Today is the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest (in case you didn’t know). You don’t have to be a mountaineer to gaze in wonder at photos of the highest mountain on earth, picturing what it would be like if you could drag yourself up it’s treacherous slopes. I used to think I’d like to have a go at it one day but for several reasons that I’ll get into, I doubt I will. However, for a mere $65,000 you can get yourself on an expedition and be in with a real chance of making it to the summit. I have a great deal of respect for anybody who manages to push themselves to get to the top, or even has a crack at it and fails (as most people do). But it’s nothing compared to the respect I have for the team who managed to put Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay onto the roof of the world.
With modern equipment, a competent guide, fixed ropes for most of the route to the summit, good weather and a body that can handle being at high altitude (doesn’t matter how fit and strong you are, some people’s bodies just can’t adapt to the altitude), then you’re in with a good chance of climbing Everest. I’ve seen professional climbers say that “with the right weather you can get almost anybody to the top of Everest” and they’re right, technically it’s nowhere near as hard as, say K2 or Gasherbrum 4. It’s an amazing achievement to succeed if all the above factors are in your favour, but it’s not what I’d call mountaineering.
Wind back to 1953. The equipment was extremely primitive by today’s standards: the oxygen equipment was bulky, heavy and not a patch on modern kit, Gore-Tex was decades away, camping equipment hadn’t benefited from light-weight advanced materials, the crampons weren’t secured to their flimsy boots very well and didn’t even have front pointing spikes on them. In fact, whereas you can front-point your way up ice today with crampons and ice tools, in those days they had to cut steps the whole way up with their ice axes – sheer hell. Understanding of the physiological effects of altitude was in its infancy and – most important of all – it had never been done before. This last point matters on many levels.
In 1953 nobody had been to 29,000 feet on a mountain and many believed that you would die trying. While a Swiss team the year before had made it to the south summit, no human had gone along the knife-edge ridge to the summit proper. They were stepping into the unknown, not really knowing what to expect, the barrier to success being as much psychological as physical. They had everything to lose and everything to gain. That’s why I get shivers down my spine just thinking about it. I try to imagine what it must have felt like with all the doubts and dangers, both known and suspected. Doing something for the first time – forging into the unknown – seems like the ultimate adventure if you ask me. Knowing what to expect at every turn just seems to take the edge off.
Nope, being guided all the way to the top wouldn’t do it for me. It just wouldn’t be right. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t give it a go if the opportunity fell into my lap. But whenever I start thinking that way I just think back to seeing Chris Bonington give a presentation a few years ago on an expedition he’d just done. There was one slide he showed where he was leading along a knife-edge ice-covered ridge with a sheer 3000m drop below “just to see if there was a way through”. There was just him and his climbing partner belaying, and that was it. That was all the support he had. He couldn’t call search and rescue and expect them to come and save him if it all went pear shaped, he had to rely purely on his and his partner’s skills and experience gained over years of climbing at the top level.
Call me old fashioned if you like, but I think you should earn the right to climb mountains like the Himalayas with winters in the Alps or similar locations. Being a rich, successful trader with $65,000 to spare doesn’t qualify in my mind. And neither do I. So on this 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, I’ll not be thinking about the mountain, I’ll be thinking about the men who beat all the odds and achieved the impossible. And lived to tell the tale.
This anniversary has been on the radio a lot actually – and ironically, no one is actually going to make it to the top today (the actual anniversary) as it’s too windy near the top.
Another intesting point was raised about the definition of the highest mountain.
There were 3 alternatives whose names I can’t remember, but they are all greater than everest if you take factors into account.
The first was the biggest distance from foot to mountain to summit. The area surrounding Everest is high anyway, to the distance from the foot of it to the top is less than others in the world – I think the biggest is over 20,000 feet, whereas everest is quite a bit less than that.
The second was distance from centre of the earth to summit. The planet ain’t round and there’s a mountain on a particularly bulbous part whose summit is actually firther away from the centre than everest.
The third are those huge under water mountains. these are volcanic mountains that build up from the seabed over years and many of these are over 30,000 feet from base to top – but alas are all below sea level, hence don’t get a mention.
I’m full of boring crap like that.
