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

(CNN) – It’s a fact that every schoolboy knows: Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world.

It is a truth that seems ancient and unavoidable, an impenetrable certainty that attracts hundreds of climbers to attempt the summit each year – because, in the words of George Mallory, one of the first climbers to conquer it, ” It’s there.”

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

This is the story of how Mount Everest became the ultimate adventure challenge of our era.

to be the tallest

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

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

There were several former contenders for the title of “highest mountain in the world”: Chimborazo in the Andes. Nanda Devi and Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas.

It was in 1856 that the formerly overlooked peak XV – soon to be Mount Everest – was officially declared the highest mountain in the world at 29,002 feet (8,839.8 m) above sea level. Today its official height is slightly higher – 8,849 m).

getting an english name

“People waited for years to measure some of these peaks, because it seemed like there was no way for anyone to reach them, let alone climb them,” explains author Craig Storty. Huh “Hunting for Mount Everest,“Published this month.

Peak XV stood 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 triangular measurements that were conducted approximately 170 kilometers away in Darjeeling, India.

Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, successfully argued that since the two countries were inaccessible, a local name could not be found and that Peak XV should be named after his predecessor, George Everest.

Everest, which had initially objected to the honor bestowed upon him, had no direct involvement in the discovery of the mountain, nor had he ever had the opportunity to visit it. (Incidentally, we’re saying it wrong: His family name was pronounced “Eve-rest”).

open to outsiders

The human history of Everest is believed to have begun with the construction of the Rongkuk Monastery on the north side of the mountain around 925, writes Storty. But the first known attempt to climb it was a British reconnaissance expedition that began in 1921.

The Lhasa Convention of 1904, following the British invasion led by Francis Younghusband, was the trade deal that nailed the British being able to enter Tibet.

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

golden age of mountaineering

In Europe, mountain climbing began as a sport – rather than a practical, political or spiritual activity – in the 18th century. By the mid-19th century – the “golden age” of Alpsism – the high peaks of the Alps were all scaled from Mont Blanc to the Matherhorn.

At the end of the 19th century, attention was drawn to America and Africa, but the last and biggest challenge remained the Himalayas.

Albert F. An Englishman named Mumri was a Western pioneer in South Asia who died at Nanga Parbat in 1895.

“Because of the confluence of maturing mountaineering and Britain’s presence in India (it was almost inevitable) that the people of a small island nation would dominate Himalayan mountaineering for many years,” says Storty.

road work

For the first three decades of the Everest expedition, climbers reached the summit from the north, which is a fairly difficult climb.

The first reconnaissance mission left Darjeeling on May 18, 1921 for a five-month-long voyage and was laying the groundwork for a century of mountaineers to observe.

Today, adventurers come from the South, where, says Storti, most of the trip is “a fairly easy climb up the mountain, not technically difficult at all. Those with very little climbing experience can put down $60,000 and have a good chance of reaching.” Chance is up as long as the weather lasts and Sherpas take care of them.”

Gabby Pilson, outdoor educator and climbing instructor outforia, tells CNN Travel that “a major advance was the establishment of a team of highly skilled Nepalese climbers known as the Icefall Doctors in 1997.

“Icefall doctors establish a route through the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous stretches of the popular South Col Route. Without them, the number of commercial expeditions to Everest each year would not be nearly the same as it is today. However, recently Many Nepalese icefall doctors, guides and porters have lost their lives working in this dangerous part of the mountain over the years.”

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

Royal Geographical Society / Getty Images

learning how humans cope at altitude

One of those involved in the 1921 expedition was the Scottish chemist Alexander Kelas, whose previous pioneering work on high-altitude physiology was important to the future of Himalayan engineering.

In the early 20th century, little was currently known about the effects on the body, because “no one was so high yet,” says Storti.

Kelas, a veteran climber, was part of a reconnaissance mission to Everest, but died of heart problems a day before reaching the mountain.

“He just kept doing his thing quietly, became an expert in altitude and the effects it has on the human body,[and]made some of the most spectacular climbs of any man of his generation,” says Storti.

Pilson says, “The biggest physical challenge to climbing Mount Everest is the negative effect of climbing high altitudes on the human body.

Prolonged exposure can cause dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea and shortness of breath, among other signs and symptoms. Even when a climber is not feeling particularly ill, most climbers have to pause for a few breaths after each step as they climb the highest slope of Everest.”

Climbers didn’t use oxygen at all in earlier expeditions, says Pilson, but today they have “better mask designs and access to regulators.” “But, even so, climbers still have problems with oxygen masks and regulators freezing, which makes climbing at high altitudes a risky business.”

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

Climbers descending the summit of Mount Everest in June 2021.

Climbers descending the summit of Mount Everest in June 2021.

Lakpa Sherpa / AFP / Getty Images

Develop specialist clothing and equipment

It is said that when Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw saw a photograph of a 1921 reconnaissance expedition, dressed in his simple clothing of wool, cotton and silk, he described them as “a Connemara picnic surprised by a snowstorm”.

“The climbing equipment was very primitive, clothing too. The shoes were cloth, not leather. And so if storms occur—the main risk on Everest is not the weather, except up north—they risk severe frostbite,” says Storti.

Pilson says that between the 1920s and now there have been several major technological advances in equipment, primarily in clothing and climbing equipment. “Modern advances in fabric design and synthetic insulation have really changed the game in mountaineering. The waterproof-breathable fabrics we take for granted today, like Gore-Tex, were truly revolutionary when they were first introduced in the 1960s. Finally came to the market.”

As for equipment, “Mallory and his fellow climbers used hemp ropes, hobnail boots, wooden ice axes, and metal picks for the climbs,” Pilson says. “These were state-of-the-art pieces of equipment in the 1920s, but they may not perform as well as the nylon ropes, crimps, and metal ice axes we use today.”

Everest in the 21st century

Another climber dies after summiting Mount EverestIn the 2019 climbing season, 11 people died. The director of Nepal’s tourism department told CNN that American Christopher John Kulish, 61, died after reaching the summit of Everest on the Nepalese side of the mountain.

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

“Everest is now one of the most popular large mountains to climb in the world, and with that, comes an influx of funds and infrastructure to the region,” says Pilson.

“However, the popularity of Everest has its challenges. Congestion is a real issue on the South Col Route, as there is a large amount of garbage on the mountain.”

Many people on Everest have been the cause of tragedy in the past. On May 11, 1996, a blizzard closed in on the climbers, killing 12 people, some of whom were delayed as the climb was in line.

Climate change is also a concern. “There are already concerns about how warmer temperatures could further destabilize Khumbu snow, making it more dangerous to cross,” Pilson says.

Despite the dangers, Mount Everest’s attraction to climbers shows no signs of diminishing 100 years after that first expedition. Its deadly charm will undoubtedly inspire generations of adventurers to come.