Higher Purpose: The Ascent of Everest


To celebrate 60 years of the first ascent of the world’s tallest mountain, adventure enthusiasts ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY chronicle death, danger, dreams and the lure of the Everest


From traveling to the ends of the earth, going into outer space or plumbing the depths of the ocean, man’s quest for exploration knows no bounds. One doesn’t look for logic in performing human feats that surpass the perceived limits of physical and mental endurance. Grit, self-belief and a sense of purpose empower individuals to undertake death-defying journeys, often to places where no one has gone before. Mountaineering is no different. On being asked why he climbed mountains, British climber George Mallory famously answered ‘Because it’s there…’

But how you can climb a mountain unless you know it’s there? For years, Kanchenjunga on the Sikkim-Nepal border was believed to be the world’s tallest mountain. Though the quest to scale Mount Everest is fairly well documented, the attempts to locate and measure it are not so well known… Equally fascinating is the part a group of Indians played in this epic adventure.


In 1802, the British started the Great Trigonometric Survey of India to determine the earth’s curvature by measuring the length of the country. The survey would also map out the world’s highest mountains. For measurements, Col. William Lambton used giant theodolites, precision instruments that weighed 500 kg and took 12 men to carry! Lt. George Everest, appointed as assistant to Lambton in 1818, succeeded him as Surveyor-General of India (1830-43). Starting from South India, the surveyors slowly worked their way up north taking three decades to reach the foothills of the Himalayas. Wary of Britain’s imperialist designs, Nepal refused to give them access and the British continued their observations from the Terai region on the Nepal-Bihar border.

Since Nepal and Tibet were closed to foreigners, the British employed several natives in this enterprise. Syed Mir Mohsin Husain, an Arcot-born watchmaker from Madras joined in 1824 as an instrument repairer and eventually became chief mathematical instrument maker. Nain Singh Rawat of Kumaon entered Tibet disguised as a Lama and carried out secret surveys for nearly 2 years. Aided by Mani Singh and Kishen Singh, the Pundit brothers surveyed the Tibet mountains extensively. To avoid suspicion, these ‘spy explorers’ went disguised as monks or traders using ingenious methods.


Measurements were coded as written prayers. These scrolls were hidden in the cylinder of the prayer wheel while a compass was stored in the lid. The topmost part of the monk’s staff hid a thermometer while secret pockets and false bottoms in provisions chests held surveying instruments. Mercury, used to create an artificial horizon, was kept in cowrie shells and was poured into the begging bowl whenever it had to be used. They were trained to take equal-paced steps and record distances using a modified Buddhist rosary with 100 beads instead of the standard 108. For every 100 steps they would count one bead, so a full rosary count represented 10,000 steps. Since each step was 31 ½ inches, a mile was roughly 2,000 steps.

Thus, Nain Singh became the first person to determine the exact location and altitude of Lhasa, mapped the trade route from Nepal to Tibet and the course of the Tsangpo River. Aiding the British was a battery of astute Bengali mathematicians led by Radhanath Sikdar, who joined the survey in the 1830s as a 19-year-old maths wunderkind and computor. In 1852 Sikdar informed the British Surveyor General of India Andrew Waugh that Peak XV was the highest point in the region and perhaps the world. After making sure, in 1856 Waugh recorded the first published height of Peak XV as 29,002 ft (8,840 m).


On Waugh’s recommendation the Royal Geographical Society gave Peak XV its official English name in 1865 after his predecessor Sir George Everest. The irony was that Everest never even saw the mountain. He protested that his name was pronounced ‘Eev-rist’, not easy for the native tongue and was a departure from the standard practice of using the mountain’s local name. Although Tibetans had been calling the mountain Chomolungma for centuries, outsiders were not privy to this information. And so, the name ‘Mount Everest’ stuck and Sikdar was conveniently forgotten…

After the First World War and the Anglo-Afghan Wars, the British once again turned their attention to their original conquest – the world’s highest mountain. Access was either from Tibet to the north or through Nepal from the south, but both Himalayan countries were hostile to outsiders. It was only through high-level diplomacy and an appeal to Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama that the British finally secured permission to visit Tibet in 1921.


The first British Reconnaissance Expedition, organized by the Mount Everest Committee, explored routes up the North Col and produced the first accurate maps of the region. George Mallory was a part of this recce and returned in 1922 for the first true attempt. Man scaled a height above 8000m for the first time. During the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition, Mallory and his young climbing partner Oxford student Andrew Irvine, disappeared high on the North-East ridge, just 800 vertical feet from the summit. Mallory’s fate was unknown for 75 years, until his body was discovered in 1999 by an expedition to locate the climbers’ remains. Whether Mallory was able to summit Everest, decades before Hillary’s ascent, remained the world’s biggest mountaineering mystery.