I think Reinhold Messner’s solo ascent (in 1980 I think) was a bit more impressive than the first ascent. He couldn’t get permission to climb at the best time of year, so he had to go during the monsoon. Apart from one friend who didn’t go past advanced base camp he was totally alone on the mountain. He was one of the first westerners to try the mountain from the north since the 1930’s, so had very little knowledge about the route, and climbed a new variation anyway. He climbed the mountain in a three day round trip, and apparently found it quite tiring.
I find it odd that milestones like this are regaled so much. Hats off for the effort – but it is like the north and south pole trips. What is the end purpose / gain? I can understand exploration and its benefits, but here they get to a single point, take some photos… and… well… feel good about themselves?
Jon, I was going to mention some of Messner’s exploits but the article was getting a bit long. He was and is a hell of a guy…
Doug, I suppose it’s all about personal achievement and what that means to different people. It’s like the old quote of why climb mountains, “because it’s there”. This makes no sense to someone who just can’t see the point, but it’s all the reason there is to a climber. Suppose it depends how your brain is wired up.
Reinhold Messner was the name of the last Ben Folds 5 album….
you’re all mad
Anybody read ‘Into Thin Air’ by Jon Krakauer. Un-put-downable. Seems to me from that there are no easy Everest ascents. Even before their expedition went tits up, it sounded like a complete nightmare.
Next week is the 4th anniversary of my walking the Great Wilderness in Scotland. 30 miles through Scotland’s most remote region, being as far away from a road as you can be in the UK. Does that get a mention in the news. Does it buggery.
Ade obviously got the Daily Mirror book of interesting facts for his birthday 😉
I’ve read Into Thin Air. I bought it, brought it home, opened it and read the whole thing in one night in one go. Terrifying stuff.
Was that Knoydart or Letterewe and Fisherfield you walked through? Either one is fantastic (in nice weather).
We walked from Dundonnell to Poolewe, doing a few peaks on the way (Ruadh Stac Mor and A’Mhaighdean). Scenery is out of this world – weather was excellent fortunately. My knees were numb by the end.
Sounds fantastic. I’ve been meaning to spend a few days up there for the last few years. Really must get around to it…
I think that whole purist thing is a load of bullshit myself. Build an elevator to the top, then I’ll hit the summit of the mountain.
Why is there such an hysterical following for the mountain climber folk and not, say, LaSalle, Peru, Magellan, Columbus, Lewis, Clark, et al, who literally did not only not know what awaited them across the horizon but were fed images of, say, a world that suddenly stopped, or plants that could eat whole men in one gulp? Why is climbing a mountain such a big deal? You see the top, you go there. Yeah, it’s hard, but it’s a known entity.
Random guy: Mountain looks purty high.
Random guy: Whatcha gonna do when you get there?
Hillary: Don’t rightly know yet.
Random guy: Good luck.
Hillary is like a guy who didn’t want much riding on his shoulders should he fail. What’s there to *not* achieve had he not made it to the top of the mountain?
He climbed it because it was there, hoo hah, isn’t that wonderful, isn’t he an inspiration…but why did he go up the easy side? You know, if he was after the whole “ultimate challenge” and all.
I don’t know, but I can’t see him looking at modern mountain climbers saying, “Well, back in my day we didn’t have that fancy Gor-Tex”…I bet he’d be saying, “Hot damn, wouldn’t that have been nice?”
Rich guy with too much time and money on his hands, methinks.
Explorer, my ass. Where’s the elevator?
Tsk natalie, such a stereotypical american attitude! 😉
Some people are just wired up to crave risk and some people aren’t. Something to do with some neurotransmitter not working correctly that compels people to persue extreme sports to make up for it. Whereas others have it the other way, produce too much of the chemical and are scared of their own shadow and risk-averse as a result. The rest are somewhere in between…
I just can’t wind you up, can I?
Ah…well, perhaps another day.
Something I found hilarious – yes, I’m sick like this – over the memorial day weekend I saw some paratrooper guys land right in front of me. They did their whole plane jump thing, swirled around and around, sometimes going fast, sometimes in lazy looping arcs, and they came down right in a row in front of me and stopped within two steps. They didn’t have to roll like you see in films – they hit the ground, step step, then they were walking. Wow, what a thrill, you know?
One guy was looking over his shoulder, waving and didn’t see the curb and tripped – rolled down a steep ravine and nearly into a canal. I laughed my ass off.
That’s how I get my thrills…I cross streets without looking to see if there’s a curb or not. Man, the risk I’m taking!