

The golden age of mountaineering

In Europe, mountaineering took off as a sport – rather than a practical, political or spiritual activity – in the 18th century. In the middle of the 19th century – the “golden age” of mountaineering – the high peaks of the Alps were all climbed, from Mont Blanc to the Mattherhorn.

At the end of the 19th century, attention also turned to the Americas and Africa, but the ultimate and greatest challenge remained the Himalayas.

An Englishman named Albert F. Mummery was the western pioneer in South Asia, perishing on the Nanga Parbat in 1895.

According to Storti, “The confluence of maturing mountaineering and Britain’s presence in India led (it was almost almost) inevitable that the inhabitants of a small island nation would dominate Himalayan mountaineering for many years. years. “

Work on the route

During the first three decades of the Everest expeditions, climbers approached the summit from the north side, which is a significantly more difficult climb.

The first reconnaissance mission set out from Darjeeling on May 18, 1921 for what would last five months and set the stage for a century of mountaineers to follow.

Today, the adventurers are approaching from the south, where, Storti says, most of the trip is a “fairly easy climb up the mountain, not technically difficult at all. People with very little climbing experience can fork out. $ 60,000 and have a good chance of making it to the top as long as the weather permits and the Sherpas take care of it. ”

Gaby Pilson, outdoor educator and rock climbing instructor at Outforia, told CNN Travel that “One of the major breakthroughs was the creation of a team of highly skilled Nepalese climbers known as Icefall Doctors in 1997 .

“The stunt medics are establishing a route through the Khumbu Icefall, which is one of the most dangerous sections of the popular South Pass Route. Without them, the number of commercial expeditions to Everest each year would not be as high as it is today However, many Nepalese doctors, guides and icefall porters have lost their lives in recent years while working in this dangerous section of the mountain.

George Everest (1790-1866) was Surveyor General of the Indies from 1830 to 1843.

Royal Geographical Society / Getty Images

Learn how humans do at altitude

One of the men on the 1921 expedition was Scottish chemist Alexander Kellas, whose previous pioneering work on high altitude physiology was crucial to the future of Himalayan engineering.

At the start of the 20th century, very little was known about the effects on the body, because “no one had been this high before,” says Storti.

Kellas, an experienced mountaineer, was part of the Everest reconnaissance mission but died of heart problems just a day’s walk before reaching the mountain.

According to Storti, “He was content to do his job quietly, became an expert in elevation and the effects on the human body, (and) achieved some of the most spectacular climbs of his generation.”

According to Pilson, “The greatest physiological challenge of climbing Mount Everest is the negative effects of high altitude climbing on the human body.

Prolonged exposure can cause dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea, and shortness of breath, among other signs and symptoms. Even when a mountaineer isn’t feeling particularly sick, most mountaineers need to stop for a few breaths after each step when climbing the highest slopes of Everest. ”

Climbers did not use oxygen at all on early expeditions, but today they “have access to improved mask designs and regulators,” Pilson explains. “But, even then, mountaineers still have issues with freezing oxygen masks and regulators, making high altitude climbing risky.”

Pilson adds: “The other major physical challenge to climbing Everest is the time it takes to reach the top of the mountain. Most climbers spend months on the mountain setting up intermediate campsites along their route. . ”

Mountaineers descending from the summit of Mount Everest in June 2021.

Mountaineers descending from the summit of Mount Everest in June 2021.

Sherpa Lakpa / AFP / Getty Images

Development of specialized clothing and equipment

It is said that when Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw saw a photo of the 1921 Reconnaissance Expedition, dressed in their simple clothes of wool, cotton and silk, he described them as looking like a “picnic of the Connemara surprised by a snowstorm “.

According to Storti, “The climbing gear was very primitive, so was the clothing. The boots were fabric, not leather. And so if storms did occur – the main risk on Everest is the weather not the terrain, except from the north – they are at risk of severe frostbite. ”

Pilson says there have been a number of major technological developments in equipment between the 1920s and now, primarily in clothing and climbing gear. “Modern advancements in fabric design and synthetic insulation have really been a game-changer in mountaineering. The waterproof-breathable fabrics we take for granted today, like Gore-Tex, were truly revolutionary when they arrived. on the market in the late 1960s. “

As for the equipment, “Mallory and his fellow climbers used hemp ropes, spiked boots, wooden ice axes and metal pitons to climb,” Pilson explains. “It was state of the art equipment in the 1920s, but it can’t perform as well as the nylon ropes, crampons and metal ice axes we use today.”

Everest in the 21st century

Another climber has died after reaching the summit of Mount Everest, bringing the death toll for the 2019 climbing season to 11. American Christopher John Kulish, 61, has died after reaching the summit of Everest on the Nepalese side of the mountain, the director of Nepal’s tourism department told CNN.

While the 1921 expedition did not attempt a summit, it certainly paved the way for the first successful ascent in 1953, led by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary – and many more that followed.

“Everest is now one of the most popular great mountains in the world to climb, and with it comes an influx of money and infrastructure into the region,” Pilson said.

“However, the popularity of Everest has its own challenges. Overcrowding on the South Pass route is a real problem, as is the large amounts of garbage on the mountain.”

Too many people on Everest has in the past resulted in tragedy. On May 11, 1996, 12 people died after blizzards closed on climbers, some of whom had been delayed in their ascent due to the queue.

Climate change is also a concern. Says Pilson, “There are already concerns about how warming temperatures could further destabilize the Khumbu Icefall, making its crossing more dangerous.”

Despite the dangers, Mount Everest’s fascination with mountaineers shows no sign of abating 100 years after this first expedition. Its deadly allure will undoubtedly inspire generations of adventurers to come.

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