Rebecca did it. Sherpas are always doing it - so why all the fuss?: Brian Cathcart profiles Everest, once the ultimate endurance test but now in danger of becoming little more than a conversation piece and a Majorca for mountaineers

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The Independent Online
THE PROBLEM with Everest, said a Swiss climber who narrowly failed to reach the top in 1952, is not that it is a particularly difficult mountain to climb, but that it is just a little too high.

To tackle any mountain higher than 26,000ft is to ask the human body to do something it should not. Everest's 29,028ft - 800 more than its nearest rival - demand that much more. The lungs gasp for oxygen and the dry air acts as sandpaper on the throat. The blood thickens, threatening a stroke. The kidneys slowly cease to function, causing a risk of cerebral oedema, a swelling of the brain that impairs judgement and can kill. Then there is the wind and the cold.

This is Reinhold Messner in the final stages of the historic first ascent without oxygen in 1980: 'I could hardly move. No despair, no happiness, no anxiety. I had not lost the mastery of my feelings - there were actually no more feelings. I consisted only of will-power. After each few metres, this too fizzled out in an unending tiredness. Then I thought nothing, felt nothing. I let myself fall to the ground and just lay there. For an indefinite time I remained completely without will. Only then did I take a few more steps.'

Even with oxygen tanks, the strain can be almost intolerable. In the more reserved prose of 1953, Edmund Hillary wrote of the last push to the summit: 'I was beginning to tire a little now. I had been cutting steps continuously for two hours, and Tenzing (Norgay), too, was moving very slowly. As I chipped steps around still another corner, I wondered dully just how long we could keep it up. Our original zest had now quite gone and it was turning more into a grim struggle.'

After they reached the summit, 40 years ago this week, Hillary and Tenzing wondered whether anyone would bother again. Now so many mountaineers are putting themselves through hell to conquer Everest that Rebecca Stephens, who last week became the first British woman to do so, was only the latest of 500. How has this mountain cast such a spell?

EVEREST is the world's highest mountain; that is virtually its sole distinction. The great ranges of the Himalayas and Karakoram were first thrust upwards by the tectonic collision of India with Asia 50 million years ago, and owe their height to the long, continuous crumpling together of the two land masses that followed. Of the highest peaks, Everest is not the most testing; K2 gets that honour. It is not the most beautiful; Makalu holds that prize. It is not even the mountain most imbued with mystical properties; that is probably Kangchenjunga. Everest is simply the biggest.

Its fame began with the trigonometrists of the Survey of India, who calculated in 1852 that Peak XV, as it was then known, was the highest of all the mountains along India's northern frontier, and thus the highest in the world. Only seven years earlier the Earth's loftiest point was believed to be in the Andes.

For some time, the mountain's principal interest was its name. 'Everest' was chosen in 1865 in honour of Sir George, the pioneer surveyor of India, but so British a name attracted criticism. A German scholar decided that its Tibetan name was Gaurisankar, and this was used in schoolbooks around the non-British world until 1905, when it was proved that Gaurisankar was another peak, 40 miles away. A Tibetan name was eventually found - Chomolungma, or 'Goddess Mother of the Earth'.

There have been other controversies: French Jesuits were said to have discovered the mountain in 1717; the US Air Force claimed to have found a higher peak in China in 1944; and as recently as 1987 a survey team suggested that K2 was actually taller. But Everest rose above them all.

The idea of climbing it seems not to have occurred to anybody until 1893. The Sherpa people who had lived for centuries at its foot would never have dreamt of such a thing, but in the West, at the turn of the century, mountaineers were beginning to look beyond the Alps for their challenges. A Ghurka officer had the idea of an expedition to Everest, but was defeated by the diplomatic complexities of gaining access through Nepal or Tibet.

It was not until after the First World War, when political change made access possible through Tibet on the north side of the mountain, that the first attempts were made. At this moment, George Leigh Mallory arrived on the scene.

Whether Everest would have acquired its popular status without Mallory is impossible to say, but this Boy's Own hero undoubtedly contributed more than any other man before Hillary. A teacher at Charterhouse school and friend of Rupert Brooke, Lytton Strachey and Robert Graves, Mallory was a daring climber before he ever laid eyes on Everest. That encounter, during a reconnaissance expedition in 1921, gave his life a mission, for he believed then that he had seen the way to the top. The next year, climbing without oxygen, he tried and failed. In 1924, using oxygen, he tried again and, in circumstances hypnotic even today, disappeared with his companion, Andrew Irvine, perhaps within 800ft of the summit. Through a fleeting break in the cloud, they were glimpsed as two dots heading upwards on the North-east Ridge, and then they were gone.

