The news of June 2, 1953 was of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, but also of the hailed “good omen” for their country’s future…in reference to the first explorers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, which at 29,035 feet above sea level is the highest point on earth. The landmark assent to the top of the world culminated at 11:30am on May 29, 1953 when Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa of Nepal, made their final assault on the summit after spending a fitful night at 27,900 feet.
While the first summit of Mount Everest was an epic accomplishment, it was the words “fitful night” that drew my attention the most. I recently finished a novel by Harry Farthing called “Summit.” While his book was a novel, much of it was based on, if not actual events, actual conditions on the mountain. I am a hiker, and I like hiking to the highest mountains in an area, but let it be known that I am not a mountain climber, and I have no desire to hike through treacherous snow storms to reach the victory of the summit. Nevertheless, many people are obsessed with getting to the world’s highest peaks. Such was the case with Hillary and Norgay. They were determined to make it. I have no idea how prepared they were, but since their victory, and quite possibly before it too, there have been those who misjudged the mountain, the storms, and their own abilities…to their detriment.
While listening to “Summit,” I found myself cheering on the climbers, but also feeling the depths of the many defeats along the way. The biggest necessity on the mountain, is oxygen. At the base camp of Mount Everest, which is 17,500 feet, the air contains 50% of oxygen levels at sea level. At that level, without oxygen, people feel tired and light-headed and develop a headache. They might feel nauseous and even begin to vomit up everything they eat, and then just dry heave themselves to exhaustion. Of course, having oxygen tanks can change this situation into one that is manageable for survival. And that is just at the base camp, which is almost 12,000 feet below the summit. Between Camp 1, at 20,000 feet, and Camp 3, at 24,000 the oxygen levels drop to below 40%. At this point you are prone to hallucinate. Your whole body hurts. You can’t eat, sleep, and most people find breathing next to impossible. From here you operate on sheer willpower. You put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving, because if you do not, you will die. As you near the summit, at 29,035 feet, the air has less that one-third of the sea level oxygen, and can drop as low as 14%…a low level that was recorded in 1996. Twenty climbers lost their fight with the mountain, and their lives, that year. At this point, you should for all intents and purposes be dead. If you are still going, you are probably one of just a few people. On May 8, 1978, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler reached the summit of Mount Everest. They were the first men known to climb it without the use of supplemental oxygen. Two years later, on August 20, 1980, Messner again stood atop the highest mountain in the world, without supplementary oxygen. Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger also summited the highest mountain in the world in 2017…Ballinger without supplemental oxygen. I don’t know how they did it. Those who have failed to make it to the summit, with or without oxygen, have said that they now know what dying feels like. I’m sure that doesn’t apply to all kinds of death, but certainly death on Mount Everest or any of the other mountains that are nearly as tall, it is like this. The symptoms of death by oxygen depravation quickly take their toll on the body. In the minutes before death, the pain must be excruciating. And then, still before death arrives, the body gives up, and feels no more. The people that die on Everest are left on Everest. They climbers that go up, pass them along the way. It is a grim reminder that if you are not prepared, you might not be coming down.
Mount Everest sits on the crest of the Great Himalayas in Asia, lying on the border between Nepal and Tibet. Called Chomo-Lungma, or “Mother Goddess of the Land,” by the Tibetans, the English named the mountain after Sir George Everest, a 19th-century British surveyor of South Asia. It is a majestic mountain, and one I might enjoy seeing…from an airplane…but it is not one that I would ever choose to climb, even though I love to hike. Nevertheless, you can’t help be to be in awe of those who would climb the mountain and receive that treacherous victory.