National Geographic : 1954 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine Until May, 1953, Everest, towering 29,002 feet astride the border of Nepal and Tibet, stood inviolate. Seven British climbers, one Sherpa, and a Swiss had struggled up its slopes of ice and rock to within 1,000 feet of the summit. Of this valiant band, two George Leigh-Mallory and Andrew Irvine had in 1924 vanished forever into the mists along the Northeast Ridge, ascending no man knows how high before they died (page 15). Above 20,000 Feet Climbers Deteriorate What manner of mountain is this which for so many years so easily shrugged off all assaults and claimed the lives of at least 16 men? Other peaks demand more actual climbing. Alaska's Mount McKinley, for example, meas ures 19,000 feet from its lowland base, while Everest rises only about 12,000 above the 17,000-foot Tibetan plateau.* Himalayan winds are fierce, but the Scottish Highlands, battered by the North Atlantic's hurricanes, endure gales as terrible. Everest's crags and crevasses test any man's ability, but half a dozen Alpine peaks offer technical problems of greater severity. Everest can chill a man to the marrow with summer temperatures down to -40° F. at night; yet on the Green land icecap and elsewhere explorers have lived through cold worse by 30 or 40 degrees. What makes Everest murderous is the fact that its cold, its wind, and its climbing diffi culties converge upon the mountaineer at alti tudes which have already robbed him of re sistance. At 28,000 feet a given volume of air breathed contains only a third as much oxygen as at sea level. On the ground, even if a man were exercising violently, his lungs would need but 50 liters of air per minute. Near Everest's summit he struggles to suck in as much as 200 liters. Since he inhales his air cold and dry and exhales it warm and moist, the stress on his parched lungs and respiratory passages becomes appalling. Heart and Lungs Adjust to Added Strain Exposed suddenly to the low atmospheric pressure of Everest's upper ridges, the average climber would slump unconscious within five to ten minutes, and eventually die. Allowed to acclimatize himself for a month or so by re peated forays into the 15,000- to 20,000-foot ranges, the same climber's body will adapt to survive. His bone marrow, which manufac tures oxygen-carrying red corpuscles, will raise its sea-level count of some five million red corpuscles per cubic millimeter to about eight million. His heart muscles will adjust to the new strain put upon them. His lungs will be come more used to rapid-fire respiration. Yet for even the best acclimatized moun taineer, and men differ sharply in their ability to acclimatize, Everest offers only slow de terioration. Above 25,000 feet the climber's heavy legs seem riveted to the ground, his pulse races, his vision blurs, his ice ax sags in his hand like a crowbar. To scoop up snow in a pan for melting looms as a monumental undertaking. In the words of a Himalayan veteran, Frank Smythe: "On Everest it is an effort to cook, an effort to talk, an effort to think, almost too much of an effort to live." If, nevertheless, there were an "open sea son" upon Everest the year round, some ex pedition hardier or luckier than the rest would long since have stumbled to the top. Monsoon and Winter Defend the Summit The mountain's subtlest defense is the pro hibition it places upon climbing it at all except during a few unpredictable days in late spring, between the lulling of the northwest wind's gales and the arrival of the snow-laden mon soon, and for a brief spell in the autumn. In winter the peak's flanks may lie in vitingly bare of snow, but the wind which has scoured them clean is too brutal for mortal men to face. In summer the great snows deposited by the monsoon, lying high above the evaporation line, rarely pack down into dependable slopes; to flounder across such powdery drifts is to invite at the least exhaustion, at worst a fatal slip or the deto nation of a suffocating avalanche. Why, then, do men pit their frail resources against a citadel so well protected? Mallory had his classic answer: "Because it is there." But there is another reason, rooted fast in the sheer, stubborn tenacity of man. Capt. Geoffrey Bruce, of the 6th Gurkha Rifles, stopped in his tracks at 27,235 feet by a tech nical fault in his oxygen apparatus, was res cued in a critical condition by his compan ion, George Finch. He paused to shout up at the summit before he turned back: "Just you wait, old thing, you'll be for it soon!" As for those of us who set forth against (Continued on page 17) * See "Mount McKinley Conquered by New Route," by Bradford Washburn, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, August, 1953.