Did they reach the top? Almost certainly not. But the mystery and tragedy of their fate gave Everest a hold on the public imagination that it has not yet lost. Everest became the 'Third Pole', a frontier of human endeavour to replace those other conquered frontiers: the source of the Nile, the heart of Antarctica and powered flight. This feeling was most intense in Britain because the British monopolised access to the mountain, but it was felt across the globe. It was in America that someone had asked Mallory why he wanted to climb it, eliciting the immortal reply: 'Because it is there.'

An expedition in 1935 might have done it, for the weather was never more favourable, but they had dallied too long on lower peaks and the chance slipped away. The Second World War not only interrupted progress, it also set climbing back, for after it the Tibetan side was closed and the Nepalese side, of which no one had any experience, was open.

In 1952 the Swiss came close, then the British arrived in 1953. John Hunt painstakingly erected the logistical pyramid that enabled Hillary, a lanky New Zealand beekeeper, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa with vast Everest experience, to stand at last upon the roof of the world.

That the news reached London on Coronation Day added lustre to both events. 'All this - and everest too', said the Daily Express. 'All this, and the coronation too,' Hunt might have thought. Honours rained on the heroes. Hunt and Hillary were knighted; Tenzing, it was said, would have been, but the Indian government would not allow it.

With that, in most respects, the era of Everest legend ended. Extraordinary feats have been performed since then, but they have a physical quality which places them in the real present, rather than the heroic past. A few who have reached the top, such as the Austrian, Messner, and some who have died in the attempt, such as Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker, have enhanced the legend. But much of what has followed has tended to demean it.

WHEN Hillary and Tenzing climbed Everest, they were halted in the last stage of the ascent, from the South Summit to the peak, by a 40ft crag. Hillary wrote: 'The rock itself, smooth and almost holdless, might have been an interesting Sunday afternoon problem to a group of climbers in the Lake District, but here it was a barrier beyond our feeble strength to overcome.'

They searched for a way past, and at last the New Zealander found a crack. Wedging himself backwards into it, he dug in his crampons and levered himself upwards. It was painful and exhausting, but he made it, and Tenzing followed him.

That 40ft crag became known as the Hillary Step. At this spot last year, and probably again a fortnight ago, there was a queue. So many climbers had received permission to attempt Everest, and so many had made it to the South Col, that when the right weather came along they rushed up at once. On 10 May, 37 people made it.

A prediction made by Messner seems to have come true. Everest, he said, would become an object of travel rather than sport. 'Organised by travel companies, led by tour leaders, supported by local high-altitude porters, one will be conducted to the summit. One will book for Mount Everest just as one might for Majorca.'

Could anyone do it now? 'Provided you are fit, lucky with the weather, have really good Sherpas and the huge amount of money they now ask, I don't see why not,' says Steve Venables, the first Briton to do it without artificial oxygen. The equipment, the clothes and the weather forecasting have all improved, and the main routes are well known, so it is certainly easier today. Another mountaineer suggests: 'With two good Sherpas to pull, two to push and another two behind to carry the extra oxygen, you would be surprised who might make it.'

And who might not. Everest will never be a doddle. Its deadliest trap lies at its foot, in the Khumbu Ice Fall, a glaciated cascade that claims more lives than any other part of the mountain. Even here the air is thin, and the barrier must be scaled at speed, in a day. Higher up, the weather can change in an instant, the snow beneath your boot may suddenly give way, or oedema may strike.

True, there is little climbing that is technically difficult, but that is not the point. At 29,000ft, where the air contains just one-third the amount of oxygen it holds at sea level, lifting your foot can be difficult. You need to have special physical characteristics.

Andrew Peacock, an expert in the medical effects of high altitude, climbed to 26,000ft with Stephens this month and discovered that she had those characteristics while he did not. 'I was far gone but shewas able to continue,' he says. 'Of the four of us, she was in the best shape.'

He believes that Stephens, and others who reach the summit, have a 'blunted reflex' in the lungs that permits their bodies to react more slowly to the effects of lack of oxygen.

Whether you have this blunted reflex has nothing to do with fitness, although if you want to climb the highest mountain in the world, you will also need to be supremely fit.

If you don't have it, you may not find out until you try, and more and more people want to try. Hunt and Hillary are dismayed by the fate of Everest, beset by so many climbers bringing so much rubbish and so much commercialism, and Nepal has adopted draconian methods to curb the numbers. But nothing will stop them coming.

They come, says Steve Venables, for two reasons. First, because it is still the ultimate test of endurance, and second, because they want to tread in the footsteps of Mallory, Hillary, Messner and the other heroes. 'Since 1921 the mountain has built up a mass of history and myth, and when you are there you are always building on what others have done.

'It is like an opera singer stepping out on the stage at La Scala: you have that sense of all that has happened there before.'

(Photographs and Map omitted)