THE HIMALAYAS as most everyone knows are the highest mountains in the world, with 30 peaks over 24,000 feet. The highest mountains in Europe, North and South America barely top 20,000 feet. The word Himalaya is Sanskrit for "abode of the snow" and a Himal is a massif of mountains. Technically Himalaya is the plural of Himal and there should be no such word as Himalayas.

The Himalayas stretch for 1,500 miles from eastern Tibet and China to a point where India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan all come together. The mountain kingdoms of Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal are all contained within the range. The southern side of the Himalayas are like a huge climatic wall. During the summer monsoon winds push massive rain clouds against the mountains squeezing out rain onto some of the wettest places on earth. On the leeward, rain-blocked side of the range, on the Tibetan plateau, are some of the driest and most barren places on the planet.

The Himalaya-Karakoram range contains nine of the world’s top ten highest peaks and 96 of the world's 109 peaks over 24,000 feet. If the Karakorum, Pamir, Tian Shan and Hindu Kush ranges and Tibet---which are extensions of the Himalayas into Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and Central Asia---are including in the Himalayas then the 66 highest mountains in the world are in the Himalayas. The 67th highest is Aconcagua in Argentina and Chile

Several of the greatest rivers in the world---the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers---originate in either the Himalayas or the Tibetan plateau. Some people live in valleys nestled between Himalayan ridges but few people actually live on the slopes of the mountains. Web Sites: Wikipedia Wikipedia

Geology of the Himalayas: The Himalayas are not just one range of mountains but a series of three parallel ranges that rise up from the plains of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Between the massifs and peaks are eroded river gorges, some of the deepest valleys in the world, and massive, slowly-creeping glaciers.

The southernmost range, the Siwalik Hills, barely tops 5000 feet. The Lesser Himalayas, in the middle, vary in altitude between 7,000 and 15,000 feet, and are indented with valleys like the Kathmandu Valley. The third range is known as the Great Himalayas and this is where all the world's biggest peaks are found.

The Himalayas are young mountains. Because of this they experience frequent landslides and rapid erosion, creating precipitous topography with sharp peaks and V-shaped ravines rather than alluvial valleys or lakes. Wind, rain, run off and snow continue shaping the mountains today. The mountains remain about the same height because the rate of erosion is about the same as the amount of uplift. The amount of snow also varies considerably. The greatest depths are recorded in the summer when the monsoons dump large amounts of snow on the higher elevation of the Himalayas. In the winter, high wind scour the landscape and blow snow away.

Himalayas and Plate Tectonics: The Himalayas began 65 million years when the Indian subcontinent climaxed a 70 million year journey across the Indian Ocean with a collision into Asia. The force and pressure of the collision between the Asian plate and India, pushed massive folds of sedimentary rock up from out of the earth. The pressure and heat of the mountain building forces turned some of rock into metamorphic rocks such schists and gneisses. Wind, rain, run off and glacial ice created the awesome Alpine shapes you see today.

Much of the rock pushed upwards by the mountain building activity is limestone and sandstone that was once at the bottom of the ocean. It is possible to find fossils of sea creatures in the Himalayas at an elevation of four kilometers above sea level.

Plate tectonic continues to push the Indian subcontinent under Nepal and China, which sit on the Eurasian Plate, forcing Tibet and the entire Himalayan range to rise about 10 millimeters a year and move towards China at a rate if about five centimeters a year. Before it was pushed upwards Tibet was a well watered plain. As the Himalayas were pushed up they deprived Tibet of rain, turning it into a dry plateau.

The Indian Plate is moving northeastward at a rate of 1.7 inches a year relative to the Eurasian Plate which embraces most of Asia and Europe. A great amount of energy drives the collision and is released at the boundaries of the plates, which explains partly why India, Nepal , Tibet and China experience sometimes experience devastating earthquakes.


Tibetan side of Mt. Everest

Mt. Everest is 29,028 feet high (5½ miles high). Taller than 21 Empire State buildings piled on top of one another and almost as high as the cruising altitude of Boeing 747 jumbo jets, Mt. Everest is so high that it sometimes penetrates the jet stream, blowing mountain climbers off the top, and dozens of feet have to be subtracted from surveying measurements to compensate for the gravity created by the mountain.

