Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Everest: "Because it's there." - George Mallory

On my wall in my bedroom, I have a map of the world with stickers on all the countries I have visited. At the moment, I have stickers on the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Belgium, Kenya, Tanzania and Mali. Not bad considering that I didn’t go on a plane until I was 13 years old. It’s not enough however, and I have a craving to see the world.

One of my biggest obsessions is mountains. Or hills. Anything really that makes the scenery a little bit more exciting. I’m not sure why I like them so much. Sure, I’ve grown up in the middle of the Pennines, a good hill climb no more than half an hour’s walk ago, but it’s more than that. They capture my imagination like nothing else does – the sheer scale of them, the stories of people who’ve tried to conquer them. For someone like myself, who can never dare to dream of being a climber, the hundreds of accounts of successful (and failed) climbs out there are gripping tales that only want to make me read more.

The mountain that grips me more than any other is, perhaps not surprisingly, Mount Everest. Many hardcore mountaineers will scoff at the world’s highest mountain, because it is not necessarily a ‘hard’ climb – not technically challenging at least, unlike some of the other 8000ers such as K2. It’s not this that excites me about it however; it’s the grandeur and majesty of the place. Stories of the many, many climbers who attempted this colossal peak and failed before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s success in 1953, and indeed those who have succeeded and failed since then fascinate me. Everest has claimed hundreds of deaths since it was first attempted in 1921 – much like any other mountain – yet hundreds of people attempt the summit every season.

From the Guardian website
My favourite – and perhaps the most well-known – quote about Everest is George Leigh Mallory’s “Because it’s there...” when asked why he continued to attempt to climb it. This perhaps most closely describes my passion for the hills; they’re there, and so they’ll always draw me towards them. Mallory is the person who defines Everest in my opinion, along with his climbing partner Sandy Irvine. Their story is well known to those interested in climbing and mountaineering; when they first set out to climb Everest, the (now much utilised) Nepali side of the mountain was forbidden territory, and so their expedition, under the leadership of Howard Bury, began from Tibet (Everest borders the two countries). No person had ever climbed to anywhere near the height of Everest before, and it was unclear as to whether anybody could actually survive at that altitude.

Nevertheless, the expedition strove on, determined to find a route to tackle the unclimbed peak. This was a reconnaissance, not a full-scale climb, and after getting as far as they could – further than anyone had gone before – Mallory and the team returned home.

Mallory returned to Everest in 1922, under the leadership of Charles Bruce. He, along with several others, reached an altitude of almost 27,000ft (higher than anyone had ever gone before), but were unable to progress any further. Two other climbers, George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce, were able to get even further, but still did not make the summit. Their attempt, however, used supplementary oxygen, and their remarkable success at reaching 27,300ft motivated Mallory to try it – something he had previously been against.

In 1924, Mallory returned to the mountain under the leadership of Norton, although he was made ‘climbing leader’ as a result of his experience. After a failed attempt by Somerville and Norton, Mallory decided to take his chances, along with supplementary oxygen and a young, inexperienced climber called Sandy Irvine, who was chosen because of his skill with the oxygen canisters. They arrived at Camp VI and set out for the summit, but after a brief sighting by Noel Odell the day they made for the top, were never seen again.

To this day, nobody knows whether they reached the summit of Mount Everest, and it is one of the greatest mysteries in mountaineering history. 

Conrad Anker found Mallory’s body in 1999, still clinging onto the rock face with his finger-tips, one of his legs broken, the other one wrapped around it to presumably stop the pain. A broken leg on a mountain such as Everest isn’t merely an inconvenience, it means death. Even something as simple as a lost boot or a lost glove can kill you in the high-altitude, freezing conditions and so Mallory - if he was conscious - must have known his fate. They’ve never found Sandy Irvine’s body, though it must be nearby. Nobody knows what caused Mallory to fall, whether Irvine fell with him or tried to descend on his own, or as I said, if they made the summit.

