to summit to sea level

On top of the world

Landmark

On top of the world

Once they step onto the summit, people take photos, plant prayer flags, celebrate — and then start back down. Most guided climbers remain attached to ropes in case they trip. Here, the air contains only a third of the oxygen of sea-level air. Even with supplemental oxygen, judgment can be impaired and reflexes are slow. Many people have died during the descent.

Traffic jam at Hillary Step

Landmark

Traffic jam at Hillary Step

After crossing some rocky edges, climbers arrive at Hillary Step, a narrow, 40-foot tower of ice and rock on an exposed part of the Southeast Ridge. On the best weather days, this area can become a frustrating chokepoint. On May 19, 2012, 171 people squeezed in line to reach the summit and climb back down, all through a space barely wide enough for one person. The queue moves only as fast as the slowest climber, and wait times can stretch for hours. On the bright side, Hillary Step and the narrow ridge just beyond it are the last major obstacles.

What about wind?

Fast fact

What about wind?

Winter wind at the summit is routinely 75 mph and has been measured as high as 175 mph, stronger than a Category 5 hurricane. Generally, climbers won't attempt to summit if the wind speed is 35 mph or higher.

A cold climb in the dark

Landmark

A cold climb in the dark

The wee-hours climb is cold and steep at first, and nearly everyone uses supplemental oxygen, including guides. Headlamps and the moon light the route. Climbers cross a slab of rock called Triangular Face and finally reach a flatter area called the Balcony on their way up the Southeast Ridge.

Who was first?

Fast fact

Who was first?

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa are credited with being the first people to stand atop Everest, because they have photographic evidence. The pair reached the summit in 1953 via the South Col route. It is possible that British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine got there first from the north side, in 1924, as they were last seen 800 vertical feet from the top and ascending. However, the pair disappeared, and while Mallory’s frozen remains were discovered in 1999 at 26,760 feet, the body of Irvine, who is believed to have been carrying a camera, has not been found.

High Camp: Waiting to summit

Landmark

High Camp: Waiting to summit

Camp IV, known as High Camp, is on a large, open area on the South Col ridge between Lhotse and Everest. The camp is small and primitive, a place for climbers to rest, eat and hydrate for a few hours before their summit attempt, which often begins before midnight. Reaching High Camp is an achievement in itself, as it sits above 8,000 meters, a major milestone in the climbing world. Guides carefully watch their clients here to try to ensure that they have enough energy to not just reach the summit but also get back down before dark. Climbers are just over half a mile from the top, but getting there probably will take eight to 12 hours.

Bodies in the death zone

Elevation info

Bodies in the death zone

Above 26,000 feet is the “death zone,” where humans cannot survive for long and where many of the more than 250 deaths have occurred. Some people are susceptible to high-altitude cerebral edema (swelling in the brain) or pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), which can be fatal. Others fall and can't help themselves or be rescued. Still others become too exhausted to continue. The bodies of many people who die here remain in place or are pushed a short distance from the path because it is too dangerous for others to try to carry them down.

Yellow Band: A bit of ocean

Landmark

Yellow Band: A bit of ocean

At the top of the Lhotse Face is Yellow Band, a 300-foot-tall circle of exposed, golden-tinted sedimentary rock that was once part of the ocean floor. (Coral and other remnants of ocean life are sometimes found there.) Climbers use rope to cross it and the next obstacle, an outcropping of rock called the Geneva Spur. A cloud plume flowing east from the Geneva Spur could mean high wind — and an extra day at High Camp.

Why May?

Fast fact

Why May?

More people attempt to summit Mount Everest toward the end of May than at any other time because the jet stream generally scoots north for a couple of weeks, keeping the most brutal wind and weather at bay.

Camp III: Restless night

Landmark

Camp III: Restless night

Perched on steep ice on the Lhotse Face, climbers stay in their tents, often tethered, because moving around is too dangerous. Above Camp III, most climbers will use bottled oxygen, and few will sleep well, if at all, especially on this first night. It can be windy, and temperatures drop to well below zero.

Can I be rescued?

Fast fact

Can I be rescued?

Don't count on it. According to mountaineering journalist Alan Arnette, it can take five to 10 guides to get one incapacitated climber down from the high parts of Everest, and airlifts are tricky and rare. Certain types of helicopters are designed for the ultra-thin air of high altitude, but even those top out around 23,000 feet. Most pilots will not go higher than Base Camp or Camp II.

