Author HM Waugh’s 10 incredible facts that you never knew about Mount Everest
Below, she shares 10 facts about the world’s highest mountain that explore its geography, history, culture and wonder.
1. Everest is the world’s highest mountain
At 8,848 metres above sea level, Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world. There has been a lot of talk as to whether the height should include the snow on top, or not. The official height now includes snow – it’s 8,844 metres without.
2. It’s still getting bigger
Everest was formed, with the rest of the Himalayan Range, by tectonic plate movement when the Indian plate (racing north at about 10 centimetres a year) collided with the Eurasian plate. This began about 50 million years ago, and it is still happening. The Himalayas are still pushing up by about one centimetre a year, but because of erosion we only see a growth of about five millimetres a year. There’s a pretty cool animation on the UK Geological Society’s website that’s suitable for secondary science classes.
3. It started under the sea
Because of how the Himalayas are formed, it is believed that some of the rock of the North Col on Everest actually formed on the bottom of the ocean.
4. How far is it from the centre of the Earth?
Although Everest is the highest mountain above sea level, it isn’t the farthest from the centre of the Earth. This is because the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere, and bulges at the Equator. Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, although only 6,268 metres above sea level, is 2,168 metres farther from the centre of the Earth than Everest. So Chimborazo is 6,384.4 kilometres and Everest is 6,382.3 kilometres from the centre of the Earth.
5. It’s so high, oxygen runs out as you start to climb it
There is a lot less oxygen available on the slopes of Everest. This makes climbers dizzy and sick because it reduces the amount of oxygen in their blood. This is called altitude sickness. Once I’d gone past 3,500 metres I remember feeling like my head was somewhere else sometimes, and it was very difficult to walk and talk at the same time.
By the time I reached Base Camp above 5,000 metres, I was having difficulty sleeping because my body kept waking me up, thinking I was being smothered by a pillow or something. One evening I had a headache, which, if it had got worse, would have forced me to go back down. Thankfully, I was better the next morning.
To help our bodies adapt and avoid altitude sickness, we always tried to sleep at a lower altitude than the highest we got to that day. If we had a rest day, we would hike up to a high point, and then go back down to our original spot. This helped our bodies get used to the low oxygen. And when we finally descended below 5,000 metres again? It felt like the air was the sweetest honey, something I could eat with every breath, bringing life back into me.
6. Sometimes it smells like rotting meat …
The Everest region practices the Buddhist religion, which does not allow animals to be killed. However, many hikers still wanted to eat meat, so people would carry in sides of meat from places that were days, even weeks, away. The smell was terrible when we met these people on the track, and we were all warned not to eat the meat because it was likely to have bad bacteria that would make us sick. Instead, we ate the local foods – lentils and potatoes and rice.
7. Does anything live at the top?
Even though Everest is so high, there are still animals that survive up there. There are several species of birds that have been spotted – sometimes even flying right over the top of Everest. Not only would they be dealing with the lack of oxygen, they would also be having issues with the strong winds and low air pressure. Imagine that each time they beat their wings less air is being displaced, so they have to beat them more often just to stay up.
There is also a spider that lives up to 6,700 metres above sea level – higher than the highest plant. Scientists think this spider must feed on insects that have been blown in from other places, because nothing else lives up there with it. How does it not freeze?
8. It’s best to walk to the top in the dark
If you’re going to climb Mount Everest, you need to be ready for some early mornings. The dangerous Khumbu Icefall just above Everest Base Camp is best climbed well before the sun comes up, when everything is so cold the giant ice chunks are frozen in place and less likely to move or fall. On the final day, most climbers start walking to the summit about midnight, and the climb will take 10 to 12 hours. That’s because they need to get up there in the morning, when the weather is safest, plus have time to get back down to a safe level before any afternoon storms set in.
9. Parts of it are covered in rubbish and poo
All the climbers on Everest are causing problems with waste – there are lots of oxygen bottles, tents and abandoned supplies up there, as well as (yuck) all the toilet waste. Apparently, the camps heading up the mountain from Base Camp are scattered with frozen poo.
These days, climbers are required to remove about eight kilograms of waste each, and sometimes expeditions go there not to climb the mountain, but just to clean up the waste others have left there. Do you think it’s right to just dump your rubbish in such a previously pristine place? What if carrying it back down made things more dangerous for you and your friends?
10. When was it discovered? And who by?
The search for the world’s highest mountain began in 1802, but because Everest is so far back in the Himalayas, it wasn’t until 1852 that someone marked it as the highest. Although Everest had a Tibetan name – Chomolungma – the British Surveyor-General of India at the time, Sir Andrew Waugh (no relation), decided to name it after another British surveyor – Sir George Everest. Sir George didn’t support this naming at all, but it was still passed.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Nepal named Everest Sagarmatha, and there is still discussion as to whether this most famous mountain should have a local name.
Teaching notes are available here.