They only spent 15 minutes at the summit on May 29, 1953, but Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzig Norgay were the first people to climb to the top of Mount Everest. The low oxygen in the air prevented them from staying any longer. Photos were taken, Tenzig left chocolates as an offering and Hillary left a cross. The two took care coming down since drifting snow had covered their tracks. Reportedly the first thing Hillary said upon descending is, “Well, we knocked the bastard off.”
Mountain climbing or mountaineering was once only practiced because they are useful skills. Mountaineers would guide travelers or use it for hunting animals in higher terrain. Only during the renaissance did individuals climb for fun. Along with the views and excitement that comes with climbing, there is a spiritual side. Mountains are home to the gods in many ancient mythologies. There is closeness to heaven. Mountaineering is popular today with many people who use it as a way to appreciate and become closer to nature.
WHERE TO START
Mountain climbing needs some preparation. It is good idea to be in decent shape since climbing is a strenuous activity that can quickly wear a body down. Basic mountaineering skills can be acquired from friends or family that are experienced in climbing. Attending a basic mountaineering class is another way to get these skills.
Starting with an easier mountain is a good way to get into the sport. Most people don’t start with an Everest attempt since that can lead to an accident or even death. Mount Rainier in the United States’ Pacific Northwest is considered a good starter mountain. It is a challenge for any mountaineer, but the summit is attainable for anyone in good physical condition. About 10,000 climbers a year attempt to reach the summit on Mount Rainier with a success rate of about 50%.
As a novice, hiring a mountain guide is a good idea. They are professional climbers who know the terrain and get paid to take people up and down the mountain safely. If they are certified than they have undergone a lot of training and have a lot of experience.
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY
The level of difficulty for each mountain is assessed in two main ways: altitude and terrain. Mountains have a combination of both of these that give each its own unique climbing experience. Everest is the tallest mountain on the planet, but many smaller mountains are considered more difficult to climb due to their terrain.
Mountains are divided into two basic levels: non-technical and technical. Non-technical (or “walk up” peak) is defined as simple hiking that occasionally requires scrabbling over some other difficult terrain like rocks and streams. Technical climbing requires more equipment since the terrain doesn’t allow simple hiking. Non-technical mountains include California’s Mt. Whitney and Colorado’s Mt. Elbert. Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest and most challenging of these.
The next level of difficulty for mountains is the steeper glaciated peaks that need special equipment to traverse. These are often easier to climb than some people realize and any reasonably fit person with determination and training can reach the summit. France’s Mt. Blanc and Russia’s Mt. Elbrus, and Washington State’s Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker are all good examples. Most mountains in this category are volcanoes and often require two to three days to climb with one to two days of preparatory training.
The largest and most formidable peaks can be tried after some experiences in the more basic peaks have been attempted and a climber’s skills have been sharpened. These difficult climbs such as Alaska’s Mt. McKinley and Argentina’s Mt. Concagua expose the climber to more severe weather and higher altitudes.
The 14 highest peaks all top over 8000 meters or 26,246 feet in height and are considered the elite of mountain climbing. All of these mountains come from either the Himalayas or Karakoram regions in Asia. These peaks should only be attempted by the most experienced and trained mountaineers. Many of these mountains aren’t served by any commercial outfitters who will take amateur climbers. They are simply too steep and dangerous for anyone but advanced professionals. However, there are those who want to climb all 14 and those who do join a small group called the 8000ers. Only 18 people have ascended all 14 mountains without bottled oxygen.
There is another challenge Mountaineers can do: climbing the seven highest summits on all seven continents. This is called the seven summits challenge. This is comparatively easier than the 8000er club with over 140 people finishing it. This challenge is not without criticism. Jon Krakauer, an experienced mountaineer, proposed the second seven summits challenge as a better option since the second highest peaks on each continent actually presented a bigger challenge.
One criticism placed against these climbing challenges is the cost. The training, plane tickets, guide services and other expenses can measure up to $200,000. Commercial expeditions to climb Mt. Everest usually costs from $60,000 to $70,000. K2 costs around $50,000.
Fortunately, most mountains are not that expensive. Good beginner mountains like Mt Rainier and Mt Shuksan both can cost around $1000. That includes two to three days of climbing and even meals while on the mountain.
Most commercial guides offer rental of any equipment that might be needed for the expedition. These items include backpacks, ropes, ice axes, crampons, helmets, boots and various other possible items. For beginners it is best to rent this equipment and then buy the items as you become more involved in the sport.
There is no question that mountain climbing is considered a dangerous activity. This is why guides stress the importance of being in good physical condition before attempting to reach a summit. Dangers in mountain climbing are divided into three types: weather, falling and avalanches.
Weather is the primary danger. Blizzards may cause poor visibility and that could result in getting lost or falling down. Weather patterns can change quickly and that may catch climbers unaware. There have been many reported cases of climbers being struck by lightning since they are attracted to the highest points in the ground.
Avalanches and falling rocks/ice are also something to be watchful for. Every mountain is slowly eroding and that causes pieces of them to crack and fall off. This can be extremely hazardous and cause a serious injury. The places where rocks and ice are likely to fall can be determined before a climb by an experienced climber.
Altitude sickness is common too. This occurs at 2400 meters or 8000 feet. Headaches are the primary symptom, but this could also be a sign of dehydration. If it is combined with vomiting, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, insomnia or a general malaise it can indicate altitude sickness. The only cure known is to descend the mountain and take time to acclimate yourself to the oxygen level. This is the reason why climbers ascend up the mountain and camp out at night on a slightly lower area of the mountain. This allows time to get adjusted and the body can increase red blood cells.
The danger of mountain climbing is mostly determined by the mountain being climbed. The difference can be striking. Annapurna has been climbed by more than 130 people, but 53 people died trying.
That brings its death percentage to about 40%. In contrast, Mt Rainier has a death percentage of less than 1%.
In the end, it is all about having an adventurous spirit and the willingness to put yourself out there. Part of the thrill of mountaineering is the sense of danger that comes with it. Facing a structure so massive can be intimidating, but that only heightens the sense of accomplishment. It is as much about self discovery as it is the fun of it all. After all, Hillary once said that, “It is not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves.”