Kilian Jornet: Mount Everest’s Mysterious First Summit Attempts

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In Summits of My Life, Kilian Jornet brings his epic mountain project to life by documenting the awe-inspiring, record-setting attempts of the ascent and descent records for some of the world’s most important mountains. 

The Mystery of the First Attempts on Everest

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Mount Everest is the Earth’s highest point, standing at 29,029 feet. Its older Tibetan name is Chomolungma (“Goddess Mother of the Mountains”), and for the past century it has also been known by its Nepalese name, Sagarmatha. The Everest name was chosen in 1865 by Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, in honor of his predecessor, Sir George Everest. It was during that time that the altitudes of the highest peaks in the Himalayas were being determined. When Mount Everest was declared the highest point in the world in the middle of the nineteenth century, the interest in climbing it skyrocketed.

The first big expeditions and serious attempts at making it to the summit took place in the 1920s. This is where the mythical George Mallory stepped onto the scene. He was determined to be the first man to reach the summit of what the British considered “the Third Pole.” During a 1921 expedition, Mallory’s team did land survey work and opened up a path to the summit via the north face. In 1922, they made their first attempt at the summit itself, making it just past the North Col. It was the first time anyone had ever climbed over 8,000 meters (26,247 ft.). They were forced to turn around after an avalanche killed a number of the Sherpas that were accompanying them.

In 1924, another expedition, led by Mallory himself, made an attempt. Despite the poor conditions, they prepared two attacks on the summit from the North Col. Edward Norton and Howard Somervell were the first to try it, on June 2, but they weren’t able to make it. The second attempt was led by Mallory and Andrew Irvine on June 8. They took tremendously heavy oxygen tanks with them. From the tents of the campsite, the pair were sent off by climber Noel Odell. Some time later, Odell explained what he saw when he looked up a few hours later: “My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock-step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. . . . Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.” The pair never returned.

Nobody has ever been able to figure out if Mallory and Irvine reached the summit, but according to Odell’s testimony, they made it quite high. Mallory’s body was found in 1999 by an international expedition, but the mystery of his final expedition lives on.

The First Everest Summits and Its Growing Popularity

The pioneering expeditions that attempted to become the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest approached from the northern side. When China invaded Tibet in 1950, however, this route was closed, and climbers were forced to explore the southern side. In 1952, the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Swiss mountaineer Raymond Lambert set a new altitude record of 28,199 feet on the southeastern ridge. Norgay’s experience on this trip would be essential for the expedition he would make the following year, in which he would reach the summit. This later trip was a British expedition that included the New Zealander Edmund Hillary. Hillary was subsequently named Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, while Norgay received the George Medal.

In 1960 the first Chinese expedition reached the summit via the north face, and in 1975, the Japanese Junko Tabei became the first woman to summit. At the time, all of the climbers who made it to the summit of Mount Everest had to rely on supplementary oxygen, a controversial move ever since the first expeditions made in the 1920s. The first climbers to reach the summit without using supplementary oxygen were Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler in 1978. Two years later, Messner made history again by performing the first solo climb to the summit, also without the use of oxygen.

With the opening of new routes up the mountain, a new era was dawning in the exploration of Everest. Until the 1980s, the number of expeditions on the mountain’s summit was relatively low; that is, until the guided expedition explosion of the 1990s provided a sizeable boost in Mount Everest’s popularity. With the increase in expeditions, however, came the increase in deadly accidents; for example, the 1996 tragedy in which eight climbers died due to a strong storm; or the 2014 avalanche, which swept away 14 Nepalese mountain guides. Now, the growing popularity of Mount Everest, the ascent conditions, and the lack of preparation among some climbers are causes for debate.

During the 1990s, the Italian Hans Kammerlander established the record for the ascent from an advanced base camp on the northern side, completing the trip in 16 hours and 45 minutes. A few years prior, in 1986, Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet made their legendary ascent up the Hornbein Couloir and back down to their base camp in 43 hours. The record for the south side belongs to the French Marc Batard, who made it to the summit and back to base camp in 22 hours and 29 minutes without the use of supplementary oxygen. He was the first man to complete the task in under 24 hours, a feat that earned him the nickname “the sprinter of Everest.”

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Everest Timeline

Mid-nineteenth century: The British occupying India are drawn by the heights of the tallest peaks of the Himalayas, and their survey work indicates that what was then known as Peak 15 could be the Earth’s highest point: 29,002 ft.

1865: Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, baptizes Peak 15 with the name Mount Everest in honor of his predecessor, Sir George Everest.

1885: Clinton Thomas Dent, the then-president of the Alpine Club, writes that Mount Everest can be climbed.

June 23, 1921: The first British expedition including Charles Howard-Bury and George Mallory surveys the land and lays out a route for an ascent to the summit via the North Col and the ridgeline.

June 7, 1922: A second British expedition attempts Mount Everest, led by Charles Granville Bruce and including Mallory. An avalanche that kills part of the team forces the rest to turn around.

June 8, 1924: Mallory and Andrew Irvine make the most successful attempt to date, but they disappear close to the summit. Nobody knows if they made it all the way to the top or not.

May 29, 1953: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first men to summit Mount Everest.

May 25, 1960: The Chinese Wang Fuzhou, Gonpo Dorje, and Qu Yinhua make the first documented ascent up the north face.

May 16, 1975: The Japanese Junko Tabei becomes the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

May 8, 1978: Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler make the first ascent to the summit without the use of supplementary oxygen.

August 20, 1980: Reinhold Messner finishes the first solo ascent from base camp in three days, without supplementary oxygen.

May 23–24, 1996: Hans Kammerlander sets an ascent record of 16 hours and 45 minutes, climbing from the northern base camp without supplementary oxygen.

May 8 and 15, 2007: The Sherpa Pemba Dorje climbs Everest twice in one week without supplementary oxygen.

May 21 and 27, 2017: Kilian Jornet beats Dorje’s record by summiting Everest twice in six days: in 26 hours from the base camp, and in 17 hours from the advanced camp.

In Summits of My Life, Kilian Jornet brings his epic mountain project to life by documenting the awe-inspiring, record-setting attempts of the ascent and descent records for some of the world’s most important mountains.