World altitude record (mountaineering)

World altitude record (mountaineering)

In the history of mountaineering, the world altitude record referred to the highest point on the earth's surface which had been reached, regardless of whether that point was an actual summit. The world summit record referred to this highest mountain to have been successfully climbed. The terms are most commonly used in relation to the history of mountaineering in the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges, though modern evidence suggests that it was not until the 20th century that mountaineers in the Himalaya exceeded the heights which had been reached in the Andes. The altitude and summit records rose steadily during the early 20th century until 1953, when the ascent of Mount Everest made the concept obsolete.

19th century and before

European exploration of the Himalaya began in earnest during the mid-19th century, and the earliest people known to have climbed in the range were surveyors of the Great Trigonometric Survey. During the 1850s and 1860s they climbed dozens of peaks of over 6,100 m (20,000 ft) and several of over 6,400 m (21,000 ft) in order to make observations, and it was during this period that claims to have ascended the highest point yet reached by man began to be made. [cite book |title=Climbing the World's 14 Highest Mountains: The History of the 8,000-Meter Peaks|last=Sale
first=Richard|authorlink= |coauthors=Cleare, John |year=2000 |publisher=Mountaineers Books |location=Seattle |isbn=978-0898867275 |pages=p. 21

Most of these early claims have now been rendered redundant by the discovery of the bodies of three children at the 6,739 m (22,110 ft) summit of Llullaillaco in South America: Inca sacrifices dated to around AD 1500. [Sale and Cleare, p.21] There is no direct evidence that the Incas reached higher points, but the discovery of the skeleton of a guanaco on the summit ridge of Aconcagua (6,962 m, 22,841 ft) suggests that they also climbed on that mountain, and the possibility of Pre-Columbian ascents of South America's highest peak cannot be ruled out. [cite book |title=Aconcagua: A Climbing Guide |last=Secor |first=R. J. |authorlink= |coauthors=Hopkins, Ralph Lee; Kukathas, Uma; Thomas, Crystal|year=1999 |publisher=The Mountaineers Books |location= |isbn=9780898866698 |pages=p. 15 |url= ]

In the Himalaya, meanwhile, yaks have been reported at heights of up to 6,100 m (20,000 ft) and the summer snow line can be as high as 6,500 m (21,300 ft). It is likely that local inhabitants went to such heights in search of game, and possibly higher while exploring trade routes, but they did not live there, and there is no evidence that they attempted to climb the summits of the Himalaya before the arrival of Europeans. [Sale and Cleare, pp. 21-22]

Early claims of world altitude records are also muddied by incomplete surveying and lack of knowledge of local geography, which have led to reassessments of many of the heights which were originally claimed. In 1862 a "khalasi" (an Indian assistant of the GTS) climbed Shilla, a summit in Himachal Pradesh which was claimed to be over 7,000 m (23,000 ft) high. More recent surveys have, however, fixed its height at 6,111 m (20,049 ft).Sale and Cleare, p. 22] Three years later William Johnson of the GTS claimed to have climbed a 7,284 m (23,898 ft) peak during an illicit journey into China, but the mountain he climbed has since been measured at 6,710 m (22,014 ft).Sale and Cleare, p. 22]

The first pure mountaineer (as opposed to surveyor) to have climbed in the Himalaya was William Graham, who climbed extensively in the area in 1883. He claimed ascents of Changabang (6,864 m, 22,520 ft) and Kabru (7,349 m, 24,111 ft), but both of these ascents are disputed. It is not claimed that he lied about his ascents, rather that the poor quality of maps at the time, coupled with his own inability to tell north from south, may have led him to be unsure of which mountain he was actually on, and to make estimates of his height which owed more to wishful thinking than scientific measurements.Sale and Cleare, p. 23] His description of Changabang is so at variance with the mountain itself that his claim was doubted almost immediately, and is taken seriously by no modern researcher. [cite book |title=Abode of the Snow |last=Mason
first=Kenneth|authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1955 |publisher=Rupert Hart-Davis |pages=p. 93
Reprinted 1987 by Diadem Books, ISBN 978-0906371916

Graham's ascent of Kabru is more controversial. His description of Kabru was also vague, and this, coupled with the speed of his claimed ascent and his failure to report significant effects of altitude sickness have led many to assume that here he also climbed a lowlier peak in the same area. [Mason, pp 94-95] Sale and Cleare, p. 23] His claim was, however, supported at the time by climbers such as Douglas Freshfield and Tom Longstaff, and more recently Walt Unsworth has argued that as a man who was more interested in climbing than in making observations, the vagueness of his description is to be expected, and that now Everest has been climbed in a single day without oxygen, his claims sound less outlandish than they once did. [cite book |title=Hold the Heights: The Foundations of Mountaineering |last=Unsworth
first=Walt|authorlink=Walt Unsworth |coauthors= |year=1994 |publisher=Mountaineers Books |location = Seattle| pages=p. 234-236
] If Graham did climb Kabru it was a remarkable achievement for its time, establishing an altitude record which was not broken for twenty-six years, and a summit record which lasted until 1930, but as with many mysteries of the early days of mountaineering it is unlikely that the truth will ever be known. [Unsworth (1994) p. 235]

