What do you like to do when you’re outside playing? Do you like to climb on things like jungle gyms or trees or boulders? Do you dream of climbing bigger things like cliffs, mountains, or snow-covered alps? Did you know there is a sport called mountaineering which involves doing just that – climbing huge mountains and the alps? It takes years of practice to be a good mountaineer. You need to know what kind of equipment to use and how to use it, how to plot routes, set rope lines, and rescue yourself and others. Plus, you have to be in really good shape. It takes massive amounts of energy and strength to climb the highest mountains in the world. Some mountains are so high that you can hardly breathe because the air is so thin. Even birds can’t live that high.
And do you know which mountain is the highest in the world? It’s called Mount Everest, but it is also known as Sagarmatha or Chomolungma by its native people, the Nepalese and Tibetans. The mountain is so big that one side is in Tibet, China, and the other is in Nepal, India. It stands 29,031 feet high – as high as the cruising altitude of airplanes! Have you ever been in an airplane and looked out the window to see the clouds and towns below you? That is how high you would need to climb to reach the top of Mount Everest! And that also means it is a big drop, too! Mount Everest is so big and respected that its name means “Holy Mother.” Mount Everest is considered the great mother of all the other mountain ranges in the Himalayans, the highest mountains in the world.
Many people have tried to climb Mount Everest through the centuries and most have failed. In the past, climbers did not have the right kind of equipment or knowledge to climb the mountain. Plus, there are many dangers on the mountain. At the top, it is bitterly cold with fierce winds that can blow people off the sides. Avalanches frequently blast down the mountain. And there is the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, which is filled with huge chunks of ice as high as skyscrapers. It is one of the most dangerous parts of the mountain because the big ice blocks fall over as the mountain shifts and avalanches rage. Also, in the icefall, there are super deep crevasses – meaning cracks in the snow – that are like bottomless pits. If you fall into one of them, it is almost impossible to get out.
In order to find a path – or route – to the summit, the first climbers had to figure out how to get across the crevasses. They discovered that they could take long aluminum ladders, tie them together, and lay them across the crevasses! Can you imagine walking across a shaking metal ladder with no railings while wearing spiky boots and carrying 50 or 100 pounds of gear on your back? It is incredibly stressful and difficult! And that’s just at the BOTTOM of the mountain!
To climb up the rest of the mountain, many people need to carry oxygen tanks on their backs, like scuba divers, in order to breathe up high where the air is so thin. To succeed on this climb, mountaineers also need special clothing, hooks, ropes, axes, and spiky metal crampons to put on their boots so they don’t slip on the ice and snow. Plus, they need other supplies, like food, a tent, a sleeping bag, a camping stove, and extra clothes. That’s a lot to carry to the top of the world!
And even with all of these supplies, it does not guarantee a successful climb. Climbers need to train very hard to be in top physical shape. Even after training, a person’s body might not acclimate well to the extreme altitude – meaning it cannot process the thin air and physical strain. They might get a wheezing cough or headaches and dizziness due to the altitude. They might start hallucinating, thinking they are very hot, and tear off their winter clothes. That could be very dangerous as they would then freeze without even knowing it. There is no telling whose body is best suited for Everest and whose is not. That is part of the gamble when climbing the mountain.
Additionally, Mother Nature is always unpredictable. The mountain might be sunny with no wind one hour, then cloudy with raging winds the next. The sun might warm the snow, causing avalanches to slide down the mountain and block the route or blow away climbing ropes. Then there are falling rocks and falling climbers! You always have to be alert on Everest!
For all of these reasons, Mount Everest was never successfully climbed until 1953, when Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary from England successfully summited its peak. It was such an amazing feat that the news was broadcast all over the world. One of the last unknown territories on Earth had just been conquered!
But there is also an unsolved mystery surrounding Everest. Almost two decades before Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary summited Everest, two other British climbers named George Mallory and Andrew Irvine tried it in 1924. On June 8th, they set out for the peak. They were last seen several hundred feet below the summit, climbing upwards and disappearing into the clouds. They were never seen again. To this day, we do not know if they made it to the top and, if so, what happened to them on their way back down. Were they actually the first ones to summit Mount Everest? We may never know.
Mount Everest is so difficult to climb that before climbers set foot on the mountain, they stop in monasteries – or churches – in the valley to pray with the monks. They ask the mountain to bless them with safe passage. They ask the monks to bless prayer flags which they string all over base camp, hoping the winds will send their prayers to Holy Mother.
Today’s climbing expeditions on Everest are truly monumental. Large tents are erected at the bottom of the mountain to house their computer and satellite equipment, kitchen, and medical center. Many people are hired to help the climbers – Sherpa guides with their huge yaks that look like water buffalo, doctors, nurses, weathermen, and computer people to monitor the weather and the mountain conditions. Everyone meets daily to discuss the forecast, plan routes, and decide who will climb and who will not.
Many times, native Sherpas are tasked with carrying massive loads of equipment up and down the mountain repeatedly over the climbing season. Since they are raised in the high mountains, their bodies are used to the altitude, so they have less stress on their body, lungs, and heart. Unfortunately, many times they do most of the work and receive none of the glory. Some never make it to the top of Everest and spend their whole careers lugging supplies up and down the mountain.
And speaking of going up and down the mountain, in order to successfully climb Mount Everest, a climber needs to acclimatize. That means they need to make trips up the mountain and back down to base camp repeatedly over several weeks. With every climb, they go a little higher, then return to the bottom. This acclimatization process helps their body adjust to the high altitudes and low oxygen.
So, climbing Everest is not a weekend trip! It takes at least a year of preparation and training, and then months on the mountain setting ropes, laying ladders, making camps, and doing climbs.
On the day of the summit climb, most mountaineers like to start in the dead of night. They put on headlamps, metal crampons, and oxygen masks. They set out very early, before sunrise so the sun won’t warm the snow and cause avalanches. They climb in the still night air before afternoon winds kick in. They spend hours slowly inching up the mountain gasping for air in thick thermal snowsuits and foggy face masks. Only one thought propels them forward, “Keep going. Keep going.”
The sun rises just as they reach the last treacherous stretch, the Hillary Step – a steep, 40-foot rock face before they walk along a summit ridge no wider than a foot or two across. One wrong step here and they will fall 29,000 feet straight down!
At last, they are at the summit. They collapse, cheer, weep, or pray. They plant flags and snap photos. But they know they are only halfway done. They have to make it safely back down the mountain. They have been warned they have to be off the summit before 2:00 pm when the winds start whipping with hurricane force. The exhausted climbers take one last look, then start the slow slog back across the ridge, down the Hillary Step, and down 29,000 feet, one step at a time, through snow drifts, glaciers, and the Khumbu Icefall to the safety and security of the base camp. They have done it – they have successfully summited Mount Everest!
What do you think of Mount Everest? Would you like to climb it? Do you think you have the strength and ability to make it to the top? Many people try, but most do not make it. They get injured, or exhausted, or perish. Do you think the risk is worth the reward? Why do you think mountaineers take such big risks just to climb a mountain? What about their families back home?
I think there are all different types of people in the world – scientists and artists, athletes and students, entrepreneurs and explorers. Some people see a mountain and want to climb it. Others see an ocean and want to sail it. Others dream of learning and teaching, creating, building, or discovering. What is your passion and what do you want to do with your life? What is your ultimate dream, your own personal Mount Everest?