Located on the border of Tibet (China) and Nepal, Mt. Everest is sometimes referred to as the third pole. It was first known to British surveyors---who first sighted it many miles away in Denhra Dun in India and took measurements of its heights from there---as Peak XV. In 1852 it became significant when a Bengali clerk working in an office in Delhi exclaimed "I have discovered the highest mountain in world" after tabulating measurements of Peak XV from different survey stations across northern India in 1849 and 1850.

Mt. Everest is named after the British after Sir George Everest, a Welshman and the Surveyor General of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India and the man in charge of mapping India between 1830 and 1843. Everest most likely never saw the mountain named after him. It is believed he would likely have preferred a local name given to tthe mountain.

The Nepalese call Mt. Everest "Samgarmatha" ("Goddess of the Universe" or literally “Forehead of the Sky”) and Sherpas and Tibetans call it "Qomolangma" or Chomolungma ("Goddess Mother of the Land"). For them the mountain is sacred and the idea of climbing it, until recently, was strange. According to a Sherpa legend Mt. Everest is the home of a goddess bearing a bowl of food and a mongoose spitting jewels. Mt. Everest is located at about the same latitude as Tampa, Florida.

Climbers say that other mountains are much more difficult to climb than Mt. Everest. Jan Morris, who accompanied the first successful Everest expedition, wrote: “It’s not the most beautiful of mountains---several of its neighbors were shapelier---but whether in fact or simply in the mind, it seems conspicuously nobler than any of them.” Among the most impressive sights at the summit is the pyramid-shapes shadow that Everest produces at sunrise and sunset. Hardly anybody has been it from the summit itself because few climbers are there at those times. Web Sites: Wikipedia Wikipedia National Geographic National Geographic Mount Everest.net Mont Everest.net Summit Post Summit Post

Everest climber

Measuring the Height of Mt. Everest: Using a global positional device (GPS) placed on the summit in 1999, scientists at the University of Colorado calculated the height of Mt. Everest to be 29,035 feet, or 8,500 meters.(with a margin of error or plus or minus seven feet). This is seven feet higher than earlier estimates. The new height was recognized by the National Geographic Society and placed on their maps.

The measurements were made after a Seattle-based astronomer claimed in 1987 that K2 in Pakistan might be 29,064 feet high, making it higher that Mt. Everest. The K2 measurement was made measuring the altitude of a knoll near K2 using a 75-pound Doppler receiver (a device that measures distance through analysis of slight variations in the wavelength of radio waves) on the knoll and a satellite passing overhead and then using ordinary triangulation to determine the height of K2.

The first survey of Mt. Everest in the 1850s came up with the altitude figure of 29,002 feet based on measurements taken at six sites in the India plains. A second survey made at the turn of the century determined the height of Mt. Everest was 29,141 feet. In the 1954, when Indian surveyors made 12 readings at locations much closer to the mountain, they came with the widely accepted elevation of 29,028 feet (8,848 meters).

The global positioning device taken to the summit of Mt. Everest in 1998 was placed there by mountain climbers. The devise also determined that Everest is still rising at a rate of about a third of an inch every year and moving northeast at rate of three inches a year. Recently a Chinese mountaineering revised the height of Mt. Everest as four meters lower.

Still there is some debate as to what is the world's highest mountain. Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii stands 33,480 feet above the ocean floor and 13,796 feet above sea level.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Chimborazo, a 20,560-feet-high volcano in Ecuador, is 7,054 feet further from the center of the earth than Mt. Everest. It's distance from the earth's center is a result of the fact that Chimborazo is only 98 miles from the equator (the earth is slightly flat at the poles and wide at the equator). Chimborazo was thought to bebthe highest mountain in the world until the 1850s.

Surveying Mt. Everest : Because the original measurements of Mt. Everest were made from the faraway plains of India, the height calculations were corrected by as much as 1,375 feet to compensate for refraction alone. Moreover, the chain of triangulation locations began 1,000 miles way in Madras. For K2, they began 1,700 miles away in Madras.

