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Introduction

Between 1921 and 1953 Everest was the stage for an epic saga from the twilight years of the Raj, the British colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent. From the exploratory Reconnaissance of 1921 to the final triumph of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, the expeditions that reached for the summit of the world were much more than climbing adventures; they were high theatrical dramas, played out, as if by design, to track the fate of the British Empire, even as it slipped into decline and senescence.

Having ingloriously lost the race for the North and South Poles in 1909 and 1911, the British seized upon Everest, looming over the Raj, as the Third Pole, a far greater challenge, as daunting and distant as the surface of the moon. But if the quest for Everest began as a gesture of national pride and redemption, it would, in the wake of the Great War, become a mission of regeneration for a country and a people bled white by the conflict.

Of the 26 men who went to Everest between 1921 and 1924, twenty had seen the worst of the fighting. Six had been severely wounded. All had endured the slaughter, the coughing of the guns, the bones and barbed wire, the white faces of the dead. For those who survived, life mattered less than the moments of being alive. As climbers on Everest, they were prepared to accept a degree of risk that would have been unimaginable before the war, the very commitment that the mountain would demand.

Everest: Ascent to Glory is curated by Wade Davis and organized by the Bowers Museum in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London.

The Himalaya as Seen Over Darjeeling

The Himalaya as Seen Over Darjeeling
1909
Photographed by H.W. Baron
Darjeeling, India
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"
—Rudyard Kipling

The Approaches to Everest
Used by 1921-1933 expeditions
Map by David Lindroth
Courtesy of Wade Davis

1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition

As laid out by the Mount Everest Committee—a joint body formed from the Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club—the mission of the 1921 Reconnaissance was to trek from Darjeeling to Everest and explore every feature along the way: topography and geography, but also geology and natural history, climate, and hydrology. It was, from inception, an expedition of discovery. At the insistence of the Royal Geographical Society, the party included topographers and cartographers recruited from the Survey of India, a geologist from the Geological Survey of India, and a naturalist charged with the duty of compiling a botanical and zoological inventory.

The climbers were singularly focused on surveying the approaches to Everest, mapping with precision its inner massif, all with the goal of finding a “chink in its armour,” a viable route to the summit that could be exploited by a subsequent expedition in 1922. Oliver Wheeler first explored Everest from the west. George Mallory and Guy Bullock headed south directly for Rongbuk, only to be stunned by the sight of the North Face, less a peak, as Mallory wrote, than “a prodigious mountain mass.”

The third and final act of 1921 would be Charles Howard-Bury’s move to Kharta, allowing the expedition to explore the eastern approaches: the Kama Valley leading to the formidable Kangshung Face, two vertical miles of ice rising to the South Col, and the wide and treacherous snowfields of the Kharta Glacier which led them finally to the Lhakpa La, Windy Gap, the high pass overlooking the upper reaches of the East Rongbuk and the base of the North Col. Here at last was the doorway to the mountain, the only possible opening for climbers of their generation, and the route followed to this day by all those who approach Everest from the north on the Tibetan side of the mountain.

The 1921 British Mount Everest Expedition

The 1921 British Mount Everest Expedition
Photographed by Sandy Wollaston
Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Back from left: Sandy Wollaston, Charles Howard-Bury, Alexander Heron, Harold Raeburn. Front from left: George Mallory, Oliver Wheeler, Guy Bullock, Henry Morshead.

Routes Through the Inner Massif of Everest
Taken by 1921-1924 expeditions
Map by David Lindroth
Courtesy of Wade Davis

Camp at Windy Gap and the North Col of Mount Everest

Camp at Windy Gap and the North Col of Mount Everest
1921
Photographed by Charles Howard-Bury
Lhakpa La, Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

The Hidden Lands

The monks of the Rongbuk Monastery did not look favorably on the strange guests who arrived uninvited in the sixth month of the Iron Bird at their high mountain retreat in the shadow of Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Everest. The presence of the British was certain to disturb their meditations, not to mention upsetting the wild creatures, as well as the demons and deities of the mountains. To traipse onward blindly, as the British would do, knowing nothing of the ritual protocols, aware only of what lies on the surface of perception, was, from the Tibetan perspective, an act of folly certain to result in catastrophe.