Itsy bitsy spiders

Fast fact

Itsy bitsy spiders

One benefit to the inhospitable climate is that you have no risk of finding spiders in your sleeping bag, right? Don't be so sure. Two species of Himalayan jumping spiders live as high as 22,000 feet on Everest, preying on unlucky insects that arrive on vegetation blown by the wind. One was named for the mountain, Euophrys everestensis, and the other's name, Euophrys omnisuperstes, means "standing above all." Little is known about these spiders other than what was described in a 1975 paper, which did not address the sleeping bag issue.

Lhotse Face

Landmark

Lhotse Face

After leaving Camp II, climbers tackle the Lhotse Face, a 3,600-foot wall of ice. Climbers attach clawlike crampons to their boots — some for the first time — and take advantage of fixed ropes and steps cut into the ice by Sherpas and previous climbers. Blustery winds often swoop down from the summit.

Camp II and a controversial shortcut

Landmark

Camp II and a controversial shortcut

Also called Advanced Base Camp, this is a collection of tents spread across about 2,000 vertical feet and includes several cooking and mess tents. It is near the end of the cwm and the beginning of Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain (27,940 feet). The only climber to summit Everest in 2014 via the South Col route, Wang Jing of China, rode a helicopter here from Base Camp so that she and her five guides could bypass the avalanche site. Her climb was extremely controversial among mountaineers, many of whom thought the helicopter ride was a serious breach of ethics (and possibly a violation of Nepali rules).

Top of Denali

Elevation info

Top of Denali

Got this far? If you were climbing Alaska’s Mount McKinley (a.k.a. Denali), the tallest peak in North America, you would be standing on the summit at 20,237 feet. On Everest, you're only about two-thirds of the way to the top.

Valley of the sun

Landmark

Valley of the sun

After Camp I is the Western Cwm (pronounced “coom,” a Welsh word that means valley). This area is known as the Valley of Silence because the steep sides block the wind, leaving an eerie quiet. There are no plants or animals here. The cwm is not steep but is cut by giant crevasses. When the sun shines, temperatures can get so hot here — 80s to 100 degrees — that climbers have suffered heat exhaustion.

Camp I: A glimpse of the goal

Landmark

Camp I: A glimpse of the goal

On top of the icefall is an intermediate camp, Camp I. An Everest summit attempt is usually not not one steady climb to the top but several trips to increasingly higher altitudes and back down to Base Camp or the villages below to give the body a chance to acclimate. Air at this point contains about half the oxygen of air at sea level. Several hundred feet past Camp I, climbers get their first view of Everest's peak.

Deadly icefall

Landmark

Deadly icefall

Khumbu Icefall is a steep, narrow, 2,000-foot portion of the glacier with towering waves of ice many stories tall. At its base is the “popcorn field,” an area covered in deep crevasses and car-sized ice chunks called seracs. The avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas in 2014 occured on the western edge, a quicker climb that is vulnerable to falling ice from thousands of feet above. A route closer to the eastern edge brings its own safety challenges. Because the glacier there flows three to six feet per day, the giant seracs constantly move, crack and collapse. A specialized team of eight Sherpa "ice doctors" goes out each morning to repair and maintain the icefall's fixed lines, ladders and bridges before climbers arrive.

Last view of greenery

Flora and fauna

Last view of greenery

No plants grow above 18,500 feet on any of the four highest Himalayan peaks.

What do Sherpas do?

Fast fact

What do Sherpas do?

Few climbers would get far without Sherpas. These native Nepali guides set up and take down camps, fix climbing ropes, assist climbers and carry the heaviest packs up and down the mountain. For example, expedition company Adventure Consultants says its climbers carry about 15 to 22 pounds each while the Sherpas accompanying them carry up to 66 pounds.

Stepping onto a glacier

Landmark

Stepping onto a glacier

Above Base Camp, snow and ice stays on the ground year-round. Climbers hike onto the world’s highest glacier, Khumbu, which flows down from about 25,000 feet. Just 20 minutes or so from camp, the ice begins to get steep, with soaring ice towers and crevasses so deep that you see only darkness rather than the bottom, according to veteran climber Pete Athans. “This is different from any other terrain you’re ever going to walk on,” he said. "Beautiful, otherworldly, but dangerous."

A problem with poop

Fast fact

A problem with poop

When hundreds of people spend two months or more on a mountain, they generate a lot of detritus. Human waste has become a particular problem on Everest, because it doesn't break down quickly in cold, dry air. Nepal requires that every climber carry 18 pounds of trash and waste back to Base Camp or forfeit a $4,000 deposit, and large expeditions generally comply. However, enforcement has been spotty.

Base Camp: A sprawling tent city

Landmark

Base Camp: A sprawling tent city

This elaborate city springs up every year, prepared in advance by Sherpas who clear out rocks and snow and set up huge tents that will accommodate hundreds of people. In addition to an operations base for summit expeditions, Base Camp is a popular hiking destination for tourists who don't plan to go higher. Here there are showers, and doctors who specialize in altitude sickness and wilderness medicine.

