Scaling the Heights: Mountaineering Advances between 1900-1949

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Scaling the Heights: Mountaineering Advances between 1900-1949


The sport of mountain climbing is known as mountaineering. It has garnered a significant amount of public interest because mountains are both majestic and dangerous at the same time, an unpredictable combination that intrigues and fascinates. Mountaineering began as a pursuit of prestige. Later, the focus shifted to the difficulty of the route taken to the top. In recent years the technique used to reach the summit has become paramount. In addition, new technology, equipment, and materials have increased mountaineering's popularity. The sport's triumph and tragedy have captured public imagination; the two best known examples are the ill-fated attempt of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Levine to the attain the summit of Mount Everest in 1924, and the first successful ascent of the mountain by Edmund Hillary (1919- ) and Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986) in 1953.


Few people attempted to climb mountains for sport prior to 1786. Mountain peaks were ascended for religious or scientific purposes, but there is little evidence that climbing for the sake of accomplishment existed. This is probably due as much to a lack of leisure time and poor record keeping as it is to a lack of desire to climb. One of the first recognized attempts to ascend a mountain for the sheer accomplishment of it was spurred by a scientist named Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799), who offered a reward to the first man to climb France's highest mountain, Mont Blanc (15,771 feet [4,807 m]). The summit was reached in 1786 when the French doctor Michel-Gabriel Paccard (1757-1827) and Jacques Balmat, his porter, made the first triumphant climb. Saussure himself reached the peak the next year.

The next significant event in mountaineering began in 1854 when Sir Alfred Wills successfully climbed the Wetterhorn in Switzerland. His accomplishment ushered in the "golden age" of mountain climbing during which nearly all of the major peaks in the Alps were climbed within a decade, a flurry of activity that culminated in the famous ascent of the Matterhorn by Edward Whymper (1840-1911) and six others in 1865. This famous climb is also known for one of the most famous mountaineering accidents ever. During the descent from the summit one member of the party slipped, pulling three others to their deaths. Only because the rope broke during the fall were Whymper and two guides saved from a similar fate.

With many of Europe's peaks conquered, the emphasis then switched to finding more difficult routes. This shift in emphasis, known as the "silver age" of mountain climbing, was fueled primarily by an influx of British climbers. At the same time, climbers were beginning to explore other continents for additional mountains to climb. Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, (22,835 feet [6,960 m]) was first climbed in 1897. The highest peak in North America was reached in 1913 when Hudson Stuck, an American, ascended Alaska's Mount McKinley (20,320 feet [6,194 m]). The race was on to climb higher and higher. However, World War I halted most climbing activity as the world focused on other matters.

After World War I, the British made it clear that Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, was their objective. Although Hillary would ultimately prevail in 1953, the British made seven unsuccessful attempts to reach the top of Everest between World War I and World War II. While many got close, there is no evidence that any actually succeeded. There is some speculation that George Leigh Mallory (1886-1924) and Andrew Irvine reached the summit in 1924, but that has never been verified because they perished somewhere near the top.

Other Himalayan peaks were also assaulted. The Himalayan mountain range has 13 separate peaks over 8,000 meters (five miles or more), and while the technical difficulties associated with climbing to such great heights in extreme weather were daunting by themselves, the political obstacles that had to be overcome to get permission from the surrounding governments were often just as challenging. In addition, the British were still at the forefront of mountaineering, but they were no longer alone. Mountaineering began to acquire a much more international flavor, and accomplishments became not only a source of individual satisfaction, but national pride as well. Austria, China, France, Japan, and Russia regularly outfitted expeditions to the highest peaks in the world. In 1933 a Russian party climbed the nearly 25,000-foot (7,620 m) Communism Peak (formerly called Stalin peak). Three years later Nanda Devi (25,643 feet [7,816 m]) was climbed by the British, and Siniolchu (22,600 feet [6,888 m]) was successfully ascended by a team from Germany.

During this time, the sport of mountaineering evolved further as the emphasis for many climbers switched from the route itself to the means by which the route was navigated. This marks the birth of extreme climbing, characterized by radical advancements in equipment and a change in the climbing philosophy that emphasized the purity of the sport. Climbers began to take greater pride in their accomplishments if they were gained with greater risks. A supreme illustration of extreme climbing was the conquest of the infamous North Wall of the Eiger in 1938 by Heinrich Harrer, Fritz Kasparek, Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vorg. In an exhausting week-long climb, the four were nearly killed by a series of avalanches. The team became heroes in their native Germany and Austria.