Rongbuk had attracted spiritual seekers since the time of Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche, the mystic saint who first brought the Buddhist dharma to Tibet in the 8th century. In the most remote reaches of the Himalaya, he left in his wake sacred valleys, or beyuls, hidden lands of fertility and blessings, secret places where simply to be born and to live was to be liberated from the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. To trace the path to spiritual awakening outlined by Guru Rinpoche, men and women faced madness, freezing cold, and starvation in the innermost caverns of the valley’s walls.

The Rongbuk Monastery, often described by climbers as having existed from time immemorial, in fact dates to 1903; its iconic stupa was only consecrated in 1919. The presence of the Everest expedition in 1921, the first Europeans the monks of Rongbuk had ever seen, warranted but a cursory mention in their records: “six English Sahibs, 30 servants and 70 animals carrying loads arrived here… The leaders went to the snow mountain. They stayed for 20 days and couldn’t climb the mountain.”

The Monks and Administrator of Shekar Chote Monastery

The Monks and Administrator of Shekar Chote Monastery
1921
Photographed by Charles Howard-Bury
Shekar Dzong, Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Dzongpen of Kharta and Wife

Dzongpen of Kharta and Wife
July 31, 1921
Photographed by Charles Howard-Bury
Kharta, Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

The Sherpa

Among early climbers and explorers, Alexander Kellas was the first to celebrate the Sherpa, ethnic Tibetans who had settled in the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal, on the southern approaches to Everest, in the 15th century. With the commercial growth of the Raj, many had migrated to Darjeeling to work as porters or laborers; some had prospered as merchants. In a 1916 paper presented at the Royal Geographical Society, Kellas reflected on their unique character and disposition: “Of the different types of coolies the writer has found the Bhutia Nepalese superior to all others he has employed. They are strong, good-natured and as they are Buddhists there is no difficulty about special foodstuffs.” His evaluation may be disturbing to us today, but in the context of the times it was a ringing endorsement.

The Sherpa, for their part, initially joined the British expeditions for the work. In their language there was not even a word for a mountain summit. They were Buddhists; to court annihilation for sport, putting at risk a precious incarnation with all its potential for spiritual enlightenment, was inconceivable. They could only assume that the British were after gold and treasure, wealth hidden on the heights. In a certain sense, this was true, for fame and fortune certainly awaited the first victors on Everest.

But the mountain would also reward the Sherpa. Their strength and endurance at altitude, perseverance, loyalty, and discipline, together with a cultural disposition that allowed them to embrace with magnanimity and calm all the challenges of life, would make them essential partners in the entire history of Himalayan climbing. Their mountaineering achievements, in time, would far surpass Kellas’ imaginings, securing them a reputation as the finest climbers in the world, bar none.

Album Page Showing Sherpa with Newly Issued Identity Discs

Album Page Showing Sherpa with Newly Issued Identity Discs
1936 British Mount Everest Expedition
Photographed by Jim Gavin
Phur Temba, India
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

The Equipment of 1921-1924

Climbers dressed in tweeds, reading Shakespeare to each other in the snow, is one of the most beguiling images of the early British efforts on Everest. The men, in fact, benefited from the very latest of equipment, much of it custom designed and manufactured for the expeditions. The first down jacket was created in 1922 for George Finch, based on his specifications. A thorough inventory was made after every expedition, with each climber offering a detailed assessment and critique; no item escaped scrutiny, from tents to face creams. Improvements were constantly being made.

But there were notable challenges. They had primitive crampons, but could not use them at high elevation as the leather straps impaired circulation and increased risk of frostbite; front pointed crampons, essential for steep ice, had yet to be invented. Modern climbing ropes are seven times stronger than the cotton weaves available in 1920. Aside from a rope and ice axe, the British had none of the climbing aids deemed essential to the modern climber, no cams and stoppers, not even metal pitons. Their oxygen pack, state of the art at the time, weighed thirty pounds, twice that of a modern apparatus.

On his final climb, George Mallory wore seven, perhaps eight layers of thin silk and wool, a leather helmet, and boots fitted with nails that conducted the cold. A climber today on the Northeast Ridge of Everest would wear double fleece, a wind parka, a full down suit with four inches of insulation, wool beneath down hoods engineered into their parkas, and thick nylon boots insulated with closed-cell foam. Everest climbers who know the history of the early British efforts question not whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit, but rather how they managed against such odds to reach as high on the mountain as they did.