Thinning flora

Flora and fauna

Thinning flora

Those tropical forests are a distant memory now. Lichens, moss and Arenaria, also called Alpine cushion plants, are among the few plant species that thrive at this altitude.

Seen a yeti yet?

Flora and fauna

Seen a yeti yet?

Some extremely questionable websites suggest that 15,000 to 20,000 feet is a good altitude for yeti sightings. The yeti is a rich part of Himalayan folklore; one of Edmund Hillary's objectives on his Everest expedition was to find evidence of its existence. Hillary didn't see one, but he did return to England with a "yeti scalp" borrowed from a Sherpa village. Scientists later determined that it was from a serow, an animal similar to a large goat.

Yak and snow leopard territory

Flora and fauna

Yak and snow leopard territory

Yaks thrive at altitude and can climb as high as 20,000 feet, and plenty are still used on Everest as pack animals. Snow leopards will roam as high as 18,000 feet.

How long does it take?

Fast fact

How long does it take?

The average Everest expedition these days takes nine to 10 weeks, but that can vary greatly depending on the acclimatization and skill level of climbers. Much of the time is spent just getting use to the altitude. Getting from camp to camp generally takes less than nine hours — much less for expert climbers. One company, Alpenglow Expeditions, offers a 40-day "accelerated" expedition. Its clients sleep in tents that simulate high altitude at home so they are acclimatized to 18,000 feet before they arrive at Everest.

Last tree on Everest

Flora and fauna

Last tree on Everest

This is the tree line on Everest's south face. Only small shrubs, grasses and other plants tough enough to withstand the wind and cold grow above 13,100 feet.

Seeking help from above

Landmark

Seeking help from above

Climbers hoping to pick up some good karma are often among the 30,000 annual visitors to the Tengboche Monastery. Tenzing Norgay Sherpa once lived there before accompanying Sir Edmund Hillary on his successful quest to be the first to summit Everest. (Fear not, George Mallory fans — we address him higher up.) Nearby is Kunde Hospital, founded by Hillary in the 1960s to improve Sherpa health care.

Now you feel it

Elevation info

Now you feel it

At 11,000 to 12,000 feet, many people begin to notice milder symptoms of altitude sickness, such as headaches, fatigue and difficulty sleeping, and the realization of what they are about to do may begin to set in. “You have to channel fear," said veteran climber Pete Athans, referring to the many anxiety-inducing places along the route. "If you’re truly afraid, you shouldn’t be there. … But if you make that decision to be in that place, you just have to get through that place as quickly as possible.”

Tourist town

Landmark

Tourist town

Namche Bazaar is the Khumbu Valley’s largest town (pop. 1,500) and a popular tourist spot as well as the last chance for many of the comforts of home (karaoke, anyone?). The town is also the finish line of the world’s highest marathon, the Everest Marathon, which begins at 17,000 feet.

A park in the sky

Fast fact

A park in the sky

Sagarmatha National Park covers 443 square miles in Nepal along the border with China, and Everest isn't its only high point. Sixty-nine percent of the park's land is at 16,000 feet or above, and it includes seven peaks that are more than 23,000 feet high.

Thinning air

Elevation info

Thinning air

The atmosphere here contains about two-thirds the oxygen of air at sea level. Sherpas, however, routinely live above 13,000 feet and their bodies have adapted over centuries to operate very efficiently with a lower concentration of oxygen.

First scare: The flight in

Landmark

First scare: The flight in

A half-hour flight takes climbers from Kathmandu into Lukla's tiny Tenzing-Hillary Airport, which has been dubbed the world’s most dangerous airport. Its lone runway is perched at a steep angle on a ledge, making for a memorable landing. Lukla is the first of several villages climbers will pass through on the way to Base Camp. Most people take about eight days to hike the 39 miles, walking leisurely to give their bodies time to adjust to the altitude.

Panda sighting! (Not that kind.)

Flora and fauna

Panda sighting! (Not that kind.)

Endangered red pandas range from here to the tree line just above 13,000 feet. They are much easier to see in the snow than their black-and-white giant cousins. Rare Himalayan wolves roam the mountain as well, although little is known about their habits.

Feeling funky?

Elevation info

Feeling funky?

Acute mountain sickness can begin to occur here in people who live near sea level, although most people who attempt Everest do not experience altitude problems this early. The body will begin to acclimate immediately, producing more red-blood cells to carry more oxygen per breath. Hydration becomes important as blood becomes thicker.

