The History of Mountaineering on Everest

The Roof of The World

Mt. Everest in the Himalaya Range is probably the most well known mountain on Planet Earth. Nearly every person, regardless of culture or nation of birth, knows of the highest peak in the world.

While the vast majority of people will never personally witness its towering slopes and majestic glaciers, Everest serves as a symbolic goal in the imaginations of many.

Everest, has become a symbol or metaphor to give meaning to many people’s own personal challenges in life.

Though of course, a select few of people will never be satisfied with just overcoming a “personal Everest” in business, career or other, they have a burning desire to literally stand atop the highest mountain in the world.

Height:29,031.69 feet (8,848.86 metres)
Location:Himalaya Range on the Border of China and Nepal
Other names:Chomolungma (Goddess Mother of The World)
First Ascent:1953 (Edmund Hillary)

As of early 2023, nearly 11,000 men and women have successfully climbed the highest Mountain on Planet Earth. More than 80% of that number has occurred since the year 2000.

Climbers from Nepal, The United States and India contribute to the majority of these ascents but over fifty countries have been represented on the roof of the world according The Himalayan Database.

Climbing on Everest is made possible with the assistance of Sherpas, a Tibetan people who have long lived high up in the Himalayan south slopes. Their knowledge, skills and physical endurance, has allowed them to take on prominent roles in Himalayan expeditions. In fact, many successful summit attempts would not have been possible without Sherpas, despite Western men often getting the majority of the credit and fame.

2019, before the COVID Pandemic saw the most climbers in history with 1120 people climbing on Everest with 858 reaching the summit.

Geopolitically, Mt. Everest is located in a bit of a precarious position, with half of the mountain in Nepal and the other half belonging to China.

China laid claim to the mountain in 1950 after annexing Tibet.

The Khumbu Icefall is notoriously perilous and has killed 44 climbers since 1953

History of Climbing

It wasn’t until 1841, two decades before the American Civil war, that Mt. Everest was recognized by a British Surveyor, Sir George Everest, as the tallest peak in the world.

For eighty years, human beings dared not climb upon its slopes.

But in 1921, the first expeditions on the Mountain led by The British, tried and failed to reach the summit. Then in 1924, notorious British Adventurer George Mallory was seen with Andrew Irvine just a mere 800 ft from the summit before they were engulfed in a storm.

Mallory’s body wasn’t discovered until 1999 by a research team led by legendary American Mountaineers Conrad Anker and Dave Hahn. Frozen to the side of the mountain with a rope wrapped tightly around his rib cage, it was discovered that he had most likely suffered a perilous fall.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay

The first time climbers successfully reached the summit of Everest, didnt occur until after WWII when in 1953, a Beekeeper from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay from Nepal made their outstanding first ascent.

2003 National Geographic Cover

Hillary had trained prior by climbing in New Zealand, The Alps and other 20,000ft plus Himalayan peaks, while Norgay had participated in five previous failed Everest expeditions and was probably the strongest climber on the entire British Team.

After the successful Everest expedition, Hillary and Sir John Hunt (The Leader of the Climbing Team) published the book, “The Ascent of Everest.” Hillary would also be knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth.

Jim Whittaker and 1963 American Expedition

An American wouldn’t put their footprints on the roof of the world until 1963, when Swiss born climber Norman Dyhrenfurth, assembled a team of 19 American mountaineers.

Seattle Native Jim Whittaker at age 34, ascended to the top of Everest with Nawang Gom­bu, the nephew of Tenzig Norgay.

The expedition would cost almost a half million US dollars and included 37 sherpas and 907 porters.

Standing at 6.6, Whittaker is known as one of the physically strongest climbers of all time and would go on to summit K2 in Pakistan.

Alot of money and people involved, yet in the end only a few climbers would have the opportunity to stand on top of the world.

Following an over eighty mile trek to Base camp at 17,598ft, on May 2, 1963, Whittaker, who was afflicted with a frozen eyeball, along with Norgay, would ascent Everest via The South Col. route.

The South Col is a sharp edged ridge that connects Everest to Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world.

Whittaker in the process, inspired the next generation of Alpinists and Mountaineers.

The American Expedition wasnt without incident however and climber Jake Breitenbach was buried by Ice in the notoriously perilous Khumbu Icefall at 18,000ft.

Whittaker had perhaps unknowingly, spent his entire life preparing for the Everest expedition, as an avid climber of the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. He and his brother Lou, were famous in Seattle as hardy outdoorsmen and even spent a stint in The US Army training Green Berets in skiing, climbing and mountain survival skills.

He trained hard prior to the expedition, putting 60lbs worth of bricks in a backpack, while climbing the Cascade volcanoes in Washington and Oregon.

Upon completion of the expedition, Whittaker returned to the United States and was honored at The Rose Garden by President Kennedy and received National Geographic’s Hubbard Medal.