Subsequent attempts of Everest saw some of the biggest names of the British climbing fraternity – Hugh Ruttledge, who did a parikrama of Mount Kailash with his wife (the first Western woman to do so), Frank Smythe, who discovered Valley of Flowers on the Kamet expedition and Eric Shipton-Bill Tillman, the first to gain access to Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Shipton also gave a 19-year-old porter from Darjeeling his first Everest opportunity because of his attractive smile. His name was Tenzing Norgay.


Elaborating on the difficulties of high altitude climbing, Shipton explained “It would seem almost as though there were a cordon drawn round the upper part of these great peaks beyond which no man may go. The truth, of course, lies in the fact that, at altitudes of 25,000 feet and beyond, the effects of low atmospheric pressure upon the human body are so severe that really difficult mountaineering is impossible and the consequences even of a mild storm may be deadly, that nothing but the most perfect conditions of weather and snow offer the slightest chance of success, and that on the last lap of the climb no party is in a position to choose its day.”

However, not all of Everest’s admirers were climbers. In 1933 Lady Houston, a feisty showgirl named Lucy turned British millionaire, funded the Houston-Everest Flight Expedition to fly over Everest for the first time. It was believed to be Lady Houston’s way of showing opposition to plans of granting India its independence. On a still April morning, two planes took off from Purnea’s Lalbalu Aerodrome in Bihar. Marquess of Clydesdale and Colonel Blacker flew in a Houston-Westland plane accompanied by Flight Lieutenant McIntyre and aerial photographer SR Bonnett in a Westland-Wallace. The weather was so good, the trial sortie turned into an actual flight and the planes soared 100 ft above the world’s highest mountain. They returned once more for better photography of the terrain. The cables went wild. “Mount Everest has been flown over.”


The story of British eccentric Maurice Wilson is even more bizarre. A decorated World War I soldier, he got the idea of scaling Everest after reading newspaper clips of British expeditions and the Houston-Everest Flight while recovering at Black Forest. Magically cured of his long illness by a healer, Wilson was convinced that fasting and prayer were essential to his success, which would showcase his mystic beliefs to the world. He believed climbing Everest was his divine calling, “the job I’ve been given to do”. His plan, if it can be called one, was to fly a small plane to Tibet, crash-land it on the upper slopes of Everest and amble across to the summit.

Flying solo halfway across the world was a challenging task, let alone a solo ascent of Everest, a feat achieved only in 1980. Wilson was neither an aviator nor a mountaineer, so he decided to take a crash course, literally. He bought a Gipsy Moth, christened it ‘Ever Wrest’, took twice the time to get a pilot’s licence and crash-landed near Bradford. He earned a flying ban from the Air Ministry even before his expedition began. For climbing skills, rather than learning technical aspects like using an ice axe and crampons, he walked about the moderate hills of Snowdonia for five weeks, before declaring himself ready.  


In May 1933, Wilson managed to fly illegally from Britain to India via Cairo, Bahrain and Persia but his plane was impounded at Purnea. He spent the winter fasting and praying in Darjeeling, where he providentially met three Sherpas from the 1933 Ruttledge expedition. In March 1934, they slipped into Tibet disguised as Lamas and reached Rongbuk monastery. As per the grand plan, Wilson was to transport himself to the summit using his spiritual prowess and would signal the success of his mission to the monks with a shaving mirror. Maurice Wilson’s body and diary were found wrapped in a tent by a British expedition in 1935.

After a brief lull during the Second World War, political developments in the Himalayas changed the way climbers would approach Everest. Post-war the Dalai Lama had closed Tibet to foreigners. In 1950, the Chinese took control of Tibet, closing access via the north face while Nepal relaxed its borders to foreigners, opening up the southern route. The Everest was no longer an exclusively British dream as it drew international attention from Canadian, Swiss and Soviet climbers. In the 1952 expedition the Swiss managed to make the first climb to South Col. With each expedition climbers inched closer to the summit. It was going to be a race to the top…


In 1953, the British launched their ninth expedition under John Hunt. With the French securing permission to climb in 1954 and the Swiss in 1955, the British would get another shot only in 1956. It was now or never. The first climbing pair of Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon achieved the first ascent of the 8,750 m (28,700 ft) South Summit and stopped 100 m short of the final summit because of faulty oxygen equipment and lack of time. Two days later, on May 29, 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the second and final assault. Climbing the South Col route, they negotiated a 40 ft rock face (later named Hillary Step) and summited at 11:30 am. They spent 15 minutes to click photos and bury sweets as an offering to the mountain before descending.

In John Hunt’s The Ascent of Everest Edmund Hillary notes, “My initial feelings were of relief – relief that there were no more steps to cut, no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalize us with hopes of success… we shook hands and then Tenzng threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back until we were almost breathless.” Times reporter James Morris descended from 22,000 feet to send a coded message through a runner, who walked 20 miles to get to the nearest radio at Namche Bazaar. The message was sent using the bicycle-powered radio station in Morse code to the Indian and British embassies in Kathmandu. A wireless transmitter relayed the news to London, just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in the morning. The Everest conquest was perhaps the last major news delivered to the world through runner.


