An Accident of Geology
In 1852, British surveyor Sir George Everest declared one
peak in the Himalayan ranges as the highest of the many tall
mountains. The native people of the Himalayas called it
Sagarmatha. Later, the peak would become known as Everest,
in honor of the man who measured it.
Almost immediately, adventurers from around the world began to think about climbing 29,028 feet to the mountain's summit and standing "on top of the world."
It was one hundred and one years later, in 1953, that another pioneer succeeded in scaling the mountain. Sir Edmund Hillary and his partner Tenzing Norgay became the first humans to look down upon the world.
Since then, over six hundred people have joined the exclusive group of humans who have held their head higher than the highest peak on earth.
Of course, many of the climbers who have successfully scaled Mount Everest agree that the greater challenge is not the ascent of the mountain, but the descent. Getting down safely after the incredible physical exertion at oxygen-depleted high altitude can be overwhelming.
In fact, some think that a British climber may have been the first to stand on the summit of Everest, some twenty years before Hillary. George Mallory tried repeatedly during the 1920s and 1930s to climb Everest. He died on the mountain, and some think he may have died on the descent, although history will never know for sure.
George Mallory does hold a special place in Everest history, though, for another reason. When asked why he kept trying after several failed expeditions, he spoke the famous reply, "Because it's there."
Today, climbers from around the world make their way to Everest each year for the same reason. Springtime, especially May, brings the crowds to Everest. Many experienced, professional climbers gather for an annual attempt on the mountain during its most mild month. In recent years, greater numbers of inexperienced, amateur climbers have joined them. For a price, an amateur can join an expedition led by experienced climbers and achieve their dream of climbing Everest.
Even the most experienced climbers risk their lives when they climb Everest, however. The inexperienced climbers put themselves at even greater risk. Tragedies can happen.
In May of 1996, for example, Everest claimed eight lives. The victims were both amateurs and the professionals who agreed to guide them safely to the summit. No human being has the strength at that altitude to carry the corpses, so they stay on the mountain, becoming frozen reminders to future climbers that Mount Everest does not forgive human weakness.
Yet, in Spring of 1997, the crowds returned. New teams of climbers arrived, fearlessly focused on their summit dreams. Each Springtime promises even more traffic on the mountain.
Why? What is Everest, after all? Scientists believe that Mount Everest, and the other Himalayan mountains, are an accident of geology. The crust of the earth is broken into big pieces called plates. All of these plates are drifting on the liquid molten magma of the mantle beneath the crust. Even though they're drifting very slowly, when they bump into each other, the force is huge. Scientists call this action plate tectonics. Over millions of years, plate tectonics has changed the appearance of the Earth's crust. Besides the crustal plates drifting and moving to different locations, the pushing and pulling between plates causes mountains and valleys to form. Scientists think that, long ago, the crustal plate of India collided with the huge crustal plate of Asia to form the Himalayas, the highest mountains in the world. While crustal rock is solid, it does have some elastic properties. With enough force and heat, rock can bend and change shape. When the two plates bumped into each other, rock along the edges pushed upward. Even today, scientists think that the Indian plate is still colliding with the Asian plate, moving about five centimeters (two inches) per year, and causing the highest mountains to rise even higher.
In the mind of a climber, however, Everest is much more than an accident of geology.
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