The early surveyors were prohibited from crossing into Tibet by the Chinese emperor. To get around this the British hired local tribesmen who disguised their surveyor chains as prayer beads. These tribesmen were educated men known as "pandits." The word "pundit," an expression which originally meant "learned man" was derived from the name of this group.

All measurements of Mt. Everest are based on the elevation of the snowcap on the summit not the summit itself. No one knows how deep the snow is and it may vary as much as three feet in the course of a year.

Tibetan Side of Mount Everest

Climbing routes on Tibetan side

The Tibetan side of Mt. Everest (on the Nepalese border near the Tibetan monastery of Rongbuk) looks like a completely different mountain than the naked black peak visitors see from the Nepalese side.

The route that most Everest mountain climbers have taken on the Tibetan side is on the northeast Ridge. This was the route taken by Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb Everest solo, and George Mallory who got within 2000 feet of the summit in 1922 before he disappeared.

The Tibetan east face is a massive wall of ice rising out of the desolate Tibetan plateau. This side of the mountain, scaled first by an American expedition in July 1984, can be reached from the village of Kharta.

Qomolangma National Park was established in 1989. It covers 13,000 square miles and is home to around 80,000 people. It stretches northward from Mt. Everest onto the Tibetan plateau..

Tibetan Climbing Route on Mt. Everest: The Tibetan Route on Mt. Everest avoids the dangerous traversal of the Khumbu Icefall but involves more climbing skill and more time above 25,000 feet. The base camp is located at 17,000 feet. From there the ascent is relatively easy and gentle to Camp I at 18.300 feet and Camp II at 20,000 feet. To reach Camp III at 21,300 feet and Camp IV at 23,100 feet requires traversing glaciers and snowfields.

One of the most difficult parts of the climb is up the somewhat technically demanding rock face to Camp V at 25,600 feet. From here mountaineers follow a ridge crest all the way to the summit. Camp VI is located at 27,200 feat. The last section entails getting past the First Step and the Second Step, a 90-foot-high rock wall at 28,300 feet which now can be traversed using a ladder placed there by a Chinese team.

The Chinese made the first successful conquest of the summit form the north in 1960 using this route, Mallory and Messner also used it.

A Chinese team made the first ascent of Mt. Everest from the north (from Tibet) and was the second team to reach the summit after Hillary and Tenzing. Led by Shih Chan-Chun, the team reached the summit on May 25, 1960. No teams from other countries tried from this side until 1980 because Tibet was closed from 1950 to 1980.

Everest base camp on Tibetan side
Three Chinese climbers---Wang Fuzhou, Gong Bu and Qu Yinhua---reached the summit. Qu was recruited from a logging camp in Sichuan and lost a finger and toes to frostbite. He told a Beijing magazine,”We were aware that the climb was of national importance. We knew other Chinese teams had failed, and we knew that it had become an issue of China’s “face.”

The expedition was originally supposed to be a joint Soviet-Chinese expedition but troubles between the two Communist against prevented that from taking place. The Chinese team underwent training in the Pamirs in the Soviet Union and received $70,000 worth of foreign equipment. Before the climb the team were told by Zhou El Lai before the ascent: “Get to the top, or die trying.”

There biggest obstacle for the Chinese Everest team was a sheer face of ice-covered rock called the Second Step. Qu said, “We made three attempts at the 30-meter cliff. We went this way and that way, but it was no use. We were exhausted and night was falling...The English had said that not even a bird could fly across the Second Step. But then we noticed a crevice of 20-30 centimeters in width.”

Unable to get a good grip, Qu took off his four-kilogram boots and sock and climbed the crevice in -40̊C barefoot. Qu said, “I could just hear Premier Zhou words in my head. I knew that greater things than one man’s feet were at stake---it was a question of national honor.” It took more than five hours for Qu to get over the Second Step and help Wang and Gong. Just after midnight they began the final ascent,, reaching the summit at 4:25am.

