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Just how hard is it to climb Everest?

19 May 10 09:44 GMT
WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...

The youngest British female to conquer Everest had barely set foot on a mountain before, claim the papers. Is it really that easy to skip to the summit?

Aged 22, Bonita Norris is the youngest British woman to scale Mt Everest. Her party reached the 8,848m peak on 17 May - the middle of climbing season on the world's highest mountain.

Much has been made of the glamorous graduate's snap decision to scale the famous summit after attending a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society.

Less dwelled upon is the two years of gruelling training (and fundraising - a trip up Everest can cost up to £48,000) Ms Norris undertook before the challenge.

In addition to an intense schedule of trail running, cycling and weight training, she scaled various peaks in preparation, including Snowdon in the UK and Nepal's Manaslu, the world's eighth highest mountain.

It's quite a commitment, to say the least. Is it possible to climb Everest by cutting a few training corners?

No, says Simon Lowe, mountaineer and managing director of Jagged Globe, a company specialising in mountain treks.

A minimum of 18 months to two years of training is a "feasible" amount of time to spend in preparation for the climb, he says. "No chance would I take a novice within a year and put them on Everest."

The first step for an absolute beginner is to get the hang of walking with ice axes in hand and crampons on boots - sharp spikes which ease the perils of walking on ice. Mountaineering instructor Rob Johnson says even that can take a while. "They're not heavy, but it's a coordination thing."

Feeling for snow

Another essential skill to master is learning to acclimatise to altitude (slowly, is the short answer), and how to recognise which weather conditions and types of snow are the most conducive to avalanches.

Then there's the treacherous Khumbu ice flow to consider - huge blocks of moving ice joined by precarious bridges of snow and separated by deep crevasses.

Seracs - lumps of ice overhanging from taller glaciers - are another danger, especially if the weather is mild as these will thaw and break off.

In such extreme terrain, the assistance of the Sherpas, local people who make their living accompanying expeditions up and down the mountain, is invaluable.

Mr Lowe will only organise Everest expeditions for people who have already scaled an 8,000m peak elsewhere.

One patient beginner currently under his tutelage has followed a tough regime of climbing and mountaineering courses, followed by alpine climbing, where conditions are similar, if on a smaller scale.

He has had trial climbs on UK peaks, on Mont Banc and in Ecuador, and is currently on a high camp on North America's tallest mountain, Mt McKinley.

"I put most people off," Mr Lowe admits. "I can only think of three or four people over the last 10 years who have started out on the quest from scratch."

It is fear rather than physical stress that tends to put people off. "You need to be mentally very tough, very confident, and that tends to be brought about by previous experience. No one can make climbers immune to the worst ravages of the Himalayas."

Despite the most thorough preparation, if the weather is bad or a member of your team gets into difficulty, you can kiss goodbye to that euphoric mountain-top moment. Mr Lowe himself has been on four expeditions to Everest but never actually reached the summit.

Keen climber Stephen Venables reached the top of the "unavoidable and irresistible" peak - in 1988 - but feels no desire to return. "Once was quite enough," he says. "There are too many other more interesting mountains to climb."

He still climbs, and has a relaxed approach to formal training as his feel for mountains has been built up over many years.

"The only regime I followed [before tackling Everest] was to go on 10 Himalayan expeditions over 10 years. I spent a lot of time climbing mountains."

Mr Venables famously completed the ascent without the assistance of bottled oxygen, which many climbers say is essential at high altitude where the air is thin.

"A big oxygen cylinder belongs on a fighter pilot, not a mountaineer," he says.

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