In the years that followed, others conquered the peak. The Swiss expedition succeeded in 1956. Tenzing Norgay’s nephew Nawang Gombu became the first person to reach the summit twice. He went as part of an American expedition in 1963 and the 1965 Indian expedition, the third attempt after two failed missions. Led by Lieutenant Commander MS Kohli, nine of 21-man Indian contingent scaled the summit, India becoming the fourth country to do so. Captain Avtar Singh Cheema was the first Indian on Everest. In 1966 the Nepal government banned climbing in the Nepal Himalayas and when it reopened in 1969, the Japanese were the first to leave a mark.

On May 6, 1970 Yuichiro Miura became the first person to ski on Mount Everest. He descended nearly 4,200 vertical feet from South Col (25,938 ft), a feat documented in the 1975 film The Man Who Skied Down Everest. It won the Academy Award for best documentary, the first for a sports film. In 2003, Miura became the oldest person to summit Everest at the age of 70, accompanied by his son Gota Miura. When a fellow Japanese broke his record by three days, Miura reclaimed his title in 2008 at the age of 75 years and 227 days. It was later found that Nepali Min Bahadur Sherchan, aged 76 years and 330 days had summited a day earlier. Not one to give up, Miura once again reclaimed his title on May 22 this year at the age of 80. Having nearly died on his descent but helped by son Gota, Miura says he will not challenge the mountain again. “Three times is enough!”


They weren’t the first father-son duo to climb Everest. Befittingly that record rests with Sir Edmund and Peter Hillary who achieved the feat in 1990. In May 2002, Peter returned with Tenzing Norgay’s son Jamling as part of a National Geographic Society expedition to mark the 50th anniversary of the first ascent by their fathers. Lukla, counted among the most dangerous airports in the world, was renamed in 2008 after Tenzing-Hillary who helped develop it. People start their climb to Mount Everest Base Camp from Lukla, taking two days to reach Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the high Himalayas.

In the last 60 years over 3,000 people from 20 countries have climbed the Everest with nearly 5654 ascents and 219 casualties. Most who reach the summit die on their descent, usually in the Death Zone or heights of over 8000m. For every ten successful ascents there’s one death, but armed with better equipment, technology and knowhow, climbers are now making it to the top with relative safety. On one day alone in 2012, 234 climbers reached the peak. Such unprecedented access has raised concerns of over-commercialization, garbage disposal, climbing protocol and environmental impact.


This year the 60th anniversary of the first ascent was celebrated in Nepal with high-altitude marathons, a clean-up operation at Everest Base Camp and colourful processions in Kathmandu featuring Kanchha Sherpa, one of the last surviving members of the 1953 expedition and mountaineer Reinhold Messner, the first to climb Everest without oxygen, the first to do it solo and also the first to scale all the 14 eight-thousanders in the world.

Meanwhile, records continue to tumble – this year alone saw Phurba Tashi equaling Apa Sherpa’s record for most summits (21 times), Arunima Sinha becoming the first female amputee to scale Everest and the world’s highest BASE jump. Russian extreme sports legend Valery Rozov flew off Everest’s north face from 23,680 ft. Besides climbing feats, Everest has hosted the world’s highest concert, the first 3G call, first descent by paraglider and among other things, the world’s highest fight at 23,000 ft, with an ugly brawl between Western climbers and sherpas in May 2013.


High-altitude mountain guide Adrian Ballinger summed up the incident well. “The constant pressure to break records, attempt new routes, and be the strongest, whether for personal pride, sponsors, future job offers, or media, can cloud the purity of our climbing here. And these pressures can lead to disagreements, arguments, and hurt feelings. But none of these pressures should be allowed to lead to violence, or to breaking the essential bonds that tie climbers to each other”.

Last heard, 81-year-old Min Bahadur had abandoned his attempt to become the oldest man on Everest due to bad weather and the bureaucratic delay by the Nepal government to allocate funds as he waited at Base Camp. Yuichiro Miura can breathe easy while Everest patiently awaits the next wave of climbers…


Mounting costs
Climbing Mount Everest is an expensive proposition. The permit alone costs $10,000 to $25,000 per person, depending on the team’s size. Climbing gear can cost US$8,000 and bottled oxygen adds around $3,000. Transferring equipment from the airport to the base camp, 100 km from Kathmandu, can add $2,000.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 July 2013 in Sunday Herald as a cover story to celebrate 60 years of the first ascent of Everest.


One response »

  1. Very interesting! I certainly didn’t know this much about Everest. How funny that the man who gets the name for the impossible peak never even saw it!

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