Everest is not just the highest mountain in the world but it is also the most popular 8000-er. Obviously, many climbers feel inspired to follow in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary. But it’s also made possible by the fact that climbers can reach the summit both from the Chinese as well as from the Nepalese side. The border between China and Nepal actually crosses the summit.
In 1856 the British conducted a survey from India to map the peaks of the Himalayas. They came to the conclusion that “Peak XV” was the highest mountain in the world and 9 years later, they named it Mount Everest. The official altitude at the time was 8840 meter. That altitude was adjusted to 8848 meter in 1955 and to 8850 meters a few years ago.
The British were also the first ones that were compelled to climb Everest. Because Nepal was closed for foreigners, those first expeditions were set up from the Tibetan side. An expedition from 1922 reached 8310 meter, a new record at the time. On the descent, 7 porters were unfortunately killed in an avalanche: they were the first people to die on Everest.
The next expedition in 1924 created one of the biggest mysteries in the history of mountaineering. George Mallory and Andrew Irvine left camp for the summit on 8th June but never returned. It is obvious they died, but did they reach the summit before they died or not ? They disappeared in the clouds and were not seen again until the body of Mallory was discovered in 1999. The body of Irvine hasn’t been found yet. Up until this day, there are those who believe that not Hillary/Norgay but Mallory/Irvine were the first ones on the summit.
In 1950 the Chinese decided to close the Tibetan side of Everest so climbers had to move their attempts to the Nepalese side. In 1952, the Swiss organized an attempt in which Tenzing Norgay made it to 8595 meter, again an altitude record. In 1953, the British had another go. Tenzing Norgay’s experience would prove to be crucial in this expedition. A first attempt on 26th May ended 100 meter below the summit, but contributed significantly to the success of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary three days later.
In the mean time, this feat was repeated 6788 times. In 1975, Junko Tabei reached the summit as the first woman. In 1978, Reinhold Messner was the first one to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. But not all attempts ended well. In the mean time, 208 mountaineers did not survive Everest, the 16 Sherpa’s that died on the same day in 2014 being a sad climax. But climbing on Everest has gradually become safer. While 3 % of climbers did not return in the 80ies, that percentage has decreased to 0.6 % in the last couple of years. And that percentage is considerably better if you exclude the attempts and deaths of mountaineers that didn’t use supplemental oxygen. In other words, using oxygen significantly increases your chances of survival.
Those that want to climb Everest, need to decide first which side they want to climb it from: the northern, Chinese side or the southern, Nepalese side. Moutaineers have a tendency to classify the side they used as the “toughest side”. But those that have climbed Everest from both sides will assure you that there is no difference from that point of view. The northern side is colder and doesn’t allow you to retreat to the comfort of a lodge easily. Another important difference from my point of view is that the southern side is safer. The top part of the southern route is steeper which makes a rescue mission easier to execute. On top of that, there are more professional Western climbers and Sherpa’s on the southern side, which makes the chances of there being someone that can actually execute a rescue considerably bigger.
The northern route starts at the Rongbuk glacier where basecamp is set up at 5180 meter. Climbers continue from their on via the eastern Rongbuk glacier to the base of Changtse at 6100 meter where Advanced basecamp is located. Camp 1 is situated 400 meter higher, below the North Col. Mountaineers then climb over the glacier and via fixed ropes to the North Col to reach camp 2 at 7000 meter. From here, climbers continue via the rocky col to camp 3 at 7800 meter. The route crosses the North Face diagonally to camp 4 at 8300 meter. This is were most summit attempts start from the Northern side. Three challenges remain to be overcome: the first step at 8500 meter, the second step at 8580 meter and the third step at 8800 meter. Especially the second step is a serious challenge but is equipped with a permanent ladder. 50 meters above the third step, you reach the highest point on earth.
The southern route can be split in 4 parts. Just above basecamp is the Khumbu icefall. An icefall is to a glacier what a waterfall is to a river. An icefall is created when a glacier glides off a steep section. The ice breaks up and becomes unstable. So climbing through the Khumbu icefall is not risk free. The ice doctors, a group of Sherpa’s that have been assigned by the Nepalese ministry of tourism, set up ropes and ladders each year to minimize that danger. Camp 1 is located at 6000 meter at the top of the Khmbu Icefall. Camp 1 also marks the start of the Western Cwm, which is a gentle climb to the bottom of the Lhotse face. The Western Cwm is technically simple, but it can get boiling hot because of the reflection of the sun in the snow. Camp 2 is at 6400 meter, approximately in the middle of the Western Cwm. The Lhotse face is the third and steepest part of the climb. Camp 3 is at about 7200 meter. At 7600 meter, you need to cross the Yellow band, a yellow piece of rock. From there on you continue to the Geneva Spur at 7800 meter and camp 4 at 8000 meter in the saddle between Everest and Lhotse. From camp 4, you first climb on a gradual section towards the “Balcony” at 8500 meter. Climbers then follow the col to the South Summit at 8750 meter. The last obstacle between the South Summit and the real summit is the “Hillary step”. This is a vertical rock climb of about 10 meters high. Technically not difficult, but you are climbing this piece of rock at 8800 meter. Once you’ve passed the Hillary step, the route to the summit is open.
Success rate per decade
Everest is not only the most popular 8000-er. It also has the highest success ratio. The average success ratio is 45 %, but the last couple of years this percentage can be as high as 58 %. However, that doesn’t mean that Everest is the easiest 8000-er. The professional organization on the mountain is probably the best (but stories about Sherpa’s that carry their clients to the summit are totally made up). On top of that the sheer amount of climbers means that the work can be split across many people and that also increases the chances of success. But make no mistake: not everyone has a 58 % chance to reach the summit of Everest. Most mountaineers that come to Everest already have a history of climbing and surviving in extreme circumstances and acclimatize well. And out of this group of – usually – very fit adventurers, 58 % reaches the summit since 2000 (40 % of those successful summits are actually Sherpa’s). But from the same group 15 adventurers have not survived.
Summits per year
The graph below shows the amount of summits per season and per year on Everest. A number of elements on this graph immediately grab the attention. First of all, spring is obviously the most popular season on Everest. In the spring, a mountaineer has about 8 weeks to finish the job but in autumn he or she only has about 6 weeks. On a mountain that is higher than 8500, these extra 2 weeks can make a real difference. Secondly, it is clear that the number of climbers and therefore also the number of summits has increased significantly since 1990. As of 1990 commercial expeditions have been on the rise and this has not only contributed to the success ratio and the security but also to the amount of climbers on Everest. This commercial approach is a logical consequence of the fact that more people have the means and the motivation to take on an extreme challenge. Other sectors such as scuba diving are showing a similar trend. Interesting as well is the fact that the growth on Everest is flat since 2007. 2007 – the year that I was on Everest as well – was an absolute top year with 632 summits. 2013 – the year I was on Lhotse right next to Everest – was another top year with 652 summits. It will be interesting to see whether that trend continues.