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Wonders of the Natural World: The mighty Mount Everest

December 15, 2012

Mount Everest, at 29,035 feet (8850m), is the highest point above sea level on earth and this gives it a place among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The peak is situated in Nepal, near the country’s border with Tibet, and forms part of the Himalayan Range.

Technically, Mount Everest is not the highest mountain in the world. This distinction goes to Mauna Kea in Hawaii, because, when measured from its true base to summit, Mauna Kea is about 56,000 feet (17,170 m) — but only 13,680 feet (4,170 m) of its height is above sea level, the rest goes deep into the water.

The discovery of Everest as the tallest mountain in the world came about in 1952 after a trigonometric survey of the region was carried out. The survey, which started in 1830, took a considerably long time due to the vast number of peaks, checking and rechecking of the data and the refusal of the Nepali government to allow the survey to be carried out in their country.

So Everest was first measured from a distance of 240km, and its height was determined as 29,002 feet (8,840 m), while now we consider it to be 29,035 (8850m), not counting its snow cap.

It was then named as ‘Everest’, after the previous leader of the British survey team, although it had local names. Even today, the locals in Nepal refer to it as Sagarmatha meaning ‘mother of the universe’, in Tibetan it is known as Chomolangma, meaning ‘goddess mother of snows’ and the ancient Sanskrit name is Devgir, meaning ‘holy mountain’.

As of 2010, Mount Everest has been scaled 5,104 times by 3,142 people and some 219 people have died trying to scale this giant. Among the first ones who perished trying to reach the top and gaining publicity for their failed attempt were Brits George Mallory and Sandy Irvine. Mallory tried climbing the peak three times and didn’t return from his third trip. His frozen body was found in 1999 by a special search expedition sent for this.

The peak was finally scaled by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali Sherpa, at 11:30 a.m. local time, on May 29th, 1953. It almost coincided with Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and the British considered it as a good omen.

The route these two used, and which most of the climbers have used over the years, is called ‘Southeast Ridge’, which is in Nepal. There are other routes, 13 in all, but most are far more difficult than this or can be accessed from Tibet where foreigners were rarely allowed access until recently. Climbing this mountain is as difficult as the causality figures on this mountain show and it is no wonder that the region around Everest is known as Death Zone.

Surviving, let alone climbing at such height and in such freezing temperatures, is tough. There is little oxygen, the pressure of air is one third of that at sea level, wind speed is very high, and temperature drops very rapidly. These factors make breathing and movement difficult, easily lead to frostbite and make a person get tired easily. As very little oxygen reaches the brain, climbers find that their minds become dull and they revert to the mental capacity of a child. Oxygen deprivation causes brain cells to die off and the blood to thicken, leading to life-threatening conditions such as altitude sickness and they need to descend quickly.

To climb the summit successfully, climbers need clear weather and low winds and if they don’t do it within two to three days, they have to return to Base Camp. Bottled oxygen forms part of the essential equipment carried by climbers to Everest and it wasn’t considered possible to ascend this peak without it until 1978, when Italian Reinhold Messner and Austrian Peter Habeler did it for the first time.

The sheer number of climbers this mountain attracts has led to much pollution and problems in the region. With base camps, clearer routes to the top, guides and commercialisation of mountaineering activities and tourism in the Himalayas, more and more people head towards this tip of the world. Any adventurer who has the money to pay for a permit and hire guides, known as Sherpa, gets to take this treacherous trip. The climbing season of 1996 caused a ‘traffic jam’ of sorts that led to the highest number of death of climbers in a year.

Fifteen people died, eight of them on May 11 after a snowstorm stranded them between the summit and Base Camp IV. This year, eleven climbers died on Mount Everest in April and May, making 2012 the worst year for fatalities since 1996.

While microscopic life forms may be there near the summit of Everest, the Himalayan Range does contain some more visible forms of life at lower altitudes. A tiny spider, euophrys omnisuperstes, has been found at up to 20,100 feet (6,700 meters), birds like the bar-headed goose have been seen flying there.

Mount Everest continues to lure thrill seekers each year, even though many of them never make it to the top or return from the lap of the ‘mother of the universe’. But what makes this peak so attractive to its climbers, despite the dangers that await? We can get a clue from George Mallory’s answer to why people want to attempt scaling the highest mountain in the world. “Because it is there,” he had said.