At the summit the scribbled the time and date on a piece of paper and placed a statue of Mao and a Chinese flag in a canister which they buried at the summit and picked up a rock which the presented to Mao (the rock now sits in the National History Museum in Tiananmen Square). The team spent less than a minute at the summit. Because it was dark they took no photographs.

Because not photos were taken there have been allegations that the feat was faked and was not recognized by the international climbing community until 1975, when another Chinese team made it the summit using the same route, bringing along a 25-meter ladder to get over the Second Step.

Web Site and Getting There : Generally the only ways to get to the Everest area are by hired vehicle or as part of a tour. Travel China Guide (click attractions) Travel China Guide

Treks on the Tibetan Side of Mount Everest

Mount Everest from Rombok Gompa
Treks begin at the Rongbuk Monastery and lead to a glacier by the same name. Both Rongbuk Monastery and Xegar monastery near Kharta were reduced to piles of ruble by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. The ruins are now in the process of being restored.

The base camp below Rongbuk glacier has been described as a parking lot for a drive in movie. Expedition trucks filled with supplies can pull up right to the camp. Trekkers reach 17,200-foot-high "toe" of Rongbuk Glacier.

There were plans to put in a 67-mile paved road to Mt. Everest base camp to make it easier to take the Olympic torch there. These plans were put on hold in July 2007. Russell Brice, a New-Zealand-born climber, wants to build the world's highest hotel at the Northern Base Camp of Mt. Everest on the Tibetan side,

It is an eight day round-trip trek from Kharta to the Kangshung Glacier where the American expedition began. Along this scenic route trekkers pass through rhododendron forests, alpine meadows with views of Makalu (the fifth highest mountain in the world) and Chomo Lonz. Everest doesn't reveal itself until you arrive at the glacier. Web Site: Sumit Climb Summit Climb Trekking Tibet Trekking Tibet Samrat Nepal Samrat Nepal

Treks in the Tibetan Himalayas are not as well-organized as those in Nepal and other places. There is no emergency helicopter service. Supplies are often carried on the backs of Tibetan horses or yaks.


The Road from Kathmandu to Lhasa is usually traversed in a four-wheel-drive vehicle as part of an organized tour. But that doesn't necessarily insure a trouble-free trip. The border guards in Tibet, for example, can be surly and unpredictable. One traveler wrote in the New York Times how he was turned back from a check point by a naked pistol-waving Chinese soldiers caught in bed in bed with a Tibetan girl.

The road, known as the Friendship Highway, is in poor condition. There are few people or villages. Piles of stones, arrangements of yak and horse bones and white, green, blue and yellow prayer flags are placed near the road. Occasion ruined castles or herds of yaks can be seen in the distance.

Zhangmu is a town (across the border from Nepal, featuring rows of new Chinese commercial and administrative buildings stretching up a steep hillside. After crossing the border into Tibet travelers climbed 1,700 meters in 12 kilometers as the steep green slopes of Nepal are replaced by rolling brown and grey mountains of Tibet. The road passes a small monastery near the cave of Mireapa and the monasteries of Sakya, Shigatse and Gyantse. There are also lovely lakes and mountains. On the banks of Lake Yamdrok Tso there is an unsightly copper mine.

Lake Yamdrok

Tourists in organized tours usually stay in Chinese Government hotels and are transported in Toyota Landcruisers, which get stuck in mud or sand or breakdown because of the high altitude and have to be restarted again after fluid is sucked from the engine with a tube. The highest pass is over 17,000 feet. Parts of the road between Kathmandu and Lhasa can be washed out on the June-to-September monsoon season. On flights between Lhasa and Kathmandu, pilots often swing by Everest to give them an eye-level view of the world's highest mountain.

Gylelong La is a 17,200-foot pass with wonderful views of barren moonscapes, snowcapped mountains and green valleys. The Dalai Lama traversed the pass when he made his dramatic escape from Tibet in 1959. Pilgrims paying homage the Dalai Lama have left numerous cairns and paved the top with flat stones.

Image Sources: 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4) Beifan.com; 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6) Mongabey.com; 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site; 11) Luca Galuzzi; 12) Alan Arnette

Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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