Another claim to the world altitude record was made by Martin Conway in the course of his expedition to the Karakoram in 1892. Together with Matthias Zurbriggen and Charles Granville Bruce, Conway made an attempt on Baltoro Kangri and on 25 August reached a subsidiary summit which he named "Pioneer Peak". The barometer showed a height of 22,600 ft (6,900 m) which Conway optimistically rounded up to 23,000 ft (over 7,000 m). However, Pioneer Peak has since been measured at only 6,501 m (21,322 ft). [cite book |title=K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain|last=Curran|first=Jim|authorlink=|coauthors=|year=1995 |publisher=Hodder & Stoughton|location= |isbn=978-0340660072|pages=p. 50]

On 14 January 1897, Matthias Zurbriggen went on to make the first recorded ascent of Aconcagua in the Andes. Aconcagua is 6,962 m (22,841 ft) high and if the claims of Graham are discounted, its summit was probably the highest point to have been reached at that time.Sale and Cleare, p. 24]

Early 20th century

It was several more years before the world altitude record would be broken, with reasonable certainty, in the Himalaya. In July 1905 Tom George Longstaff made an attempt on Gurla Mandhata. The height he reached is estimated at between 7,000 m (23,000 ft)cite book |title=High Asia: An Illustrated History of the 7,000 Metre Peaks|last=Neate|first=Jill|authorlink=|coauthors=|year=1990 |publisher=Mountaineers Books|location= |isbn=978-0898862386|pages=] and 7,300 m (24,000 ft), [Mason, p. 115] greater than the height of Aconcagua. In 1907 he returned to the Himalaya and led an expedition with the aim of climbing Nanda Devi, but unable to penetrate its "sanctuary" of surrounding peaks turned his attention to Trisul, which he climbed on 12 June with the alpine guides Alexis and Henri Brocherel.Sale and Cleare, p. 24] At 7,120 m (23,360 ft) Trisul became the highest summit to have been climbed whose height was accurately known and whose ascent was undisputed. [Mason, p. 117]

Longstaff's altitude record, though not his summit record, was broken in 1909 by the Duke of the Abruzzi's expedition to the Karakoram. After failing to make progress on K2 the Duke made an attempt on Chogolisa, where he reached a height of approximately 7,500 m (24,600 ft) before turning around just 150 m below the summit due to bad weather and the risk of falling through a cornice in poor visibility. [Curran p. 70]

British Everest expeditions

The world altitude record was not broken again until the British expeditions to Mount Everest, and would then become the exclusive preserve of climbers on the world's highest mountain. On the the record was broken twice. On 20 May, George Mallory, Howard Somervell and Edward Norton reached 8,170 m (26,800 ft) on the mountain's North Ridge, without using supplemental oxygen. [cite book |title=Everest - The Mountaineering History|last=Unsworth |first=Walt |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2000 |publisher=Bâton Wicks|location= |isbn=978-1898573401 |pages=pp. 84-90|edition=3rd edition] Three days later George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce, using supplemental oxygen, followed the same route and went even higher—turning around at about 8,320 m (27,300 ft) when Bruce's oxygen apparatus failed. [Unsworth (2000), pp. 91-95]

In 1924 the British made another attempt on Everest, and the world altitude record was again broken. On 4 June, Edward Norton, without supplemental oxygen, reached a point in the mountain's Great Couloir 8,572 m (28,126 ft) high, his companion Howard Somervell having turned around a short distance before. [Unsworth (2000), pp. 120-122] This was an altitude record which would not be broken, with certainty, until the 1950s, or without supplemental oxygen until 1978. Three days later George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared while making their own attempt on the summit. There has been much debate over whether they reached a greater height than Norton, or even the summit, but as there is no direct proof they are not generally credited with a record.

The British made several further expeditions to Mount Everest in the 1930s. Twice in 1933 climbing parties reached approximately the same point as Norton; first Lawrence Wager and Percy Wyn-Harris, and later Eric Shipton and Frank Smythe, but there was no advance on Norton's record. [Unsworth (2000), pp. 158-184]

Inter-war years

While there would be no advance on the altitude record until the 1950s, the summit record was broken three times in the inter-war years. The first was a by-product of the international expedition to Kanchenjunga led by Gunther Dyhrenfurth in 1930. The attempt on Kanchenjunga itself was abandoned after the death of a Sherpa, but members of the team stayed to climb a number of smaller peaks in the area and Jonsong, at 7,420 m (24,343 ft) was climbed by Bericht Hörlin and Erwin Schneider on 3 June.Sale and Cleare, p. 24] [cite news |first=Frank S |last=Smythe |authorlink=Frank Smythe |coauthors= |title=The Conquest of Jonsong |url= |work=The Times |publisher= |date=23 June 1930 |accessdate=2008-09-12 ]