Ice Axe Used by Alexander Kellas in Himalayan Expeditions

Ice Axe Used by Alexander Kellas in Himalayan Expeditions
early 20th century
Steel, wood, and cloth
Probably made in England
Lent by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

1922 British Mount Everest Expedition

General Charles Bruce, expedition leader in 1922, was a soldier’s soldier, affectionately known as the Mad Mountain Maniac. His challenge in 1922 was to advance into the mountains as late as possible, with the hope of avoiding the worst of the winter, but still in time to reach Everest and complete the assault before the arrival of the monsoon.

 At a critical moment, climber and oxygen expert George Finch fell ill, and the expedition authorized Henry Morshead, Edward Norton, George Mallory, and Howard Somervell to attempt the summit as a team. The climb was a near disaster with the four nearly being swept off the mountain to their deaths. Each returned suffering from exposure. Once recovered, Finch recruited the transport officer, Geoffrey Bruce, cousin of the general, a brave soldier but not a mountaineer. Still, using oxygen, the two men established a new height record, though it nearly cost them their lives.

 Mallory insisted on a third attempt despite dangerous snow conditions on the North Col. On June 7, as his party rested 600 feet beneath the crest of the col, the slope gave way, and seven Sherpa were swept to their deaths. Mallory was haunted by their fate, as were the other climbers. “Only Sherpa and Bhotias killed,” wrote Somervell, “why, oh why could not one of us, Britishers, shared their fate? I would gladly at that moment have been lying there, dead in the snow. If only to give those fine chaps who had survived the feeling that we had shared their loss, as we had indeed shared the risk.”

The 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition

The 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition
Photographed by John Noel
Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

 Back from left: Henry Morshead, Geoffrey Bruce, John Noel, Arthur Wakefield, Howard Somervell, John Morris, Edward Norton. Front from left: George Mallory, George Finch, Tom Longstaff, Charles Bruce, Edward Strutt, Colin Crawford.

Third Climbing Party Ascending the North Col

Third Climbing Party Ascending the North Col
June 7, 1922
Photographed by John Noel
Mount Everest, Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Funding the Expeditions

The 1921 to 1924 Everest expeditions, though conceived in the gentlemanly traditions of Edwardian England, were, in fact, thoroughly modern in execution. Funding came not from government or aristocratic patronage, but through sponsorships, endorsements, and the sale of film, lecture, and book rights, all the many commercial schemes that are today the norm in the mountaineering world.

 Arthur Hinks, who ran the show at the Royal Geographical Society, cut deals and drove bargains with mercenary zeal, securing free or discounted transport from England to Darjeeling of all the men and supplies, selling the scientific finds and the story itself to the highest bidders, and finding organizations interested in provisioning the expedition. He sought markdowns from all. In addition to marketing every aspect of the adventure—cablegrams reporting progress of the party, magazine articles by expedition members, articles about the effort by experts in the UK, photographs, special maps, cinematographic film—Hinks ruthlessly protected the back end, ensuring that the Mount Everest Committee would control and benefit exclusively from every commercial opportunity.

 Even with all of Hinks’ efforts, funding remained a challenge. The war had bankrupted the nation. In 1923 John Noel saved the day with an unprecedented offer to the Everest Committee. In exchange for all photographic and film rights to the upcoming 1924 expedition, he pledged to raise £8,000, an extraordinary sum. The committee would have access to all photographs and film stock for promotional purposes, but ownership would rest with Explorer Films, the company established by Noel. It was a turning-point in mountaineering history. The quest for the summit of Everest slipped from imperial venture to commercial opportunity.

The Expedition at Breakfast

The Expedition at Breakfast
1922
Photographed by John Noel
Mount Everest, Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Seated, from left: Wakefield, Morris, Charles Bruce, Norton, an unnamed Gurkha, Geoffrey Bruce. Waiting on the table is a porter.

Oxygen

At the summit of Everest, a climber absorbs only a third of the oxygen that they would at sea level. This more than anything distinguished the Everest challenge from the quest for the Poles. It was one thing to face conditions of extreme cold and bitter exposure. It was quite another to do so whilst moving not laterally across landscape but vertically to heights where the very air cannot sustain life.

The British in 1921 knew that in climbing beyond 25,000 feet, they would be entering a zone as hostile and mysterious as the surface of the moon. Would they be able to survive? Alexander Kellas had ascertained that at least two camps would have to be established and equipped at elevations where no man had ever walked, let alone slept overnight, ominous heights known to later generations as the death zone.

