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The Three Faces of Everest

Updated: May 26, 2020

For eons Mt. Everest presided over the landscape without humans setting foot on it. It was a sacred mountain, revered by those who lived in its shadow. All that changed when the British arrived in the area. With a penchant for measuring everything, the Great Trigonometrical Survey was the first to establish the height of Everest as 29,002 feet. That was in 1856, back when the mountain was referred to as Sagarmāthā by the Nepalese and Chomolungma by the Tibetans. Surveyor Andrew Waugh claimed there were even more local names than those two. Rather than choose one of the local names, which he reasoned might be confusing, he convinced the Royal Geographical Society to name the mountain after Sir George Everest. That gave the mountain yet another name, but it was one that the British could pronounce.

When word got out of the magnificence of the mountain, a group of British—the Mount Everest Committee—hatched plans to climb the mountain. It would be the ultimate conquest. The committee formed in 1921 and the first attempt on Everest occurred in 1922. The climbing team approached from the north, through Tibet, starting at the Rongbuk Glacier. The 1922 attempt failed as did all other attempts prior to the time China invaded Tibet. When the Chinese took over Tibet in 1950, it closed foreign access to the mountain. It wouldn't be opened again until 1980.

During the time Tibet was open to foreign climbers, Nepal was not. But when Tibet closed its borders in 1950, Nepal opened its borders. In 1953, the British team that included Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit. Thus began the popularity of the southeast route to Everest. (The upper southwest face. Image by Pavel Novak, CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons.)

In 1960, a Chinese team summited using the northern route.  (Routes up the north face. Image by Luca Galuzzi - www.galuzzi.itUser:Kassander der Minoer at de.wikipediam, CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons.)

Kangshung, the most secluded face of Everest, remained unclimbed. Explorers had seen this side of Everest prior to the time China closed the borders, but those who saw it concluded the route would be too difficult. And so it is. The route is insanely steep. It requires lots of vertical climbing, technical skill, and sheer tenacity. There are perilously large overhanging blocks of ice, some house-sized, that are prone to breaking off. Those who climb need to be self sufficient, and that includes climbing without the aid of sherpas and into the death zone without oxygen.

Who would do this?  In 1988, a team of four succeeded—Stephen Venables (UK), Robert Anderson (USA), Ed Webster (USA), and Paul Teare (Canada). Mr. Venables' account of the expedition is riveting. Everest, Kangshung Face not only recounts the perils and joys of this adventure, but his book is full of photos of the climb that will make your heart race. Ed Webster, the photographer, lost several toes and fingers in his pursuit of capturing the climb. (Kangshung face from space. Image by Dan Bursch, NASA Astronaut. NASA Earth Observatory, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons.)

Unlike the more than 4,000 people who have seen the world from Everest’s summit, I have no desire to climb it. I’m content to stand at the base of a mountain and appreciate its greatness. In my research to get to Everest's base, I learned that most trekkers, like climbers, choose the southern route to Everest. There are more than 35,000 trekkers per season to the southern face. Kangshung remains the route barely traveled. That’s the side of Everest I want to gaze at.

September 23 was to be the day I’d arrive in China to start a trek to the Kangshung face. After completing the trek, the group was to drive to the north face, near the Rongbuk glacier. The trip was to conclude with a drive from China to Kathnamdu, Nepal. The recent earthquake in Nepal caused enough damage, including closing the road on the border, that many of the people who signed up for the trek cancelled. That, in turn, caused the trip to be cancelled. I’m keeping Everest on my bucket list.

To get an idea of what the area around Kangshung looks like, see Best of Kangshung Face Expedition, by Cathy O’Dowd. Cathy is the first woman to successfully climb the northern and southern routes.

Her team did not succeed in its 2003 attempt of the Kangshung Face. She did, however, take some great photos as well as write an account of her team’s attempt.

Her team might not have been successful, but they had solitude, which is something no longer possible when climbing from the south. Maxed Out on Everest describes the what it's like to climb "bumper to bumper at 27,000 feet." The photos show why it's possible to freeze to death waiting in line at the Hillary Step.

Everest's height? The Great Trigonometrical Survey value is a bit off. The current height is  29,029 feet (8,848 meters).

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