In 1931 the summit record was broken again with the ascent of Kamet. Frank Smythe, Eric Shipton, R.L. Holdsworth and Lewa Sherpa reached the summit on 21 June. At 7,756 m (25,446 ft), Kamet was the first mountain over 7,500 m to be climbed.Sale and Cleare, pp. 24-25]

The summit record was raised once more before the Second World War brought an effective halt to mountaineering in the Himalaya. Nanda Devi, at 7,816 m (25,643 ft) the highest mountain wholly within the British Empire, had been the object of several expeditions, and it was finally climbed on 29 August 1937 by Bill Tilman and Noel Odell.Sale and Cleare, p. 25]

1950s and ascent of Everest

After the Second World War, the formerly closed and secretive kingdom of Nepal, wary of the intentions of the People's Republic of China and seeking friends in the West, began to open its borders. For the first time its peaks, including the south side of Everest, became accessible to Western mountaineers, triggering a new wave of exploration.Sale and Cleare, p. 28] There was one further improvement on the summit record before Everest was conquered. On 3 June 1950 Annapurna (8,091 m, 26,545 ft) became the first 8,000 m mountain to be climbed when the French climbers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal reached its summit. The ascent was not without its price. Both Herzog and Lachenal lost their toes to frostbite; Herzog also lost most of his fingers.Sale and Cleare, pp. 31-36]

The first attempt to climb Everest from the south was made by a Swiss team in 1952. The expedition's high point was reached by Raymond Lambert and the team's Nepali sirdar Tenzing Norgay on 26 May, when they reached a point approximately 200 m (650 ft) below the South Summit before turning around in the knowledge that they would not reach the summit in daylight. Their estimated height of 8,600 m (28,210 ft) was slightly higher than the previous altitude record set by the British on the north side of the mountain. [Unsworth (2000), pp. 289-290] The Swiss made further attempts later in May, and again in autumn after the monsoon, but did not regain Lambert and Tenzing's high point.

Mount Everest was climbed the following year. On 26 May, three days before the successful attempt, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans reached the South Summit before turning back due to malfunctioning oxygen apparatus. Their height of 8,760 m (28,750 ft) represented a new, short lived, altitude record, and can be seen as a summit record if this is taken to include minor tops as well as genuine mountains. [Unsworth (2000), p. 329] Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally reached the 8,848 m (29,029 ft) true summit on 29 May 1953, marking the final chapter in the history of the mountaineering altitude record. [Unsworth (2000), pp. 334-337] While the exact height of Everest's summit is subject to minor variation due to the level of snow cover and the gradual upthrust of the Himalaya, significant changes to the world altitude record are now impossible.

Women's altitude record

Female mountaineers were rare in the early 20th century,cite book |title=Savage Summit: the life and death of the first women who climbed K2|last=Jordan
first=Jennifer|authorlink= |coauthors=|year=2006 |publisher=Harper |location=New York |isbn=0060587164 |pages=p. 5-8
] and the maximum height attained by a woman lagged behind that claimed by male climbers. The first woman to climb extensively in the Karakoram was Fanny Bullock Workman, who made a number of ascents, including that of Pinnacle Peak, a 6,930 m (22,736 ft) subsidiary summit of Nun Kun, in 1906."High Asia: An Illustrated History of the 7000 Metre Peaks" by Jill Neate, ISBN 0-89886-238-8] Her claim on the women's altitude record was challenged by Annie Smith Peck in 1908 after she made an ascent of the north peak of Huascarán, which she claimed was higher than Pinnacle Peak. The ensuing controversy was bitter and public, and eventually resolved in Bullock Workman's favour when she hired a team of surveyors to measure the height of Huascarán. The north peak was found to be 6,648 m (21,812 ft) tall - some 600 m lower than Smith Peck's estimate.Jordan, pp. 6-7]

In 1934 Hettie Dhyrenfurth became the first woman to exceed 7000 m when she climbed Sia Kangri (7,442 m, 24, 370 ft). Her summit record would stand for 40 years, though her altitude record was broken by the French climber Claude Kogan, who reached approximately 7,600 m (25,000 ft) on Cho Oyu in 1954. The following year saw the first all-female team to visit the Himalaya, making the first ascent of Gyalgen Peak (6,700 m, 22,000 ft).Jordan, p. 7]

The first female ascent of an 8000 m peak came in 1974, when three Japanese women, Masako Uchida, Mieko Mori and Naoko Makaseko climbed Manaslu, at 8,156 m (26,758 ft). A year later Junko Tabei of Japan made the first female ascent of Mount Everest on 16 May 1975.

The highest mountain to have had a female first ascent is Gasherbrum III (7,952 m, 26,089 ft), which was first climbed by Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Wanda Rutkiewicz (along with two male climbers) in August 1975.Jordan, p. 32-33]


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