Authors: Bear Grylls
The fresh air of the mountains has always strengthened me, and I longed for it again. Such a large proportion of my Army time had been amongst the hills, and I missed them. Here was a way back.
The climb was a risk I wanted to take. There was more though. I still yearned to be able to look at my picture of Everest, and to know what those summit slopes were like, and to actually see the
curvature of the earth from the top. It was a decision, I guess, I had already made long ago.
My parents and especially my sister, Lara, called me ‘selfish and unkind’, and then subsequently, ‘stupid’. My sister and I have always been fiercely honest with each
other, occasionally to our great irritation. But this on the whole, putting aside the occasional black eye, has always been the strength of our relationship. I am closer to my sister than anyone
else, and I think it was this intimacy which provoked the hostility to the Everest idea in the months ahead.
Even when my parents came to accept, in the loosest sense of the word, the idea, Lara’s loathing of that ‘E’ word remained. No amount of persuasion would win her round.
My parents weren’t exactly a pushover either. Their acceptance of it came with the condition that if I died, then my mother would leave my father as he had been the first to endorse me. I
felt awful. I had never meant to cause such chaos amongst the family, and part of me wished that I had said nothing, except that I was thinking about possibly taking a Thompson’s coach trip
for a few months around the British Isles.
Time, and my insistence that everything would be okay, eventually won through and my parents, and even my sister as well, came to accept the idea. Their initial resistance then turned to this
fierce determination to help me. Numerous times in the months ahead when I fell flat on my face, beaten by the exhausting road of finding sponsorship and having to train so hard, their support
would pick me up, encourage me, and keep me going. Without their help I would have probably ended up on that coach trip around the British Isles. All I had to ensure was that I was right, when I
promised I would be okay.
As it happened, four people tragically died on Everest whilst we were there. Four good, strong climbers. A Russian and his American wife; a Briton and a New Zealander. In truth, it wasn’t
within my capabilities to make these promises to my family. My father, I think, secretly knew that.
‘What is Everest without the eyes that see it? It is the hearts of men that make it big or small.’
Legend has it that the Himalaya was formed in a violent struggle of the gods. While the Goddess Vishnu, known as the preserver of life, slept, the Demon Hiranyanksha leapt to
earth and ravaged her with such severity that all her limbs were broken and contorted high up into the sky. From this struggle were formed the Himalaya, literally meaning ‘abode of
Geology tells a different tale. About fifty million years ago the Himalaya and Nepal were a large sea called Tethys. As the vast continent of Gondwanaland slowly crossed the Tethys sea moving
north, it eventually met with the shores of Asia. As they collided with mighty force, the impact drove the soft sedimentary rock of Asia dramatically upwards, as the harder granite of Gondwanaland
bit into it. This wrenching and tearing resulted in the stunning creation of the highest, yet youngest of the mountain ranges on earth – the Great Himalaya.
The Himalaya stretches without interruption for 1,500 miles all the way across the top of India. It’s hard to visualize the vast scale of this giant land, but if we were to stretch it
across Europe it would run the entire distance from London to Moscow. Full of the most gigantic mountains on our planet, the Himalaya houses ninety-one summits over 24,000 feet; all of them higher
than any mountain on any other continent. Amongst these are thirteen of the earth’s giants, standing over 26,000 feet, with Everest at the heart, the crowning glory of the physical world. Her
summit lies, lonesome and wild, at just under nine vertical kilometres up – exactly 29,028 feet above sea level. A world apart.
Numerous expeditions during the pre-war years took on the epic challenge of attempting to be the first to reach the summit of Everest. All failed, often with tragic results. These great men of
adventure recognized the magnitude of the task in front of them. Mallory, who failed to return and was never seen again after his summit attempt in 1924, said beforehand: ‘The issue of
Everest will shortly be decided – the next time we walk up the Rongbuk Glacier will be the last, for better or for worse . . . we expect no mercy from Everest.’ As time showed, he was
tragically right; the mountain retained her secret.
It was not until 1953, 101 years after the discovery that Everest was the highest mountain on earth, that she was eventually climbed. Just before noon on 9 May, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing
‘stamped to the top with their teeth in the wind’.
Hillary wrote: ‘My solar plexus was tight with fear . . . I wondered, rather dully, whether we would have enough strength left to get through. I cut around the back of another hump and saw
that the ridge ahead dropped away and we could see far into Tibet. I looked up and there above us was a rounded snow cone. A few whacks of the ice axe, a few cautious steps, and Tensing and I were
on the top.’
The news raced back down the valleys, reaching Queen Elizabeth on the eve of her coronation.
broke the story and the nation erupted at the British triumph. Morris, a young
correspondent, wrote: ‘The moment aroused a whole orchestra of rich emotions among the British – pride, patriotism, nostalgia for the lost past of the War and derring-do, hope for a
The eventual success had come at last. The cost? Fifteen expeditions, the lives of twenty-four men, and the passing of over a century in time.
One of the reasons, I believe, that Everest was never climbed earlier was the fear of the effects that exposure to those sorts of heights would cause. Nobody knew whether the human body would be
able to endure such stress. Similarly, before Roger Bannister successfully ran the four-minute mile, doctors declared that it was a physical impossibility; if you ran that fast, they said, your
heart would literally ‘burst out of your chest’. Likewise, the fear of what would happen to the human body so high on Everest was another unknown, waiting to be tested.