Call me Everest

Fast fact

Call me Everest

Not everyone calls the mountain Everest. It is known by the traditional name Chomolungma in China and Tibet. The Nepalis call it Sagarmatha, a Sanskrit term for "mother of the sky." The Royal Geographical Society gave the mountain its English name in honor of George Everest, a renowned surveyor of the area whose health may have prevented him from ever seeing the mountain.

Monkey sighting

Flora and fauna

Monkey sighting

Nepal gray langur monkeys hang out from about 5,000 to 13,000 feet in Himalayan forests. Certain types of langurs are considered sacred by native people.

Goddess of the mountain

Fast fact

Goddess of the mountain

Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to summit along with Edmund Hillary of New Zealand, believed that the Tibetan Buddhist goddess Miyolangsangma guided him to the top, according to a book written by his son. Also known as the Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving, she is believed to live on Everest and protect it.

How high is Everest?

Elevation info

How high is Everest?

Depends on whom you ask. Nepal set the official height at 29,029 feet, as measured by an Indian survey in 1955. A U.S. team measured six feet higher in 1999. A 2005 Chinese survey argued for 12 feet lower, saying the height should include only rock and not the permanent layer of snow and ice on top. Adding to the confusion, geologists say shifting tectonic plates nudge the mountain a bit higher every year.

The trip (usually) starts here

Landmark

The trip (usually) starts here

Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu is usually the first stop in Nepal for Everest climbers. While most people take a short flight into Lukla, some walk there, which takes about two weeks. A road to Lukla is in the works.

A bird named Icarus?

Flora and fauna

A bird named Icarus?

Now you're in griffon vulture territory, a common Everest scavenger. While bar-headed geese routinely cruise over Everest on their way to winter in India, a type of griffon vulture was the highest-flying bird ever recorded. Sadly, the honor was given posthumously: The bird was sucked into a jet engine at 37,900 feet over Ivory Coast, according to Audubon Magazine.

Elephants on Everest

Flora and fauna

Elephants on Everest

Endangered Asian elephants, tigers and hundreds of species of birds live in tropical and sub-tropical Himalayan forests that go up to about 3,000 feet.

Highest manmade peak

Elevation info

Highest manmade peak

If you could stack 10 copies of the world's tallest building (the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in the United Arab Emirates, at 2,716.5 feet), you'd still be more than three Washington Monuments short of Everest's summit.

Long way up from Taj Mahal

Elevation info

Long way up from Taj Mahal

If you were to climb 243 feet to the top of one of Asia’s most recognizable buildings, even if you add in the fact that it starts another 554 feet above sea level, you’d be just 1/36th of the way up Everest. (Well, not literally, because the Taj Mahal is in India, not Nepal.)

Low as you can go

Elevation info

Low as you can go

No ice towers in these parts: Nepal's lowest section is the warm, humid Terai region along the country's southern border, where almost half of Nepalis live.

Everest (technically) starts here

Elevation info

Everest (technically) starts here

Everest is measured from sea level, although you can’t actually stand at sea level anywhere in Nepal.

Voices from the climb

Lydia Bradey

In 1988, Lydia Bradey became the first woman to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen. Now a guide, Bradey has summited two more times, most recently in 2013. A book about her first Everest experience, “Going Up Is Easy,” is coming out in June.

Pete Athans

Pete Athans’s nickname is “Mr. Everest” because he has guided or participated in 16 expeditions and made the summit seven times. The North Face representative is co-director of the Khumbu Climbing Center and helps train young Sherpas to work on expeditions.

Suze Kelly

Suze Kelly is a lifelong climber and general manager of New Zealand-based guide company Adventure Consultants. In 2013, she summited Lhotse (27,940 feet), which requires a right turn off the Everest route before High Camp, and plans to summit Everest itself this spring.

Sources: Gordon Janow, director of programs at Alpine Ascents; Adrian Ballinger, founder of Alpenglow Expeditions; Meteoexploration.com; LiveScience; CIA World Factbook; WebMD; NASA; PeakFreaks.com; The Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation; Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic; AlanArnette.com; Tengboche Monastery Development Project; Audubon Magazine; IUCN Redlist; Stars and Stripes (story from Dec. 11, 1960); Weather Underground; Himalayan Database; Royal Geographical Society; GoogleMaps; “Spiders of the family Salticidae from the upper slopes of Everest and Makalu,” by F.R. Wanless, Bulletin of the British Arachnological Society. Note: Most elevations are approximate and camp placements can vary from year to year. Correction: The sketch depicting Mount Everest at the top of this page has been updated with a view from the south side of the mountain. Previously, it showed a mistakenly identified view of the north side of the mountain.