Supplemental oxygen, as commonly used by pilots in the war, was the obvious, if controversial, solution. Traditionalists declared it unsporting. The more scientifically inclined members of the 1922 team believed that augmenting one’s equipment with oxygen was no different than seeking the finest pair of boots. No one knew what would happen at such heights, or what might occur should the apparatus fail, and the flow of air suddenly cease.

The ongoing debate, only resolved by Finch’s resounding success using oxygen in 1922, highlighted a growing divide between those who still considered climbing to be a sport of gentlemen, and a new generation who played in an altogether different league. Reaching for the summit of Everest was not about sportsmanship, chivalry, honor, or any of the quaint values that had died in the mud of Flanders; it was about life and death, nothing more.

Four-Cylinder Oxygen Set

Four-Cylinder Oxygen Set
1922
Stainless steel, rubber, copper, and leather
Made by Siebe Gormann
Lent by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

1924 British Mount Everest Expedition

By 1924, the eyes of all the British empire were upon the climbers as they marched once again to Everest. With the team augmented by Noel Odell and the young yet ferociously strong Sandy Irvine there was every reason to anticipate success. But things went wrong from the start. Expedition leader Charles Bruce collapsed at Phari and had to be evacuated to Darjeeling, leaving Norton in command. At Rongbuk, they came upon an ominous mural, recently painted, depicting a British party being cast into a cold abyss of hell. Snowfall on the mountain was horrendous. At a critical point, several porters became stranded on the North Col, prompting a heroic and successful rescue that exhausted Norton, Mallory, Irvine, and Somervell on the very eve of their summit attemptsClimbing alone, Norton reached 28,126 feet before retreating, dizzy with vertigo and suffering the first signs of snow blindness. On the descent, he passed Somervell, who moments later collapsed, unable to breathe; he saved his own life by pounding his chest, dislodging the frozen lining of his larynx which had clogged his airways.

On June 6 Mallory and Irvine, with oxygen, set off on the expedition’s final attempt. Two days later, at 12:50 p.m., Odell, climbing in support, spotted two black spots high on the Northeast Ridge nearing the base of the final pyramid. They were going strong for the top, he later recalled, even as the mist rolled in and enveloped their memory in myth. Mallory and Irvine perished somewhere on the mountain that day, leaving generations of climbers to question whether they might possibly have reached the summit before meeting their end.

The 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition

The 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition
Photographer unknown
Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Back from left: Sandy Irvine, George Mallory, Edward Norton, Noel Odell, John MacDonald. Front from left: Edward Shebbeare, Geoffrey Bruce, Howard Somervell, Bentley Beetham.

Norton at His Highest Point

Norton at His Highest Point
June 4, 1924
Photographed by John Noel
Mount Everest, Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Mallory and Irvine Preparing for Their Last Climb

Mallory and Irvine Preparing for Their Last Climb
June 6, 1924
Photographed by Noel Odell
Mount Everest, Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Telegram Announcing the Death of Mallory and Irvine

Telegram Announcing the Death of Mallory and Irvine
June 19, 1924
From Edward Norton
Lent by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

John Noel and The Affair of the Dancing Lamas

John Noel’s remarkable talent as a visual artist earned him a place on the 1922 Everest expedition. He brought not only state-of- the-art equipment, but also a sophisticated aesthetic, informed by a rare understanding of what the new medium of film implied. Mallory would famously complain that he had not come to Tibet to become a film star. But he had, whether he realized it or not. Noel would see to it. His two films, Climbing Mount Everest (1922) and The Epic of Everest (1924), transformed a mountaineering challenge into a national mission, elevating Mallory, an unknown climber, into the realm of the Titans.

But despite their stardom, Noel’s players were painfully mortal. The Epic of Everest was scheduled to open three months after his return from Everest and the death of Mallory and Irvine had forced him to reconfigure the film from heroic triumph to sublime tragedy. As if to distract the audience from the expedition’s ultimate failure, Noel arranged for a British agent to bring from Gyantse seven Tibetan monks, along with full ritual regalia. The monks, according to Noel’s plans, would tour with the film, performing before every screening an overture of religious music and dances, setting the mood, as he put it, with “large doses of local colour.”

