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South Col Route

The South Col route on Mt. Everest's south or Nepalese side was first reconned in 1950 by a British expedition led by Eric Shipton. From Camp I,the South Col route enters the Western Cwm, which is also called the "valley of silence". It was first explored by the Swiss expedition of 1952 with Jean-Jacques Asper, Rene Dittert, Ernest Hofstetter, Gabriel Chevalley, Rene Aubert, Leon Flory, Andre Roch and Raymond Lambert all from Geneva. They pioneered most of the route on the upper mountain and came very close to the summit.

Jon Krakauer about this section of the South Col route: "Our route to the summit would follow the Khumbu Glacier up th elower half of the mountain. From the bergschrund at 23,000 feed that marked its upper end, this great river of ice flowed two and a half miles down a relatively gentle valley called the Western Cwm. As the glacier inched over humps and dips in the Cwm's underlying strata, it fractured into countlessvertical fissures - crevasses. Some of these crevasses were narrow enough to step across; others were eighty feed wide, several hundred feed deep, and ran half a mile from end to end. The big ones were apt to be vexing obstacles to our ascent, and when hidden beneath a crust of snow they would pose a serious hazard, but the challenges presented by the crevasses in the Cwm had proven over the years to be predictable and manageable.

Khumbu IcefallThe Icefall was a different story. No part of the South Col route was feared more by climbers. At around 20,000 feed, where the glacier emerged from the lower end of the Cwm, it pitched abruptly over a precipitous drop. This was the infamous Khumbu Icefall, the most technically demanding section on the entire route. The movement of the glacier in the icefall has been measured at between three and four feed feet a day. As it skids down the step, irregular terrain in fits and starts, the mass of ice splinters into a jumble of huge, tottering blocks called seracs, some as large as offce buildings. Because the climbing route wove under, around, and between hundreds of these unstable towers, each trip through the Icefall was a little like playing a round of Russian roulette: sooner or later any given serac was going to fall over without warning, and you could only hope you weren't beneath it when it toppled. Since 1963, when a teammate of Hornbein and Unsoeld's named Jake Breitenbach was crushed by an avalanching serac to become the Icefall's first victim, eighteen other climbers had died here."
Photo: Courtesy www.canadaforeverest.com

Near the end of the Western Cwn, lies Camp Two, and the Lhotse Face looms above. Camp 2 at over 21,000-feet or over 6,400-meters, is the staging camp for starting up the face formed by the western side of neighbor mountain Lhotse. This face constitutes a serious challenge, as over 3,000-feet or 1,000-meters of 35-degree to 45 plus-degree ice must be climbed, with Camp 3 perched in the middle of this awesomely steep and long face. The last stop on the way to the summit, is Camp 4 or High Camp at the pass between Lhotse and Everest known as the South Col. The picture to the right shows the South Col as seen from the South Summit. The camp is near the darker circle in the middle of the photograph (source: www.adlers.com.au). To arrive at this camp requires traversing much steep ground also, and such features as the "Yellow Band" and the "Geneva Spur" must be overcome with the safety of fixed ropes.The Geneva Spur is an anvil shaped rib of black rock named by a 1952 Swiss expedition. Fixed ropes assist climbers in scrambling over this snow covered rock band. The Yellow Band is a section of interlayered marble, phyllite, and semischist which also requires about 100 metres of rope for traversing it. Mount Everest and its neighbouring peaks are capped by sedimentary limestone where fossils can be found and underlain by low grade metasedimentary rocks (Yellow Band and the so called Everest Series).

Jon Krakauer describes the South Col with the following words: "I arrived at the South Col, our launching pad for the summit assault, at 1 p.m. A forlorn plateau of bulletproof ice and windswept boulders 26,000 feed above sea level, it occupies a broad notch between the upper ramparts of Lhotse and Everest. Roughly rectangular in shape, about four football fields long by two across, the Col's eastern margin drops 7,000 feet down the Kangshung Face into Tibet, the other side plunges 4,000 feed to the Westen Cwm. Just back from the lip of this chasm, at the Col's westernmost edge, the tents of Camp Four squatted on a patch of barren ground, surrounded by more than a thousand discarded oxygen canisters. If there is a more desolate, inhospitable habitation anywhere on the planet, I hope never to see it."

