Fascinating Facts About Mt. Everest

For centuries, 29,035-foot Mt. Everest has captured the human imagination. First, it was considered sacred by the Nepalese who lived at its base. Later, when the British discovered it to be the highest point in the world, it took on a whole new meaning for people of every nation. As with all superlatives—the longest river, the biggest wave, the steepest rock face—the tallest mountain has since attracted hordes of mountaineers who are driven by the desire to stand on top of the world.

British climber Sir Edmund Hillary climbed the first ascent of Mt. Everest of his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953. The mountain has changed a lot since then. Nowadays, hundreds of mountaineers flock to Everest every spring, to take advantage of a brief 'window' of good weather between winter storms and the spring monsoons. They pay thousands of dollars, sacrifice months of their lives and risk death in pursuit of a fleeting moment above it all.

But despite the intense scrutiny, and the vast resources humans put into climbing Mt. Everest, it's still a mystery to much of the world. Few can comprehend just how little oxygen there is in the final 3,000 feet, an area that mountaineers call the "Death Zone" because nothing lives in its thin air, which can kill even the best-prepared climber. It's hard, too, to imagine the tons of garbage that litter the mountain, or to understand why fossilized sea creatures are embedded in the stone at its lofty summit. And its frozen flanks also harbor a few deeper mysteries that nobody's been able to solve.

These mysteries—and, indeed, the mountain itself—serve as good reminders of how small humans are in the grand scheme of things. Sure, more than 3,500 climbers have touched the top in the past 60 years. Base Camp has Wi-Fi, there's an airport nearby, Sherpas and guides have the routine down pat, and rescue helicopters wait in the wings to pluck climbers from danger. But even today, no technology can reliably deliver humans to the top of the world without considerable risk. Everest is—despite all criticisms that it's become too soft—the great, uncaring equalizer. Perhaps that's why so many continue to trudge upward. As British mountaineer George Mallory put it before himself perishing below its summit, "Because it's there."

No matter how many people try their hand at it, adventure and intrigue cannot be sapped from such a powerful place.