The film and associated fanfare could not have come at a worse time. Lhasa was a powder keg with traditionalists and those in favor of modernization, including the Dalai Lama, vying for power in the Tibetan capital. Newspaper coverage of monks traveling to England only to perform rituals on stage like some carnival show provoked outrage, especially among the conservative monastic factions in charge. When, a year later, in 1925, the Everest Committee again sought permission to mount an expedition, British diplomats did not even forward the request to Tibetan authorities. This outcome, impossible to anticipate in 1924, was a disturbing legacy of The Epic of Everest, a film that remains, nevertheless, an early masterpiece of the documentary genre.

John Noel Kinematographing the Ascent of Mt. Everest

John Noel Kinematographing the Ascent of Mt. Everest
1922
Photographer unknown
Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Lamas at a Premiere of The Epic of Everest

Lamas at a Premiere of The Epic of Everest
December 2, 1924
Daily Mirror
London, England
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

1933 British Mount Everest Expedition

Not until 1933, nine years after the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine, would another British climbing party cross Tibet to reach the base of the North Col. Two of the old veterans went along as transport officers, but the climbers were of a new generation, Eric Shipton, Wyn Harris, Bill Wager, Frank Smythe, and Jack Longland, all too young to have known the war. Only the expedition leader, Hugh Ruttledge, might have served, had not a hunting accident kept him on administrative duty in India for the duration of the conflict.

On the mountain that year three men went high, Harris and Wager, and then Smythe climbing alone the following day. Avoiding Mallory’s route along the crest of the Northeast Ridge, they all traversed to the couloir, each managing to ascend just high enough to equal but not surpass Norton’s height record of 1924. Nothing so grand would be achieved by the subsequent British efforts of the 1930s. The reconnaissance of 1935 barely reached the North Col. An early onset of the monsoon repulsed the 1936 expedition. In 1938 heavy snow limited all movement; no one climbed higher than 27,300 feet. If achieving the summit of Everest had at one point been a symbol of Imperial redemption, the record of six unsuccessful attempts was a reminder of national impotence.

The Everest Committee met for the last time on June 14, 1939, ten weeks before the German invasion of Poland. There was talk of returning to the mountain, and permission was formally sought to launch expeditions in 1940, 1941, and 1942. Hitler’s war buried such dreams, and by the time it was over, the Chinese Maoists were poised to take over Tibet and shut down all access to Everest from the north.

Radio Equipment at Base Camp

Radio Equipment at Base Camp
1933
Photographed by Frank Smythe
Rongbuk Valley, Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Percy Wyn Harris Looking to the Horizon from Camp V

Percy Wyn Harris Looking to the Horizon from Camp V
May 22, 1933
Photographed by Lawrence Wager
Mount Everest, Tibet
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

1953 British Mount Everest Expedition

In 1950, even as China eliminated access to Everest from the north, Nepal, succumbing to pressure from Britain and the United States, opened its borders. British and Swiss expeditions probed the mountain from the south, along the axis that Mallory and Bullock had scoped in 1921, when they peered down from the heights of the West Rongbuk glacier to the Khumbu Icefield and the Western Cwm.

In 1953 victory came at last in the form of a beekeeper from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary, a humble farmer from the ultimate frontier of empire, and a bold Nepali Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, a figure destined to invert history itself, transforming in a single athletic accomplishment the very definition of what it meant to rule and to be ruled. It was a triumph not just for Tenzing but for all of India, which had only achieved its independence in 1947. The refusal of both Hillary and Tenzing to reveal who had been the first to reach the summit was an astonishing gesture which Prime Minister Nehru, in particular, immediately embraced as a symbol of the promise of the new nation. Never again would Indians walk in shame, as if an inferior people in their own homeland. With a single step at the summit of the world, Tenzing Norgay shattered colonial conceits that had been the foundation of British rule in India for 200 years.

When Hillary and Tenzing first returned from their triumph to Base Camp, Hillary motioned to Wilfred Noyce, one of the other British climbers, and said simply, “Wouldn’t Mallory be pleased if he knew about this?” A telegram celebrating their success reached London on the eve of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Headlines celebrated both achievements, “All This—And Everest Too!”