Although if they did make the summit, which would put them before Hillary and Tenzing in 1953, as all mountaineers will tell you, getting to the summit is a bonus, getting down again is the battle, so they would not be considered true summiteers. Nevertheless, people to this day are trying to solve the mystery. It is known that they had a Kodak camera with them, which Mallory did not have in his possession when they found his body. If Irvine is found and he has it, it may be possible to discern from the pictures whether or not they actually reached the top.

Many of the climbing community however, disapprove of expeditions to try and find Irvine’s body. They say – rightly so in my humble opinion – that it doesn’t matter whether or not they reached the top. Mallory defined Everest, and played a key part in the early expeditions. The greatest mystery surrounding Everest should be left as such, as it is part of the charm.

Incidentally, if you are interested in Mallory’s story (for there is much more to tell, I’ve merely skimmed the surface based on what I can remember), there’s a brilliant film of Conrad Anker (the guy who found Mallory) and Leo Holding (an incredible British climber), who attempt to climb Everest the way Mallory and Irvine would have. At the moment, at the summit of the mountain (and indeed further down) there are ladders installed by the Chinese to get past several insurmountable faces, including the ‘Second Step.’

With these, it is possible to scale the face in half an hour, making a summit success much more likely. Without these, it would take hours to climb, and is technically almost impossible. Mallory and Irvine would have faced the summit in these conditions, in gear drastically inferior to what is available nowadays. If Anker and Holding can climb the step in the same conditions, it makes it much more likely that Mallory and Irvine would have been able to; it’s a brilliant watch, and also goes more deeply into the history. It’s called ‘The Wildest Dream.’

There are also many books on the subject, of which I’ve read many (including ‘The Wildest Dream’ but this is one I’ve found is actually better as a film, because it’s easier to see the mountain than it is to visualise it.

I’m not going to go into much more history of the mountain because, although I love it, and there is a huge amount to go into, it would take all day and probably bore you to tears. If you are interested, as I say, there are plenty of books and internet articles out there.

My love affair with Everest started a couple of years ago when I started reading my Stepdad’s climbing books. I’ve previously done Kilimanjaro (which is just trekking) and so was curious to see how this differed from actually climbing a mountain. A huge amount it turns out, as I was introduced to words like jumars, ice screws, crampons, fixed lines and other technical climbing jargon. I’m still not sure what some of it means but it was an adventure and an education at the same time. I’m never going to be able to be a climber – I’m not fit enough, brave enough, daft enough or committed enough – so I love escaping into the world through these books. The best I’ve ever read are:

·         Andy Kirkpatrick – Psychovertical
·         Andy Cave - Learning to Breathe and Thin White Line
·         Don Whillans - The Villain (it's a biography but I can't remember who actually wrote it)
·         Joe Brown - The Hard Years
·         Joe Simpson - Touching the Void
·         Tomaz Humar - another bibliography, just called Tomaz Humar I think 
·         Stephen Venables - he's written a few and all are good, but my favourite (I think) is Higher Than the Eagle Soars: A Path to Everest
·         Graham Bowley - No Way Down - Life and Death on K2
·         Jamie Andrew - Life and Limb
·         Jon Krakauer - Into Thin Air
·         Edmund Hillary, Stephen Veneables, and Dalai Llama - Everest: The Summit of Achievement (probably the most amazing factual book I've read)
There are many more that I’ve read since then, and I’d list them all if I could, but each shows the truly desperate conditions that a climber faces when on the mountain, and the sheer bravery of these men (and women). (Not all of these are about Everest by the way, if I didn’t make that clear). One thing is clear from all accounts though; the mountain is always in charge.

The season that I have read the most about, perhaps because of curiosity and perhaps because there are a lot of accounts from that season, is the year of 1996, when a series of events led to one of the biggest disasters in Everest’s history. There were more climbers on the mountain than ever before, and as a result of guided groups, Everest was now easily accessible to novice climbers who had a lot of money. A dangerous mix on such a dangerous mountain.