hillary stepAbove High Camp still lies much steep ground before the summit at 29,035-feet or 8,850-meters is reached. Such features as the Triangular Face, The Balcony, the Southeast Ridge, the South Summit, the Traverse, and the Hillary Step all guard the summit well and ensure that a climber will work for his or her reward and need a minimum level of hard earned skills to get there. Hillary wrote about the feature of Mount Everest bearing his name: "... the most formidable-looking problem on the ridge - a rock step some fourty feet high. ... The rock itself, smooth and almost holdless, might have been an interesting Sunday afternoon problem to a group of expert climbers in the Lake District, but here it was a barrier beyond our feeble strength to overcome." Photo: Hillary Step, Courtesy Doiscoverguidenepal.com

Hillary and Norgay

In 1952, Raymond Lambert and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay pioneered a route up the steep Lhotse face, reaching the South Col, 28,000 feet up on the southeast ridge. Sir Edmund Percival Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953 via the South Col Route. (see picture / source: www.leipzig-online.de). They leave Camp IX at approximately 27,900 feet (8500 meters) by 6:30 AM, and reach the S. Summit by 9 AM. After negotiating the 12 meter Hillary Step, they are the first to reach the summit of Everest, reaching the top at 11:30 AM. Hillary and Tenzing spent a total of 15 minutes on the summit. Hillary took a picture of Norgay (see right / source: RGS). As Hillary decented and reached his team, he uttered the now famous phrase. 'Well George, we knocked the bastard off!'.

This achievement was announced in Great Britain on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Edmund Hillary returned to Britain with the other climbers and was knighted by the Queen.

Tenzing Norgay writes in "Man of Everest": "... I must be honest and say that I do not feel his (Hillary's) account, as told in The "Ascent of the Everest", is wholly accurate. for one thing, he has written that this gap up the rock-wall was about fourty feet high, but in my judgement is was little more than fifteen. Also, he gives the impression that it was only he who really climbed it on his own, and that he then practically pulled me, so that I "finally collapsed exhausted at the top, like a giant fish when it has just been hauled from the sea after a terrible struggle". Since then I have heard plenty about that "fish", and I admit I do not like it. For it is the plain truth that no one pulled or hauled me up to the gap. I climbed it myself, just as Hillary had done; and if he was protecting me with the rope while I was doing it, this was no more than I had done for him. In speaking of this I must make one thing very clear. Hillary is my friend. He is a fine climber and a fine man, and I am proud to have gone with him to the top of Everest. But I do feel that in his story of our final climb he is not quite fair to me: that all the way through he indicates that when things went well it was his doing, and when things went badly it was mine. For this is simply not true. Nowhere do I make the suggestion that I could have climbed Everest by myself; and I do not think Hillary should suggest that he could have, or that I could not have done it without his help. All the way up and down we helped, and were helped by, each other - and that was the way it should be. But we were not leader and led. We were partners."


Other Firsts

The second and third successful of Everest were made by a Swiss expedition in 1956 (Jürg Marmet and Ernst Schmied on May 23 and Adolf Reist and Hansrudolf von Gunten on May 24, 1956). They used the South Col Route to the summit of Everest. The team also made the first ascent of Lhotse.

In 1960, a Chinese and Tibetan team of 214 men and women, led by Shih Chan- chun, makes the first summit of Everest via the North Col and Northeast Ridge. Wang Fu-chou, Liu Lien-man, Chu Yin-hua, and the Tibetan Gonbu reach the summit after mastering the second step.