Team Members Resting on Rocks in a Nepali Village

Team Members Resting on Rocks in a Nepali Village
1953
Photographed by Alfred Gregory
Nepal
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

From left: Wilfred Noyce, expedition leader John Hunt, George Band, Charles Evans, Tom Bourdillon, George Lowe, Mike Westmacott, Mike Ward.

Hillary and Tenzing Preparing to Ascend Everest from the South Col

Hillary and Tenzing Preparing to Ascend Everest from the South Col
1953
Photographed by Alfred Gregory
Nepal
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

Tenzing Norgay on the Summit of Mount Everest

Tenzing Norgay on the Summit of Mount Everest
May 29, 1953
Photographed by Edmund Hillary
Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

The Lingering Mystery

George Mallory’s body was discovered on Everest on May 1, 1999 by the American climber Conrad Anker. Of all the artifacts recovered, clues that might reveal whether the legendary climber had reached the summit before meeting his end, this climbing rope, found wrapped around his waist, had the most to tell.

The key impediment on the Northeast Ridge is the Second Step, a formidable pitch of rock with 8000-foot exposures. Modern climbers rappel down, their ropes anchored to a prominent boulder at the top of the pitch. Mallory and Irvine might conceivably have surmounted the Second Step, as Noel Odell maintained, but getting down was another matter; their rope was neither long or strong enough for such a rappel.

Mallory would never have exposed his young companion to unreasonable risks or abandoned him to make a solo attempt for the summit. This broken rope indicates that they fell together, as brothers, and, judging from the remarkable condition of Mallory's body, not from the heights of the Northeast Ridge, but on the descent, much further down the mountain. George Mallory was still alive as his broken body came to rest in the rocks, not 300 yards from the safety of Camp VI, where Odell maintained his vigil until 4:30 p.m. on that fateful day. What became of Sandy Irvine remains a mystery.

Mallory’s Cotton Climbing Rope

Mallory’s Cotton Climbing Rope
Used on the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition
Found with Mallory’s remains in 1999
Lent by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London

A Growing Mountain

Soaring to 29,032 feet, marking the Himalayan border between Nepal and Tibet, Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, only gets taller, increasing in height by about an inch every three years, as it has for centuries.

George Everest

Origin of Name

The British named the mountain in honor of the head of the Survey of India, George Everest, whose family name was actually pronounced Eave-rest. A miserable man, widely disliked in India, his legacy was to have a mountain named in his honor yet mispronounced for all time. The Tibetan name, according to Charles Bell, was Kang Chamolung, “The Snow of Bird Land.” Over time, this morphed in the Western imagination to Chomolungma, with the fanciful translation, “Goddess Mother of the World.”

Height Records of the 1921-1953 British Expeditions

Both the ambitions and expectations of the British increased dramatically with each expedition, rising to new heights on the mountain.

  • 1921: The expedition identifies a path to the summit via the North Col. Mallory, Bullock, and Wheeler reach the summit of the Col to establish a new height record of 23,000 feet.

  • 1922: Mallory, Norton, and Somervell depart from the North Col to set an initial record of 26,800 feet. A week later Finch and Bruce use oxygen to reach 27,300 feet.

  • 1924: Norton and Somervell cross the upper face of Everest to the great couloir, with Norton reaching 28,126 feet. Days later Mallory and Irvine reach at least as high as the First Step, a height record that would endure for thirty years.

  • 1930s: Harris and Wager, and then Frank Smythe climbing alone the following day, traverse to the couloir, each managing to equal but not surpass Norton’s height record of 1924.

  • 1953: Approaching the mountain from Nepal, the British return to Everest after Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay, climbing for a Swiss expedition, reach 28,199 feet in 1952. Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon, climb to the South Summit of Everest at 28,750 feet, but turn back to save their lives. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay successfully reach the summit just days later.
The Dangers of Everest

Here we look at some of the ways in which those who attempted reaching the summit of Everest risked their lives to do so:

  • Deadly Topography: Much of the danger in climbing Everest comes from the terrain itself. Buildups of loose snow can easily lead to avalanches, burying unsuspecting climbers in their path; towering pyres of ice called seracs can topple over with little warning, crushing those beneath; and frozen chasms and rocks faces mean that small slips can cause climbers to plummet to their deaths. In 1922 a group of nine Sherpas were swept down the mountain by an avalanche; seven of them died. It is quite likely from Mallory’s injuries that he and Irvine fell while climbing the treacherous final ridge to the summit.

