In India, in 1852, a clerk rushed into the office of Sir Andrew Waugh, surveyor general of India, and excitedly explained that a Bengali employee named Radhanath Sikhdar had just discovered the highest mountain in the world. Sikhdar used mathematics to estimate the height of a large mountain in Nepal—29,000 feet above sea level. Nine years later, Andrew Waugh named the mountain “Everest,” after George Everest, his predecessor at surveyor general. Mount Everest quickly became a popular site for explorers. Yet, from the date of Everest’s “discovery” in 1852, it took 101 years before anyone succeeded in climbing it.
It’s a testament to the power (and arrogance) of the British Empire that a Himalayan mountain, whose height was first measured by a Bengali surveyor, bears the name of a British colonial authority. Right away, Everest’s height attracted daredevils and thrill-seekers, who wanted to prove their talents by climbing to the highest point on Earth.
Mount Everest is a massive, three-sided pyramid of ice and rock. Most of its early explorers tried to climb it from the northern, Tibetan side. In 1924, a British explorer named Edward Felix Norton got within 900 feet of the summit. The day after Norton’s achievement, two of his teammates, George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine, tried to make it all the way. That night, a storm hit, and neither Mallory nor Irvine was ever seen again. Whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit has been hotly debated, but recently explorers found Mallory’s corpse in a ledge, suggesting that he and Irvine probably didn’t succeed.
Everest has always been a fairly dangerous mountain to climb, due to the combination of rocky terrain and high altitude. And yet, the growing list of Everest fatalities—including Irvine and Mallory— didn’t discourage other mountaineers from trying their luck. On the contrary, it encouraged them to try harder. As we can see already, many mountaineers savor the challenges of a daunting peak like Everest.
In 1953, a large British team, headed by Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa mountaineer, set out to climb Everest. On May 29, 1953, Hillary and Norgay became the first people to climb to the top of Everest, just three days before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The coincidence of the two events caused an outpouring of patriotism in Great Britain, and Hillary and Norgay were knighted and became international heroes.
Just as the discovery of Everest as the world’s highest peak was bound up in British colonialism, so, too, did Hillary and Norgay’s achievement coincide with another milestone in British history: the coronation of the Queen. Unfortunately, it’s also no coincidence that Edmund Hillary, the white New Zealander, remains a far more famous person internationally than Tenzing Norgay the Sherpa—Hillary was from the British Commonwealth, and therefore a better “mascot” for Great Britain itself.
On May 22, 1963, Krakauer was nine years old. A team headed by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld climbed to the summit of Everest via the West Ridge of the mountain. The West Ridge is a highly difficult climb, much more so than the route taken by Hillary and Norgay in 1953. Unsoeld was a close friend of Krakauer’s father, and he quickly became Krakauer’s hero. By his early twenties, Krakauer was an experienced mountaineer. He loved the sense of freedom that climbing provided—and the friendly competition of racing to the top. For most of his twenties, Krakauer worked as a fisherman and a carpenter, making just enough money to fund trips to Alaska.
Krakauer’s book is both a history of mountaineering on Everest and a first-person account of Krakauer’s own relationship with the sport. Krakauer has been obsessed with climbing mountains for most of his life; furthermore, he’s always savored the sense of freedom and individualism that accompanies a climb. Krakauer clearly loves mountain climbing with a passion—otherwise, he wouldn’t spend all his fishing and carpentry money on climbing expeditions.
By the time he was thirty, Krakauer had mixed feelings about Everest—strangely, he thought it wasn’t challenging or beautiful enough to be worth climbing. By that time, more than one hundred people had climbed Everest, and mountaineers had established reliable trails. In 1991, the Nepalese government began charging for climbing permits. By the middle of the 1990s, it cost 50,000 dollars to climb Everest, and many mountaineers argued that Everest had become overly commercialized.
In the half century since Hillary and Norgay’s climb, Everest has become a much less challenging and more commercialized peak. This new notion of mountain climbing—as a white collar, group activity—clashes with everything Krakauer loves about the sport.
In 1995, one of Krakauer’s editors asked him to join an Everest expedition and write an article about it for the magazine Outside. Krakauer asked for a year to prepare for the physical demands of the climb; he also asked the magazine to pay the 65,000-dollar climbing permit. After some thought, Krakauer’s editor agreed. In 1995, Krakauer was 41 years old, and a little “past his prime” for mountaineering. He had to face the fact that more than one hundred people had died trying to climb Mount Everest. Nevertheless, in 1996, when his editor told him that there was now a place for him on an upcoming Everest expedition led by Rob Hall, he agreed to go without a second thought.
Krakauer’s passion for climbing is so strong that even as a 41-year-old man, he immediately decides to climb Everest, training for an entire year for the opportunity to do so. Like so many other climbers, Krakauer isn’t discouraged by the high mortality rate—it’s even possible that the “more than one hundred people” who died climbing Everest make the expedition seem more exciting and daring to Krakauer.