whittaker everestIn 1963, But the USA dispatched two teams to the mountain: one up the South East, another up the unclimbed West Ridge. On May 1, Jim Whittaker became the first U.S. American to conquer Mount Everest together with sherpa with Nawang Gombu. Three weeks later, Willi Unsoeld and Dr. Tom Hornbein mastered the third route, the west ridge. From high on the ridge Hornbein and Unsoeld traversed out onto the North Face and along a 60 metre couloir (a deep mountainside gorge). The Horbein Couloir, as it now known, took them to the base of the final hurdle at 8,500m. At 6:15pm on May 22nd, the pair finally made the summit. But the celebrations were to be cut short. Tom Hornbein writes in this book "Everest: The West Ridge": "Ahead the North and South ridges converged to a point. Surely the summit wasn't that near ? It must be off behind. Willi stopped. What's he waiting for, I wondered as I moved to join him. With a feeling of disbelief I looked up. Forty feet ahead tattered and whipped by the wind was the flag Jim had left there weeks before. It was 6.15. The sun's rays sheered horizontally across the summit. We hugged each other as tears welled up, ran down across our oxygen masks, and turned to ice." At 7.30 it turned dark. The flash-light batteries faded. Below the summit they meet team members Lute Jerstad and Barrel Bishop who had reached the summit earlier on the same day from the South East Ridge despite a series of unfortunate events. The morning before the accent, their tent had caught fire. Bishops eyes were burned by the fire, the sun and the wind. Both were out of oxygen Both men's hands were freezing. Sometime around 12:30 a.m., as the wind died down, the four elected to bivouac on an outcrop of rock and wait for the sun to rise—a high-stakes gamble at such an extreme altitude. "The night was overpweringly empty. Stars shed cold unshimmering light. The heat dancing along the plains spoke of a world of warmth and flatness. The black silhouette of Lothse lurked half sensed, half seen, still below. Only the ridge on which we were rose higher, disappearing into the night, a last lonley outpost of the world"... "About 4.00 the sky began to lighten along the eastern rim, baring the bulk of Kangchenjunga. The sun was slow in following, interminably slow. Not till after 5.00 did it finally come, its light streaming through the South Col, blazing yellow across the Nuptse Wall, then onto the white wave crest of peaks far below. We watched as if our own life was being born again. Then as the cold yellow light touched us, we rose. There were still miles to go." On the way down, they were met by fellow climber Dave Dingman who forfeited his own chance to try for the summit in order to search for his missing teammates. After administering bottled oxygen to the exhausted climbers, Dingman and a Sherpa guide escorted the four mountaineers down to base camp. The American Mount Everest Expedition accomplished many firsts. It placed the first Americans and the most climbers atop the world's tallest mountain, and it charted the first simultaneous climb from two directions. In July 1963, the team reunited at the White House as President John F. Kennedy presented them with the National Geographic Society's highest honor, the Hubbard Medal.

messner habeler everest1978 sees the first ascent without bottled oxygen. Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner reach the summit on May 8-th 1978 via the South-East Ridge. At the summit, Messner described himself as "nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung." Habeler writes in his book "Impossible Victory": "From then on I prayed, " Lord God, let me go up right to the top. Give me the power to remain alive, don't let me die up here." I crawled on my elbows and knees and prayed more fervently than I have ever done in my life before. It was like a dialogue with a higher being. Again I saw myself crawling up, below me, beside me, higher and higher. I was pushed up to the heights, and then suddenly I was up again on my own two feet: I was standing on the summit. It was 1.15 on the afternoon of May 1978. And then suddenly Reinhold was with me too, still carrying his camera and the three-legged Chinese surveying instrument. We had arrived. We embraced each other. We sobbed and stammered and could not keep calm. The tears poured from under my goggles into my beard, frozen on my cheeks. We embraced each other again and again. We pressed each other close. We stepped back at arms's length and fell round each other's necks, laughing and crying at the same time. We were redeemed and liberated, freed at last from the inhuman compulsion to climb on."

Jon Krakauer writes: "Messner and Habeler's historic deed was not greeted with hossannas in all quarters, however, especially among the Sherpas. Most of them simply refused to believe that Westerners were capable of such an achievement, which had eluded even the strongest Sherpas. Speculation was rampant that Messner and Hebeler had sucked oxygen from miniature cylinders hidden in their clothing. Tenzing Norgay and other eminent Sherpas signed a petition demanding that the government of Nepal conduct an official inquiri of the purported ascent."

Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler during their epochal ascent of Everest without oxygen in 1978.

messner solo everestIn 1980, Reinhold Messner summits again without oxygen, this time solo via the North Col to the North Face and the Great Couloir. He climbes for three days from his base camp at 6500 meters and summits on August 20, 1980. This was the first and probably only solo climb of Mount Everest ever and forever. Today the mountain is overcrowded and it's not likely that you will be alone on your route. Reinhold Messner was actually totally alone on the whole mountain during the whole climb. Messner writes in "Crystal Horizon: Everest the First Solo Ascent": "It is odd that I cannot see the Chinese aluminium survey tripod that has stood on the summit since 1975. Suddenly I am standing in front of it. I take hold of it, grasp it like a friend. It is as if I embrace my opposing force, something that absolves and electrifies at the same time. At this moment I breathe deeply ...".

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