This edited article about Mount Everest originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 737 published on 28 February 1976.
A Bengali clerk in British India was checking the figures in a survey recently carried out in the Himalayas. His eye was caught by the height given for a mountain known as Peak XV. The clerk leapt to his feet and hurried to his superior. For if the figure given was correct this was the highest mountain in the world.
From that day in 1852, it has indeed been recognised as without rival. The peoples who lived within sight of the mountain already had a name for it – Chu-mu-lang-ma, “Goddess Mother of the Snows”. But to most of the world it is known as Everest, the name it was given in honour of a former Surveyor-General of India.
Everest straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet. Its height as first calculated was given as 29,002 feet (8,840 m.) above sea-level. It is said that the average figure arrived at was exactly 29,000 feet. This round figure sounded so unlikely that a couple of feet were added on!
Later computations have produced slightly greater heights, and 29,028 feet 8,848 m.) is now the generally accepted figure.
In the geological history of the world, the Himalayas are comparatively young. Dinosaurs stalked the earth before these mountains existed. Yet it took tens of millions of years for them to be slowly thrust upwards. They were the result of a huge buckling, warping and cracking of the earth’s crust.
Where Everest stands was once a sea. High up on the mountain is the “Yellow Band” – a 1,000 foot thick layer (about 300 metres) of iron-stained limestone. This is just one of the pieces of evidence that tell geologists that the towering strata of rock once lay beneath the sea-bed.
To reach even the foot of Everest entails an arduous journey. From the south the land rises from the plains of India through the hills, valleys and forests of Nepal to the lower slopes of the mountain itself. The approach from the north is over the plateau of Tibet, itself over 12,000 feet (3,660 m.) above sea-level. Yet Everest soars three miles (nearly 5 kms.) and more above it.
To climb from the foot of Everest to its snow-covered upper slopes is to pass from a near-tropical climate to a polar one. Through warm, moist forests the land ascends to a temperate zone, and upward again to meadow-like alpine slopes.
Here grasses and flowering plants grow. Some are found up to a height of 19,000 feet (5,790 m.). Growing even higher are flat “cushions” of a moss-like plant.
One of the strangest discoveries made on Everest was of tiny black “jumping spiders”, living amid snow and ice at altitudes of 22,000 feet (6,700 m.) and higher – and of minute insects on which they feed. These, in their turn, apparently lived on debris of vegetation and fungi carried to the heights by the wind.
Many types of bird have been seen on Everest – including Lammergeier vultures observed within 6,000 feet (1,800 m.) of the summit. But birds do not dwell at these altitudes.
Of all animals that have adapted themselves to life in the Himalayas one of the most important is the yak. This member of the ox family can stand great cold and hardship, and provides the Himalayan peoples with food, clothing, fertiliser and fuel – as well as transportation.
Despite the many legends about the Abominable Snowman, or Yeti, there is no scientific proof that this huge bear-like or ape-like creature exists. Photographs of what are claimed to be its footprints in the Himalayan snow do not convince naturalists of its existence.
For most people the name of Everest is especially associated with mountain-climbing. To stand on its summit has come to be the greatest ambition of mountaineers.
The mountain has been described as a “vast lopsided pyramid of rock”. From three directions sharp ridges run up to the summit. Access to these ridges is gained by way of glacier-filled valleys – the Rongbuk Glacier to the north, and the Khumbu Glacier on the Nepal side.
The first all-out effort to climb to the summit was made in 1924 by a British expedition. Since Nepal barred its territory to the expedition, it was necessary to attack the mountain from Tibet, by way of the Rongbuk Glacier and the North-East Ridge. The attempt failed, though two men, George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Mallory made a desperate bid to reach the summit – a bid from which they never returned. A later expedition found an ice-axe only a thousand feet (300 m.) from the top.
The expedition, like most that followed, relied heavily on the help of local Sherpa tribesmen, some of whom were to play a vital part in the eventual conquest of the peak.
One of the problems at such great altitudes is the thinness of the atmosphere. The 1924 expedition made use of oxygen, but the equipment was not satisfactory. To tackle ice, snow and fearsome rock-climbs when short of oxygen is an agonising task. Later expeditions were better equipped.
Other pre-war expeditions fared no better. But after the Second World War Nepal opened her borders. This meant that expeditions from India had a much shorter distance to travel before tackling the mountain itself. It also opened up a much more promising way to the summit.
Moving from the south-west up the Khumbu Glacier, and along an ice-filled valley called the Western Cwm, climbers could cross to the south-east flank of the mountain. There the South-east Ridge, formidable though it was, gave better prospects of reaching the summit than the North-east Ridge had afforded.
It was by this route that an expedition headed by Colonel (later Sir) John Hunt made their attempt in 1953. It was two members of his party, New Zealander Edmund Hillary (also knighted later) and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who became the first to stand on Everest’s summit, on May 29th of that year.
Since then climbers from several nations have been successful, using this route, while the Chinese claim to have reached the top from the more difficult north side.
There remained the final challenge – and the toughest. This was to reach the summit by climbing directly up the south-west face. In October, 1975, this was achieved by two young British climbers, Dougal Haston and Doug Scott.
In the end mighty Everest has had to yield to the courage and skill of the climbers. But it will never lose their respect for its dangers and its awe-inspiring majesty.
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