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'Goddess of the World,' Sherpas Say

June 02, 1988|ELLIOTT ALMOND | Times Staff Writer

The Sherpas, the inhabitants of the high Himalayan valleys, call Mt. Everest Cholmolunga, Mother Goddess of the World.

Lying in a geological rampart that makes passage between Tibet and Nepal improbable, the 29,028-foot Everest is the embodiment of mountaineering. There may be more vertical pieces of rock, but few are more challenging.

So the world's best climbers make annual pilgrimages to Nepal and Tibet to pay their respects to this mighty mountain and attempt to conquer it. Some succeed, and they become heroes. Some fail, but keep their sense of pride. Some die, and their sacrifice becomes fodder for raconteurs.

Everest was first seriously explored by a 1921 British-led expedition whose sole purpose was to photograph the mountain and probe the various passages to its summit. The group approached it through Tibet and India because Nepal was closed to Westerners. The trekkers were best able to reconnoiter routes from the north, east and west.

George Mallory, one of the original expedition members, returned a year later when the British regrouped for an assault on the peak. Experimenting with the use of oxygen tanks, members of the expedition reached impressive heights above 26,400 feet before being turned back.

It was Mallory who provided the legendary answer to the question, "Why do you want to climb it?" "Because it is there," he replied. He tried a third time in 1924. Wearing leather boots, wool sweaters and heavy jackets, Mallory and a young Oxford rower named Andrew Irvine came close to their goal, but they died from the ordeal. The climbers were last seen about 1,000 feet below the summit, making a strong approach. During a 1933 expedition, an ice ax belonging to either Mallory or Irving was discovered, but their remains were never found. By then, the dangers attached to climbing Everest were clearly evident.

It wasn't until after World War II, when Nepal opened its doors to the West, that attention returned to taming Everest. A Swiss-French expedition, helped greatly by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, made two strong attempts at the summit in 1952. Though both failed, the climbers found what remains today to be the most successful route to the top.

After the two difficult climbs, the exhausted Tenzing took almost a year to recuperate. But when asked to join a British assault in the spring of 1953, he could not resist.

Tenzing was teamed with Edmund Hillary, a dashing New Zealander. They were designated as the second pair to assault the summit if a first team failed.

From Base Camp, the climbers ascended in increments, making nine advanced camps along the way. Because of high altitude, it was difficult for the porters to carry the heavy loads much more than a few miles a day. By leap-frogging from camp to camp, the expedition leaders hoped to put two climbers into position to make the final assault, which came in the late morning on May 29, 1953.

Hillary and Tenzing, tied together with ropes, belayed each other up the final stretch with Hillary touching the top first. They stood there for 15 minutes and did what most climbers do when they reach their goal: They took pictures. They also left some flags and other trinkets and breathed in the spectacular view. Their stay was a brief one because of a limited oxygen supply. But it was one that will remain forever as one of the most significant 15 minutes in climbing history.

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