Whittaker formed a personal relationship with The Kennedy family and would later guide Robert Kennedy to the top of Mt. Kennedy in which the Canadian Government named its highest unclimbed peak after the late president.

Junko Tabei

The next notable ascent was by Junko Tabei of Japan in My of 1975, who became the first woman to summit Everest. Ascending via the South Col route that Edmund Hillary pioneered in 1953, Tabei initially encountered enormous adversity and was buried in an avalanche at 20,700ft. She was knocked unconscious and had to be buried out by the Sherpas.

Nevertheless, 12 days later on May 16, she reached the summit of Everest and made history in the process.

Tabei would go on to became the first women to climb all seven of the highest mountains on each continent. She certainly wouldnt be the only Japanese to be represented on the roof of the world however, as Japan would send scores of successful climbing teams over the next few decades.

Reinhold Messner

Messner and Peter Habeler on Everest in 1978

One cannot speak of Mountaineering on Everest without mentioning Italian legend, Reinhold Messner.

Messner is arguably the most accomplished mountaineer in history of alpinism and one of the earliest advocates for alpine style mountaineering. Alpine style incorporates the use of lightweight equipment and without the use of porters and sherpas, thereby rendering climbers to shoulder all the equipment, food and water by themselves.

In alpine style, climbers set up camps or resupply stocks at various parts of the route that they can access when needed.

Ridiculously ambitious, Messner and Peter Habeler, ascended to the top of Everest in 1978 without supplemental oxygen, a feat that many scientists dismissed as impossible.

Messner grew up in Northern Italy among the Dolomites and put together an insanely impressive rock and ice climbing portfolio before turning to the Himalaya.

Two years after his 1978 ascent with Habeler, Messner again ascended to the roof of the world alone, without a partner nor sherpas or supplemental oxygen in August of 1980.

Ascending via the north side of Everest, his climb was a grueling and brutal endeavor that included a near lethal fall into a crevasse.

Messner writes on his groundbreaking 1980 ascent:

“I was in continual agony; I have never in my whole life been so tired as on the summit of Everest that day. I just sat and sat there, oblivious to everything.…I knew I was physically at the end of my tether.”

1996 Disaster

Jon Krakauer’s Best Seller and Personal Account on The 1996 Disaster on Everest

1996 is the year when the inevitable happened. Climbing Everest always carried a high level of risk and people had already died in a large number throughout the 20th century.

But a large group fatality was largely mitigated until 1996, when 16 people died while climbing the mountain, the most fatalities in a single year up to that point.

Professionals like Rob Hall and Scott Fisher, who were at the pinnacle of the sport, didnt escape the slopes of everest that year.

According to prolific journalist Jon Krakauer who was on assignment for Outside magazine and author of “Inot THin Air,” points to overcrowding as the first problem leading up to the disaster.

On Everest that year, there were climbers from South Africa, New Zealand, Taiwan, USA and more.

Scott Fisher and Rob Hall both respective owners of their own Guide Companies, decided to work together to mitigate any potential problems.

They assigned two Sherpas to fix the ropes ahead of their climb but for reasons not fully understood, the two Sherpas failed to work together and the ropes did not get fixed.

This caused a bottleneck at an area known as “The Hillary Step,” and thus groups of climbers were delayed for hours on their ascent, way past the recommended summit time of 2pm.

By 5:30pm on May 10th, climbers were still attempting to summit, when a Blizzard blew in and caught many climbers stranded above the Hillary Step, including Rob Hall and Scott Fischer.

Hall was stranded with Doug Hansen, a climber from Washington State, known as ‘The Mailman” due to his background working for The Postal Service.

Hansen soon lost consciousness and Hall was pinned down by the ferocious Blizzard and forced to Bivouac in a col. Fischer was also unable to descend.

Both prolific climbers tragically would not make it down Everest. Hall possessed a Satellite phone, where he was able to speak to his pregnant wife in his last hours.

To this day, Hall’s body remains frozen on the mountain, below the South Summit.

The Cost of Climbing Everest

Everest has become a highly commercialized Adventurous endeavor. The price for non professionals to have a chance at standing on the roof of the world is near $48k.

The enormous cost puts the expedition out of reach for a majority of people and instead, gives wealthy folk, often without previous qualifying mountaineering skills, at the forefront of mountaineering on Everest.

Another issue on the mountain is the growing level of pollution. The slopes of the mountain are becoming littered with empty oxygen cannisters, abandoned tents, food containers and human feces.

According to Mount Everest Biogas Project, each climber on Everest generates over 18lbs of trash. The problem has gotten so bad, that the Government of Nepal launched in 2019, an initiative to clear the mountain of 22,000lbs of trash.

With this, along with mass commercialization of climbing, Mt. Everest faces an uncertain future.






One thought on “The History of Mountaineering on Everest

  1. Hey,
    Great article on the history of climbing Mt. Everest and the challenges faced by climbers. It’s interesting to see how the mountain has become a symbol for personal challenges in life while also being a commercialized endeavor.

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