The Himalayan mountain chain extends between the courses of the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers, in a length of 2,400 km and with a width that oscillates between 160 and 240 km. It forms the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, limited to the north by the Kuenlun Mountain Range. Between the Kuenlun and the Himalayas, at the western end of the Tibetan plateau, is the Karakorum.
As a whole, these mountain systems constitute the most important mountainous region in the world, the only one that presents several peaks with an altitude higher than 8,000 meters. Of these, the highest is Mount Everest (8,848 meters), the "roof of the world."
The topographic survey of the Himalayas began in the fourth decade of the 19th century, thanks to the work of the Anglo-Indian Topographic Service and its director, the Englishman George Everest (1790-1866), who finished his general studies in 1841. For this reason, in 1863 his name was given to the highest mountain in the world, whose traditional name is Chomolungma. It had to pass, however, more than a century until the human being set foot on its top.
First and tragic attempts
Towards the end of the last century, expeditions to the Himalayas were organized; but only in the years 1921 to 1924 did the real assaults on Everest begin, by a group of English mountaineers whose most prominent figure was G. L. Mallory. The venture ended tragically with the deaths of Mallory and fellow roper A. C. Irvine, who left the last camp on June 6, 1924 to attempt the final assault and did not return; All attempts to find out what really happened to them were unsuccessful.
The day before, another member of the expedition, E. F. Norton, had reached and exceeded 8,500 meters of altitude but was forced to give up due to an ophthalmia produced by the reflection of the sun on the snow; he kept his altitude mark until the year 1952.
In 1933 three other English climbers (P. Wyn Harris, L. R. Wager and J. L. Longland) barely reached 8,400 m, and in 1938 a third expedition failed to reach even this height. The mountain seemed invincible. In addition, the Second World War interrupted the attempts.
Annapurna, first conquest over 8,000 meters
However, after the war, on June 3, 1950 there was the first victory over a peak higher than 8,000 meters. The French Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal conquered Annapurna (8,078 meters). This victory raised the morale of climbers around the world and greatly stimulated the undertakings that followed one another in the following years and that led to the final victory on the highest peak in the Himalayas and in the world.
In 1952 two expeditions, one Swiss and the other Russian, tried again to conquer Everest. The Swiss Raymond Lambert, accompanied by the sherpa Tenzing Norgay, beat Norton's mark by a few tens of metres, but could not reach the top. For its part, the Russian expedition ended tragically.
The experience gathered by the Swiss expedition, and in particular that of Tenzing, were the bases on which the British expedition, or rather, of the Commonwealth, corresponding to the year 1953, was organized under the leadership of Colonel John Hunt, a veteran from the Himalayas. The English were pursuing, for obvious reasons of prestige, the conquest of Everest, and for this reason the expedition was meticulously organized and with an abundance of means.
Hunt's mountaineers trained in Switzerland from September 1952, and in February of the following year they settled in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, since the best time for climbing in the Himalayas is the months of May and June, that is, between the end of the winter storms and the beginning of the summer monsoon. In a 17-day march, 350 sherpas and porters brought seven tons of material to the base camp, necessary for preparing nine intermediate camps strategically located between the base camp and the summit.
The organization was impressive, but it is important to bear in mind that the English sought not only to reach the top, but also to conquer it without regretting human losses, and it was precisely one of Hunt's greatest successes that he led the retreat and returned to his homeland with all expedition members safe and sound.
The climb proceeded methodically and regularly. On March 26, the first camp was set up in the vicinity of the Thyangboche Buddhist monastery. There the expedition members remained for some time in order to acclimatize; They carried out various training excursions and reached heights of up to 6,000 meters of altitude. Towards the middle of April the camp was set up at 5,500 meters, and then at 6,400.
