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21 Apr: Everest–A (very) brief climbing history

As we wait for word on whether the team has made it’s first of several trips through the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 1 at 19,900’, we’d like to offer a short history lesson on Mt. Everest climbing. 2013 is an auspicious year to be on Everest, as it is the 60th anniversary of the first ascent by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and the 50th anniversary of the first ascent by an American, Jim Whittaker.

The first detailed reconnaissance of Mt Everest by westerners was carried out in 1921 by a British Expedition. One of the members of that expedition, George Mallory, was asked by a newspaper reporter why it was necessary to climb Everest. His reported reply has become probably the most famous phrase in mountaineering: “because it is there.” Mallory returned to Everest in 1922 and again in 1924 to attempt the summit from the north. On the early afternoon of 8 Jun 1924, Mallory and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, were sighted high on Everest’s northeast ridge. Shortly thereafter, they disappeared into clouds and were never seen again. A controversy has raged ever since about whether either man reached the summit, a debate that was reenergized by the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999. Whether they summited or not may never be known, but one thing is quite certain: the rules of modern mountaineering dictate that reaching a summit is not enough. A climber must also get safely down.

In 1953, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand, and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali Sherpa, accomplished just that. On 29 May 1953, they reached the highest point on Earth via the South Col route, and returned safely to take their places in the history books. The route established by Hillary and Norgay is the most commonly used route on Everest today, and the one the USAF 7 Summits team will be climbing.

Ten years later, an American expedition came to the Khumbu with the intent of reaching the summit by not one, but two routes: the South Col route pioneered by Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and the much more difficult West Ridge. (For an excellent account of this expedition, see this month’s Outside Magazine.) Jim Whittaker of Seattle reached the summit via the South Col route on 1 May 1953, together with Nawang Gombu, a nephew of Tenzing Norgay. A few weeks later, the American team attempted an audacious feat: climbers Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein would attempt the unclimbed West Ridge, while two other Americans, Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop would ascend from high camp on the South Col, with the intent of all four rendezvousing on the summit. Jerstad and Bishop reached the summit first, but after 45 minutes with no sign of Unsoeld and Hornbein, they began their descent.

Unsoeld and Hornbein did each the summit, the first climbers to do so by the treacherous West Ridge. But they did not arrive there until 6:15pm, dangerously late in the day. In fact, their summit attempt was a desperate gamble. With no means of retreat along the West Ridge, they were committed to summiting Everest, and descending via the unfamiliar South Col route. Had they linked up with their teammates as planned, they would have had the benefit of their experience on the route to guide them down. Now, they had only their footprints in the snow.

The four climbers did eventually join up. Jerstad and Bishop had stopped to rest in the darkness, when they heard voices at about 7:30pm. It was another two hours before the climbers found one another. They continued together for several more hours, until the point they were in no condition to complete the descent to the safety of the tents on the South Col. Instead, they chose to bivouac, with no tents or sleeping bags, at an altitude of 28,000’. The chances of survival under such conditions were bleak, but the story has a happy ending. All four climbers made it down safely, although not without a high cost. Bishop lost all ten toes to frostbite.

Climbers today stand on the shoulders of these giants who pioneered the routes to the roof of the world. But today’s climbers have also learned much from the mistakes of their predecessors. Mountaineering poses certain risks, but those risks are managed by careful planning and sound decision-making on the mountain. The USAF 7 Summits team is committed to carrying the Air Force flag to the summit of Everest, but even more so to the goal of bringing the team home safely.