Was summiting Everest possible before Hillary?
April 23, 2012 5:38 PM   Subscribe

A good friend of mine has recently become very interested with all things Everest. Several nights after having a couple of beers, he has asked our group of friends if they think it was possible for someone to have summited Everest before Sir Edmond Hillary, or attempted to summit before George Mallory. One half of the group is adamant that such a feat was impossible before 1921 due to a lack of proper equipment and a cultural reverence for the mountain. The other half believe that it was certainly possible because of the length of human occupation in the region, the adaptation of the Tibetan people to higher altitudes, and the innate ambition of man. Does anyone have scientific evidence for either side of the debate or an educated opinion?
posted by thisiswater to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Nah... I don't think so. I mean... there was a ton of specialized mountaineering equipment / learning / etc... and whatnot that was honed in other places prior to the conquest of Everest, it's not just something that happened on its own. Given everything needed to finally get all the way up there, I think it's unlikely.

'Sides, presumably, some of the people who attempted it, especially in those early years, would have died. They'd still be up there.
posted by ph00dz at 6:40 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it certainly would have been as possible in the years immediately prior to 1921, with climbers as qualified as George Mallory, but definitely it would have had to be a European-led team, just because of the specialized clothing and gear that ph00dz mentions, plus the mountaineering experience that they had from the Alps.

However, Mallory was unlikely to have climbed Everest by the North Col route even he and Sandy Irvine hadn't fallen, simply because of the obstacle presented by the Third Step. The rock obstacle is nearly unclimbable -- a Chinese team finally dragged an aluminum ladder all the way up the mountain (in the 70s?) and bolted it to the wall. (I think it was actually free-climbed by Conrad Anker in a documentary I saw, but Mallory and Irvine would have had far inferior equipment.)

The South Col route might have been doable with Mallory's equipment if the mountain had cooperated, but there were also political obstacles on both sides of the mountain that often prevented attempts -- Nepal and Tibet both intermittently closed access to their side of the mountain. If I recall correctly, Nepal had been open prior to the expedition on which Mallory died, and then closed off access; the Tibetan side of the mountain became accessible either the next year or very shortly thereafter.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:54 PM on April 23, 2012

Related: Reginald Bretnor, "The Man On Top."
posted by Chrysostom at 5:21 AM on April 24, 2012

ph00dz hit on the big decider for this question: The Top of the World does not give up her offerings, and they do not decompose. Even today, 25% of those who trek upwards from Base Camp never return; there would be telltale corpses from earlier attempts.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:17 AM on April 24, 2012

"Even today, 25% of those who trek upwards from Base Camp never return"

Way, way way too high. The death rate amongst those who reach the summit is under 10%, and total fatalities from those who leave base camp is under 2%

And whilst there are corpses lying around on the route, including Mallory himself, many climbers have disappeared without trace - lying in crevasses, swept away by the wind or buried under snow and ice. Irvine's body is undiscovered to this day.
posted by nicktf at 12:53 PM on April 24, 2012

Wow, sorry for the misinformation then, nicktf. I'd (thought I'd) heard that in a film about Everest.

My bad.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:50 PM on April 25, 2012

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