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Lance Seeto
Sunday, August 07, 2011

The current cool temperatures in Fiji are cold for most Fijians, with many of the locals rugging up at night with long pants and jumpers. Australia and New Zealand are also experiencing some of the coldest winter temperatures on record, with many tourists escaping the cold snap to visit the tropical climate of Fiji. Its cold for Fijians, but perfect for our tourist industry.

But at the top of the world's highest mountain, the temperature can drop to minus 75 degrees celcius - that's 75 degrees below zero!

Ice cream freezes at minus 20 degrees, so you can imagine how freezing cold that would be for a Fijian.

A regular Australian visitor to Fiji, David Gordon, has just returned from climbing Mount Everest and he shared his story with me recently while enjoying our warmer weather with his family.

So where is Mount Everest? It is part of the Himalaya mountain range along the border of Nepal and Tibet, near China. The official altitude of the world's highest peak is 29,029 feet (8,848m).

To understand how high this is, Fiji's highest peak is Mount Tomanivi (formerly Mt Victoria) at 4,344 feet (1,324 metres), only half the height of Everest.

So stack two Tomanivi's on top of each other and that's how high it is.

In 1841, Sir George Everest, the Surveyor General of India from 1830 to 1843, first recorded the location of Everest and named it "Peak XV".

In 1865, it was renamed Mt. Everest to honor Sir George and today it is known by locals as Chomolungma in Tibet and Sagarmatha in Nepal.

The mountain is both a majestic and sacred place for the locals, with its blue ice walls dwarfing the climber's tents and base camp.

This is unlike any place on the Earth and has been attracting mankind since its discovery over 200 years ago.

But freezing cold temperatures is not the only thing that make these mountains a dangerous place. Jet streams blast the icy summit all year long, at hurricane speeds of up to 190 km/hr and the higher you climb, the thinner the air gets.

At the peak summit of Everest, there is only 1/3 of the oxygen in the air, so climbers must practice and acclimatize their bodies to get used to the lack of oxygen, wwith many having to use special breathing equipment to survive at the top. Many people have died attempting to climb the world's highest mountain, and David told me that in many cases, their bodies are left where they fell as it is too dangerous to retrieve them.

Memorial sites are scattered across the base of the mountain, in memory of those who perished, and a reminder of the serious dangers of being unprepared or challenging nature's most harsh conditions.

On 8 June 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made an attempt to reach the summit but disappeared without a trace.

On 1 May 1999, 75 years later, the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition found Mallory's body on the North Face in a snow basin.

During the 1996 season, 15 people died, making it the deadliest single year in the mountain's history. Eight of them died on one day alone. The disaster gained wide publicity and raised questions about the commercialization of climbing Mount Everest.

But the most famous climbers to successfully reach the top of Everest, and descend safely were Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 .

Learning to climb mountains is not an easy thing. You don't just go out and buy some climbing equipment and hope for the best. There is year's of training and studying to understand the techniques and pressures on the body. Like open water diving, you must attain certification and acclimatize the body to the pressure of thin air and freezing cold temperatures.

It is so cold on Everest, that when you pee into a bottle, it turns into a yellow ice block within minutes.

David told one story of a man who was not wearing his protective goggles and his eye balls just froze solid and he temporarily lost his sight. The man's eye lid's also froze in place, so he had to be helped to the local hospital with his eyes wide open but frozen.

It took days for his eye balls to thaw and luckily for him his eyesight gradually returned, but just the thought of having your eyes freeze solid gives you an idea of the very dangerous and chilling conditions on Everest.

So knowing all the dangers, why would people risk their lives to climb the tallest mountain?

David tells me it is because of the thrill to overcome and survive one of nature's biggest human challenges. Like driving a formula one racing car at 300 km/hr, becoming an astronaut and flying into space, or jumping from an airplane to free dive from the sky, human's are challenged to overcome danger and pit themselves against mother nature.

The thrill and adrenalin to succeed and do something that most men or women would not even contemplate in their lifetime is the biggest reward. It is also the opportunity to go beyond the limits of our humanity and the tools that God has given us to survive.

In May, 2001, American Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to summit Everest, and in 2003 Gary Guller became the first person with one arm to reach the top. These are extraordinary feats of what you can do in this lifetime to challenge yourself and become more than you can be.

David Gordon has only reached halfway up the mountain, and plans to attempt to climb to the summit next year to fulfil a lifelong dream to conquer the world's highest peak. He'll then need a good holiday in tropical Fiji to thaw out.

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