Amongst the groups was an American IMAX expedition, hoping to film the climb, and two group led by guides Scott Fischer and Rob Hall. With so many people on the mountain, it made sense to stagger summit attempt days (for those not in the know, there are only a limited number of days to climb Everest every year, A clear weather window when the jet stream lifts for a while and before the monsoon arrives from late April to very early June. This is one of the reasons why Everest is so dangerous, because outside of that window, the mountain is unclimbable.

If you are delayed on the mountain and thus get caught in the monsoon, your chances of survival are slim). Scott and Fischer wanted to go on 10th May, and the others agreed to go before or after them, to reduce the number of people on the narrow ridges and roped steps above, and avoid causing a dangerous bottleneck, delaying summit times and reducing chances of survival. However, many times on the mountain at that time were either inexperienced or just arrogant, and despite agreeing not to, a Taiwanese team decided to attempt the summit on 10th May as well.

 This, along with many other minor mistakes that, ordinarily wouldn’t have made such a difference, meant that many climbers were caught out in a storm that rolled in on the evening. Caught out in the open, with no shelter, no water and no food, in horrific conditions, there is very little chance that many of them would have survived.

Indeed, 8 climbers died as a result of that storm. There are many differing opinions on what went wrong that day, who made the wrong judgement calls, and what should have done instead, and there are many differing opinions of what actually happened. If you want to know more, read Jon Krakeur’s ‘Into Thin Air’ for his account of the disaster; a incredibly interesting book, but also quite chilling, especially when you get to his account of Andy Harris’ death. It just shows how hypoxia can cloud judgement and your brain entirely, and how, on a mountain, it is very difficult to look out for anybody other than yourself.

 One of the most amazing stories to come out of that disaster though, is that of Beck Weathers. He was left for dead several times throughout the disaster, the most disturbing being when he was found half frozen to death, his face under a block of ice and entirely unconscious. In those conditions, it is impossible to carry somebody down from the mountain, and so was left for dead by other climbers who had no choice. 

Incredibly, as someone had chipped the ice away from his face (bearing in mind that he was practically blind at that point as a result of snow-blindness and recent eye surgery), he managed to make his way down, unassisted to one of the lower camps, and was airlifted to hospital. Despite extensive frostbite, he lived to tell the tale, and published his book ‘Left for Dead’ in 2000.

Conrad Anker is currently leading another expedition on Everest, with photography Cory Richards. This is being sponsored, and highly documented by, National Geographic, who are giving real-time updates of events happening on the mountain. They’re nowhere near ready to attempt the summit yet (climbing Everest requires a long period of acclimatisation and  getting supplies up to high camps), yet they’ve already had several close shaves (including an avalanche near base camp), and their first death of the season – an experienced Sherpa who died after falling into a crevasse after failing to clip onto the safety rope.

Cory Richards (also an Everest veteran) is recovering after an evacuation as a result of an AMS scare, showing that, no matter how experienced you are, the mountain is still in charge. For anyone who wants to follow the expedition (and I suggest you do, it’s fascinating), the website is here: or type #OnEverest into Twitter.

I don’t know what it is that draws me to Everest; whether it’s the history of the place, to mystery of the place, or just the sheer beauty I don’t know, but I do know that it’s somewhere that I must visit. The best way to go about this, is to trek through the Himalayas to Everest Base Camp. This is the trek that all expeditions undertake, and to tread in the footsteps of legends would be phenomenal. Not only that, but the place is incredibly beautiful.

Along the trek, you pass through Sherpa villages such as Namche Bamzar, and Gorak Shep, and see incredible views that you just can’t rival. Where else can you see a Himalayan mountain, towering above you at every corner? You also walk past, and visit, Buddhist monasteries and past realms of prayer flags. It sounds wonderful, and is just somewhere I have to go. It’s a tough walk, but that’s part of the attraction; walking, mountains and history – sounds like an incredible combination to me!

"Everest for me, and I believe for the world, is the physical and symbolic manifestation of overcoming odds to achieve a dream." – Tom Whittaker. 

1 comment:

  1. Very cool, well-researched post! We actually have a photo exhibit at Base Camp this year! Check it out: (