Hillary and Tenzing, to the final assault
Finally, on May 14, the climbers were ready for the final assault. Three attempts were foreseen for this. The first was performed by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon on May 25. They reached the South peak, at an altitude of 8,725 m, but there they found themselves short of oxygen and, in accordance with the orders received, they began to return to the base. The second attempt was made on May 29, by the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Tenzing (the same man who had accompanied Lambert a year earlier). They succeeded.
Hillary and Tenzing left Camp Nine at half past six in the morning. First, they found fresh snow, particularly dangerous, and then steep ice slopes, in which they had to patiently carve steps. Tenzing's oxygen mask became clogged by ice crystals from the water vapor from his breath, and had to be unclogged with great care, for at such low temperatures the most solid materials become very brittle. At 11:30 the two climbers, after overcoming a series of ledges and difficult steps, reached the top: a rounded cone covered in snow. This historic moment was thus described by Hillary:
I was beginning to show a certain weariness. We had already been carving steps for two hours, and Tenzing, too, was moving very slowly. (...) Suddenly I realized that the ridge we were going up, instead of continuing to rise, ended abruptly. (...) A few final blows with the ice ax on the hardened snow, and we are at the top» (from Hunt's work 'The Conquest of Everest').
The official news of the conquest of Everest was given in London on June 1, 1953, and it coincided with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In successive years the summit was reached by two Swiss ropes, the one made up of Ernst Schmidt and Jürg Karmet on May 23, 1956, and the one made up of Adolf Reist and Hans Rudolf Von Gunten two days later.
On May 25, 1960, Everest was reached for the first time from its north face; The venture was carried out, starting from Tibet, by a Chinese expedition.
A month after the victory of Hillary and Tenzing, on July 4, 1953, the peak called Nanga Parbat, 8,125 m high, was climbed alone by the Tyrolean Hermann Buhl, a member of an Austro-German expedition. Nanga Parbat, considered the most difficult mountain in the Himalayas, had cost the lives of 31 climbers in 60 years, including the famous German climber Willy Welzembach, who died in 1934.
K2, the second «roof of the world»
The second peak in the world, K2 (8,611 m), in Karakorum, was climbed on July 31, 1954 by an expedition of the Italian Alpine Club led by geologist Ardito Desio. The roped party that reached the summit was made up of Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli. Just as the English had accumulated a great deal of experience in their various attempts to assault Everest, the Italians had the tradition of K2, in which the attempts of Luis Amadeo de Saboya, Duke of Abruzzo (1909), of F. de Filippi (1913) and Giotto Danielli (1930) had followed one another.
The attempt prior to the Italian Alpine Club expedition had been, in 1953, that of an American expedition led by Charles S. Houston, in which the geologist Arthur K. Gilkey met his death.
Although the Italian expedition must have mourned the death of Mario Puchoz, a guide from Valle d'Aosta, its victory was essentially an organizational and competitive success, just as the English victory in 1953 had been and, in general, all the great modern companies.
The final assault by Compagnoni and Lacedelli was, however, more dramatic than that of Hillary and Tenzing. First of all, the season was already well advanced, since for 40 days bad weather had prevented any attempt. In addition, the day they left, at 6:15 in the morning, did not offer ideal conditions, and the assault was decided only because it was really the last chance. The two climbers had to carry with them a piece of luggage weighing 19 kg, a large part of which consisted of oxygen tanks. Shortly after ten o'clock it had already run out, but the climbers continued their march, accommodating it to the possibilities offered by breathing the rarefied air of great heights. They had to rest every three or four steps, in such a way that they could not reach the summit until six in the afternoon. In order to take some pictures, Compagnoni took off his gloves, and one of them was blown away by the strong wind.
The descent was made in complete darkness, with the help of the stars and a small pocket lamp, and at a temperature of 40 degrees below zero. Finally, at eleven o'clock at night, the two climbers managed to reach the camp where their companions were waiting for them. The undertaking had ended well, but the two expedition members suffered a beginning of frostbite, from which they finally recovered in Italy after a long cure.
[Source: Vv.Aa (1978). Ventures in the Himalayas. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome III, pp. 73-75). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]