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Everest: 50 Years and Counting
May 2003
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Sights & Sounds
Learn More
In Learn More the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects. Special thanks to the Research Division.

By Robin A. Palmer, National Geographic staff
Did You Know?
When you hear that someone has reached the top of Mount Everest, you may assume that he or she climbed the southern route used by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. After all, this route—which begins with the Khumbu Icefall, and then proceeds through the Western Cwm, up the Lhotse Face, and to the summit via the South Col and the Hillary Step—is used by more climbers than any other path. There are, however, 14 other routes , and most of them are more difficult than the most popular way.

Take, for example, the North Ridge route, which begins in Tibet. This route has become almost as popular as the South Col route, but is somewhat more challenging. As Eric Simonson of International Mountain Guides explains, not only is the North Ridge technically difficult because of its terrain, but it also requires some particularly careful, even counterintuitive, planning. First of all, Simonson points out, on the North Ridge climbers spend a lot of time on steeply sloping shale and ice, and "it's tough to get your crampons into that stuff!" To make matters more difficult, the geography of the North Ridge requires the final camp to be at a much higher elevation than the final camp on the South Col. The result, says Simonson, is that "North Ridge climbers are forced to spend a lot more time at higher altitudes, and this in and of itself makes the route more demanding."

Another challenge posed by this route is the long traverse along the North Ridge on summit day. The guide explains that this "means you are covering a lot of lateral distance, which really comes into play on the descent." Here's where careful planning becomes so important. Because so much of a climber's time on the North Ridge is spent negotiating sloping rock and ice at the highest altitudes, he must make sure to have plenty of oxygen and energy for use on the difficult descent—at least as much as he needed to ascend to the summit. Basically, says Simonson, "you have to have enough gas left in your tank (both literally and figuratively) to make the descent. You can't afford to burn more than 50 percent of your reserves going up, because you'll definitely need the other half to get down." The most common problem he's seen with climbers on the north side is that they underestimate how long it will take them to make the technically difficult, traversing descent to camp from the summit, and they run out of oxygen before they reach the camp. Overall, he explains, "the prolonged time spent at higher altitudes and the time it takes to do that traverse in both directions catch a lot of people off guard on the North Ridge." Sometimes, it seems, knowing that "it's all downhill from here" isn't much of a comfort.

  • General
  • National Geographic News
    Sir Edmund Hillary, Everest pioneer, dies at 88, read about his many accomplishments.
  • Everest News
    This site offers up-to-date information about what's going on at Everest and on other mountains around the world. Learn about current and past expeditions, read about the history of exploration on Everest, and chat with other readers in the "forum" section.
  • Everest on PBS
    A few years ago, PBS produced some television specials about Mount Everest, including one about the discovery of George Mallory's body and another about effects of altitude on the human body. This comprehensive website is a companion to the television coverage. Among other fascinating information, it offers 360° views of climbers' camps on the north and south sides of the mountain.
  • Alpine Club Library: Himalayan Index
    This index gives the altitude, latitude and longitude, and climbing history for Himalayan peaks over 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). It is searchable by mountain name, latitude and longitude, or mountain group.
  • Himalayan Trust
    Founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, the Himalayan Trust assists the Sherpa people with building projects and reforestation efforts. Read about the trust's work and find out how to make a donation at this site.

  • Physiology sites
  • International Society for Mountain Medicine (ISMM)
    The ISMM's official site provides valuable information for both climbers and physicians. A tutorial written for laypeople outlines the effects of high altitude on the body. The site also includes information about children at altitude, dates for conferences on high-altitude medicine, and profiles of books on the subject.
  • High Altitude Medicine Guide
    This guide includes some of the information available on the ISMM site, but also features case reports of patients suffering from altitude sickness, pictures of Nepalese people and the Himalaya, and links to websites about topics such as Everest and travel medicine.
  • Hypoxia online
    This site is mostly about the annual International Hypoxia Symposium, which in 2003 was held in Banff, Canada. Read abstracts of the papers that were presented and see the program for the conference.
  • High Exposure: Humans at Altitude (PBS)
    In this section of the PBS website about Everest, you can read (or listen to) conversations with leading experts on high-altitude medicine, learn more about what it's like to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen, and see the kinds of puzzles and brainteasers that are given to climbers to test their impairment levels when they're at high altitude.
  • National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS): Altitude Illness
    An excerpt from the NOLS publication Wilderness First Aid, this page provides a helpful overview of altitude illness.
  • Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA)
    Founded in 1973, the HRA works to prevent sickness and death among visitors to the Himalaya. The organization's aid posts are run by volunteer doctors who offer medical assistance and advice to climbers and other tourists. On this website you'll find everything from guidelines on how to request a helicopter evacuation to an overview of what it's like to work as a volunteer at an HRA aid post.
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