The history of Mount Everest

Tomorrow flies Eric Arnold to Kathmandu for a fourth attempt to top the Mount Everest reach. Eric has been in our for weeks altitude tent He slept to prepare himself for the extremely thin air of the highest mountain on our planet and now he can finally start the adventure. A good moment to look back at the history of the mountain of mountains, we thought.

Important role in the history of altitude sickness

Mount Everest, with its 8848 meter the highest mountain in the world, has played an important role in the history of altitude sickness. Not only because it is the highest point on earth, but also because, quite coincidentally, the summit of this mountain is at the limit of what the human organism can tolerate for a short period of time without dying from lack of oxygen. Until the beginning of the last century, only isolated and sometimes anecdotal records of attempts to climb this giant were known. The first major expeditions to the summit of this mountain took place in the years 1921 (the famous Reconnaissance expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel C.K. Howard-Bury), 1922 (led by Brigadier General C.G. Bruce) and 1924 (led by Lieutenant Colonel E.F. Norton). During this last expedition, the record height of 8573 metres was reached, 300 metres below the summit. Calculations regarding the maximum oxygen intake of humans that is possible at this altitude lead to the conclusion that these last 300 metres could have been covered in around three hours. Norton, who walked the last few metres alone and without supplementary oxygen before returning, describes his condition at the crucial moment when he had to decide whether or not to continue. I was seeing double, and in a difficult step was sometimes in doubt where to put my feet. I became extremely short of breath... In an hour I had gained but little - probably under 100 feet in height, and in distance perhaps 300 yards...' Norton realised that he would not be able to return from any summit he reached in a safe time. He decided to end the climb, which must have been a dramatic decision. However, the most famous tragedy that occurred during this expedition was the death of two now very famous climbers who were part of this expedition: Mallory and Irvine. Two days after Norton almost reached the summit, they left for a final attempt, from which they never returned. Whether they reached the summit will never be known. The discovery of Mallory's body in 1999 provided no clues. After this dramatic expedition, climbing Everest was temporarily forbidden by the Tibetan authorities, partly because the expedition members had not kept to the agreed route. Although several more expeditions took place in the 1930s, there were few successes to report until after the Second World War. No one reached the top, many lost their lives. Interesting is a part of a report by Shipton, who wrote the following in 1943 at about 8400 metres. I suddenly found I was suffering from aphasia and could not articulate words properly. For example if I wished to say 'give me a cup of tea' I would say something entirely different - may be "tram-car, cat, put''...'. We now know that this phenomenon (attributable to oxygen deficiency) occurs more frequently at high altitude, just like the vision problems Norton observed in himself.

Knocking the bastard off!

While the Everest was mainly climbed from Tibetan until around 1950, political developments in the region (including the invasion of Tibet by China in 1950, the change of power in Nepal followed by rapprochement with the West) lead to the following years mainly from the Nepalese side is being climbed. However, these attempts are unsuccessful and are associated with the loss of many climbers, either through accidents, or through lung and / or brain edema. In the meantime, climbing the Everest has become a subject of heavy international competition and has become a matter of national prestige in many countries. Someone will be the first, but who? The expedition departs from Kathmandu on March 10, 1953, which will ultimately lead to success. Tenzing Norgay and Edmond Hillary, whose names remain attached to this event forever, are well aware of all risks. During the climb, they spend a lot of time and energy on melting huge amounts of snow, because they consider the prevention of dehydration to be a crucial factor for success. They also use bottled oxygen when climbing. On May 29, 1953 at 11.30 am in the morning they finally reach the top, crying out "Well, we knocked the bastard off!"

This success is due to a number of factors:

  • The technical provisions were now better than they had ever been; especially the development of useful during climbing Mount-Everestoxygen device hour played an important role.
  • The familiarity with dehydration due to the extremely dry air and the loss of moisture due to the very frequent breathing resulted in Hillary and Tenzing taking equipment to melt snow; the lack of this had been fatal to previous expeditions and climbers.
  • The climbers had experience with the mountain and the route. This was especially true for Tenzing, who had already made several previous attempts with other expeditions.
  • The climbers had one strong motivation, yes even an obsession, to reach the intended goal. Various medical studies of the physical functions of climbers have shown that some people respond better to low oxygen concentrations than others and / or use oxygen more efficiently. The 'drive' to achieve a set goal has, however, proved to be very decisive for success, and unfortunately sometimes also for taking irresponsible risks.

After the success of Hillary and Tenzing, it will be one of the biggest challenges for many mountain climbers to reach the summit of Everest without the use of extra oxygen. Until the 1930s, famous medical experts believe that this is physically impossible. They are wrong: in 1978, 25 years after Tenzing and Hillary, Messner and Habeler reached the top without using extra oxygen. However, that is not easy, as appears from the description of the last meters by Messner: 'After every step we huddle over our axes, mouth agape, struggling for sufficient breath to keep our muscles going. I have the feeling I am about to burst apart. As we get higher, it becomes necessary to recover our breath… At a height of 8800 meters we can no longer keep on our feet while we rest. We crumpled to our knees, clutching our axes ... Breathing becomes such a strong business that we have scarcely strength left to go on. Every ten steps we collapse into the snow, then crawl on again… '

Afterwards, many followed them, although most climbers still need extra oxygen. In the meantime (figures until 2014), the mountain of all mountains has claimed more than 200 victims: one death for every thirty attempts, and one for every five successful ascents. Altitude sickness and other health problems do not appear to be a barrier for the fanatical climber of this mountain; accidents and overconfidence go hand in hand with drive and ambition. Commercial interests grow larger and larger: without a sponsor, climbing Everest has become too expensive for many. People who are insufficiently familiar with climbing techniques can nowadays, some say, climb Everest for a small fee.

payment can be dragged to the top. That doesn't always end well. The dramatic events in 1996, in which nine members of different commercial expeditions died on the Everest almost simultaneously, including the famous guides Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, underline that (see 'Everest. Mountain without mercy', by Broughton Coburn. Publication by National Geographic Society, 1997), and 'Into thin air' by John Krakauer and the same disaster, different view on the causes) 'The Climb'. from Boukreev.

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