On the summit there is one third of the amount of oxygen that there is at sea-level. From about 18,000 feet the human body begins to deteriorate as it struggles for survival in the thin air.
Above this height for weeks on end, you are on borrowed time. Your body, literally, is dying. Still today, forty-five years after the first successful ascent, the statistics of deaths on Everest
remain constant. Out of every six climbers who reach the summit, one of those will die. Equipment improves, forecasts get more accurate, and technology changes, yet the mountain remains the
In all of Everest’s history, still only thirty-six Britons have ever stood on her summit; a shockingly low proportion of those who have tried. She doesn’t give her secret out easily,
and she always has a price.
During the early 1990s, Nepal saw the emergence of commercial expeditions being launched to Everest. Climbers could now pay up to US$60,000 for the privilege of attempting the
climb. This fee was intended to cover the logistical cost of the expedition, including all the oxygen, the permit to climb, as well as the cost of three months living on the mountain. The trouble
was that advertising to get clients widened the market. Genuine climbers could rarely afford such fees. Instead the climb was opened to less fit and less capable clients, with little knowledge of
the hills. The pressure upon expedition leaders to justify the cost often meant that these people found themselves too high on the mountain, dangerously tempting disaster.
It took until 1996, when the combination of a freak storm, and inexperience amongst certain climbers, resulted in that fateful pre-monsoon tragedy. On top of the eight lives lost that stormy
night, the mountain took a further three lives the next week, bringing the toll then to eleven.
It wasn’t only the inexperienced though who died up there. Among the dead was Rob Hall, the expedition leader of Adventure Consultants, and one of the most highly acclaimed climbers in the
world. He endured a night at 28,700 feet, in temperatures of –50°C. Without any further supplementary oxygen and severely weakened by the cold, the mountain was about to show that no one,
not even the best, were infallible.
At dawn, Rob spoke to his wife in New Zealand via a patch-through from his radio and a satellite phone at Base Camp. She was pregnant with their first child, and those on the mountain sat
motionless as he spoke his last words to her, ‘I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart.’ He didn’t survive the day, unable to find the strength to move any more.
Shock ran through the climbing fraternity and the world at large. Fingers were pointed and blame was thrown around. The fact is that it took the lives of so many, and the desolation of so many
families left behind, to show the climbing world that mountaineering cannot be purely commercial. People thought that they had found a formula that was fool-proof on Everest. But, as is the nature
on high mountains, such systems have a funny way of breaking down.
People of course still make money by running commercial expeditions, but now the vetting of climbers involved is much stricter. The motives of these expeditions has now, for the most part,
reverted back from being financially driven to what the essence of climbing is really about – namely a love of the hills. It’s tragic that it took such a disaster to remind the world of
such a simple lesson. Maybe it is a criticism of Western attitudes, and just showed a deep misunderstanding of the power of these mountains. Maybe it was just bad luck. In reality I think the truth
lies somewhere in the middle. Whatever the answer, the fact is that mountains, like the sea, always demand a deep respect.
To the Nepalese and Tibetans who live under the shadow of the Great Himalaya, the nature of the mountains is well understood. Their force is a higher force, and their attraction is their beauty.
Within Nepal, Everest is known simply as the ‘goddess of the sky’, or Sagarmatha. Even this name reflects their respect for nature. I guess that this reverence is the greatest lesson
you can learn as a climber. You climb only because the mountain allows it. If it says wait, then you must wait, and when it allows you to go, then you must struggle and strain in the thin air with
all your might. Listening to the mountain and having patience on it are the keys to survival.
Everest is so high that she actually creates her own weather-cycles round her. The huge mass causes such gravitational pull that a micro-climate exists around the mountain. The weather here can
change in minutes, as wind and storm clouds flood through the valleys.
The summit itself stubbornly pokes into the band of wind that circles the earth at around 30,000 feet upwards. This band of wind blows continually at about 200 m.p.h. and is known simply as the
‘jet stream’. The long plume of snow that pours off Everest’s peak is caused by these winds, blowing frozen snow across the sky. It is hardly surprising that the temperatures high
on the mountain can reach as low as –100° wind chill factor.
Standing far above the clouds is this place, so wild, yet so beautiful, that I can so easily understand what Mallory meant when he described her as: ‘rising from the bright mists, vast and
forceful . . . where nothing could have been more set and permanent – more terrific – more unconquerable.’
At first sight, Everest is awe-inspiring beyond belief and holds a certain magic over the entire Himalaya.
For some reason, human nature through the decades is still irresistibly drawn to Everest, and I suppose always will be. The challenge, the beauty, the simplicity of nature, or maybe all three. I
don’t really know. All I know is that I am now sitting at my typewriter and looking at the picture of Everest in the glow of dusk beside me – the same picture that I used to look at as
a wishful eight-year-old, and as a recovering patient. But now, having been so privileged to have crouched briefly on her summit, I view it in a new light; with an even greater awe. The mountain
holds me entranced and still I burn with excitement when I see it. Sagarmatha is so much more than just the highest mountain in the world.