"Because it is there." George Leigh Mallory's response to the question of why he risked his life to climb sums up the allure of mountaineering, a paradoxical combination of majesty and danger. Climbing has always fostered a sense of freedom and adventure in its participants, and yet, in some cases, only a thin line separates tragedy from conquest. Because of this, society has always been enamored of mountaineering, living vicariously through its heroes. In reality, except for a few well publicized tragedies, the sport is much safer than it appears, especially with the advent of new equipment and technologies. In fact, the safety and challenge of mountaineering is limited by the height of the mountains themselves. Thus, knowledgeable participants choose a level that is appropriate for them—although some choose the most difficult climbs simply to push the limits of the sport.

Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, has captured public imagination in a way that no other mountain has, and is the standard against which all climbs are measured. In Tibet, the mountain is called Chomolungma (goddess mother of the world); in Nepal, Sagarmatha (goddess of the sky). Because of the local topology, Everest was not thought to be the highest peak in the world, and was originally designated simply Peak XV. Thus it was something of a surprise when its height was initially measured at 29,002 feet (8,840 m) above sea level in 1852, although the officially accepted current height is 29,028 feet (8,848 m). In 1865 the mountain was named in honor of Sir George Everest, the British surveyor who mapped the Indian subcontinent. A British expedition made the first attempt to climb Everest in 1921, when Tibet first allowed foreigners to cross its borders.

After a second unsuccessful British expedition in 1922, George Leigh Mallory, a famous British climber and a member the first two teams, recruited a young engineer named Andrew Irvine as a climbing partner for the next assault in 1924. Although a relatively inexperienced climber, Irvine was in remarkable physical shape, and skilled at repairing the cumbersome oxygen tanks used by climbers in that period. On June 8, Mallory and Irvine attempted to reach the summit of Everest. The two were last seen moving at a good pace towards the top, but were soon lost to view in the cloud cover. They never returned. Irvine's climbing axe was recovered in 1933, the only relic of the ill-fated attempt until May 1999, when Mallory's body was discovered by a Nova/BBC film crew. Neither photographs nor written documents indicated that Mallory and Irvine had attained the summit.

Thirteen more climbers died in 10 additional attempts to reach the top of Everest until Edmund Hillary, a beekeeper from New Zealand, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa climber, reached the summit in 1953. Hillary became a hero of the British Empire, and three countries (India, Nepal, and Tibet) beamed over the accomplishments of Norgay.

As the sport of mountaineering reached new heights a greater understanding and appreciation for the physiological effects of extreme altitude emerged. Altitudes above 25,000 feet (7,620 m) became known as the death zone, because decreased atmospheric pressure allows the air to hold only a third as much oxygen as at sea level. This increases the chances of hypothermia, frostbite, pulmonary edema, and cerebral edema. Judgment can be impaired at this altitude, even when breathing bottled oxygen. Climbers can experience extreme fatigue, impaired coordination, headaches, nausea, double vision, and even suffer strokes. To combat these threats, expeditions now spend weeks acclimating to the conditions, because climbers understand the physiological adjustments that the body must make to tolerate the harsh mountain environment. Despite better knowledge and new equipment, Everest is still a dangerous place. Nearly 1,000 people climbed Everest between 1921 and 1999; more than 150 lost their lives on the mountain, 15 of them in 1996.

When Mallory climbed Everest, he had little more than hemp rope tied around his waist for fall protection. His clothes were made cotton and wool. He carried an unreliable oxygen tank that weighed close to 30 pounds (14 kg). Today, climbers have much better equipment: Their clothes insulated and waterproof, oxygen tanks weigh a fraction of what they used to, and ropes are both lighter and sturdier. They use short wave radio and satellite communications. In fact, in many cases it was the sport that provided the impetus for these innovations. Climbing, however, is still unforgiving and unpredictable, a combination of danger and excitement that only adds to the public's enchantment with mountaineering.


Further Reading


Bonington, Chris and Audrey Salkeld, eds. Heroic Climbs: A Celebration of World Mountaineering. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1996.

Hemmleb, Jochen, Larry Johnson, Eric Simonson, Will Northdurft, and Clare Milikan. Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1999.

Kaufman, Andrew and William Putnam. K2: The 1939 Tragedy. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1993.

Poindexter, Joseph. To the Summit: Fifty Mountains that Lure, Inspire and Challenge. New York: Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, 1998.

Unsworth, Walt. Everest: A Mountaineering History. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2000