  • Bitter Cold: Even during the most favorable months of the year, the summit of Everest averages -15° F. Climbers face bitter cold on the mountain, meaning that small mistakes and improper equipment can lead to exposure: frostbite, skin and tissue freezing, and hypothermia, the body losing more heat than it produces. The first climbing party in 1922 returned with several members of the party suffering from severe frostbite. One climber lost fingers and another lost part of their ear.

  • Altitude Sickness: Altitude sickness is caused by rapid changes in air pressure and oxygen levels. Smart Everest climbers spend time acclimating to high altitudes before making the final push up the mountain. Ascending too quickly can lead to a variety of symptoms, the worst of which are high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), an excess buildup of fluids in the lungs, and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), an excess buildup of fluid in the brain. Both are potentially fatal. Though altitude sickness was recognized as early as the 16th century, it was little studied until the invention of the MRI in the late 20th century. The role altitude sickness may have played in the early Everest climbs is still being examined.

  • Lack of Oxygen: It is difficult to tell how many deaths have been caused by a lack of oxygen at the higher altitudes on Everest as it is a contributing factor to cardiac arrest, stroke, altitude sickness, and in general makes it far more difficult for climbers to make split-second decisions that would save their lives. Rather than risk death from oxygen deprivation, many of the early climbs were halted when oxygen equipment failed.

  • Exhaustion: Needing to push oneself past their human limits to climb Everest may be hailed as heroic but doing so puts an immense amount of stress on the body. Extreme exhaustion can lead to organ failure as well as cardiac arrest and stroke. In just getting to the mountain in 1921, Alexander Kellas suffered a fatal heart attack.
Glossary

Alpine Club: World's first mountaineering club, founded in London in 1857. Funder of all the early British Mount Everest Expeditions.

British Raj: British colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947.

Cams, Stoppers, and Pitons: Climbing equipment which can be hammered or otherwise fitted into crevices in rock walls to prevent climbers from falling long distances.

Chomolungama: Widely adopted corruption of the original Tibetan name for Mount Everest. Chomolungma translates to “Goddess Mother of the World,” whereas the original name, Kang Chamolung, translates to the “Snow of Bird Land.”

Col: Lowest point in a ridge or saddle between two peaks.

Coolie: Adopted British term used to refer to unskilled laborers from England's colonies in Asia. It is now regarded as a derogatory racial slur.

Couloir: Narrow and steep mountainside gully especially those that present as paths in otherwise unnavigable terrain.

Crampons: Metal spikes which can be attached to shoes to aid in climbing ice and snow.

Cwm: A hollow surrounded on most sides by steep slopes at the head of a glacier, valley, or on a mountainside.

Dzongpen: Governor of a region of Tibet.

Great War: World War I; an international conflict between England, France, and Russia and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy fought throughout Africa and Eurasia from 1914 to 1918. Many of the early Everest expeditioners were veterans of this war.

Glacier: A slow-moving mass of ice formed by compaction when snow from a source such as Mount Everest creates more ice than melts off.

Icefall: Glacier on a significant slope; icefalls are generally characterized by large, jagged blocks of ice.

Massif: Compact mass of mountains.

Monsoon: Seasonal shift in the prevailing winds of Southern and Eastern Asia. From June to September, the summer monsoon brings high winds and frequent, violent snowstorms to the slopes of Everest. As a result, most climbers to this day attempt Everest in May and October.

Mount Everest Committee: Joint body formed from the Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club to fund and organize expeditions to explore and summit Everest.

Porter: Individual paid to carry supplies on an overland expedition.

Royal Geographical Society: Learned society and professional body for geography founded in London in 1830. Funder of all the early British Mount Everest Expeditions.

Sahib: Term of address used throughout the Middle East and Asia; here it refers to the members of the early British Everest expeditions.

Sherpa: Ethnic Tibetans who had settled in the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal, on the southern approaches to Everest, in the 15th century. They now hold the reputation as the finest mountaineers in the world.

Sirdar: Word used on the Indian subcontinent for a foreman or person in a position of responsibility; here it refers to Sherpa who organized the porters, equipment, and loads critical to the expedition. For the 1953 expedition, Tenzing was both sirdar and a climbing member.

Survey of India: Agency founded by the British East India Company in 1767 to survey and map India. Governed by the British Raj between 1858 and 1947 and more recently by the independent government of India.

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