Chart of the Ascent of Everest

In most cases it would be a stretch to classify a chart drawn on blue graph paper as a vintage infodesign. However, the graphic fixed to the inside back cover of Alfred Gregory's 1954 book, The Picture of Everest, is a classic data-intensive marvel. Charting the history of the famous 1953 conquest of Mount Everest, the graphic effortlessly displays both the hard facts and the human drama of the expedition. At the core is a three dimensional map including time, height and location. The horizontal axis displays the time period of the expedition from April 11th to June 3rd. Elevation is presented on the vertical axis and includes the height of each camp. Finally, the location of the climbers on the route to the top runs diagonally from lower left to upper right. The simplicity of its design allows the viewer to easily understand that while Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first people to summit Everest it took the sustained coordinated effort of 52 people to achieve this goal. 

 

An example of how the chart transforms data into information is how it provides an immediate understanding of the climbing tempo and the significant effort required to reach the summit. Lasting for 54 days the assault required rigorous scaling up and down the mountain by fourteen climbers and thirty-eight Sherpas. It maps the numerous ascents and descents of the team as they blazed trails and ferried supplies ever higher up the mountain. Team leader, Colonel John Hunt planned and managed the expedition like a military operation. Along the climbing route, nine camps were established with base camp (camp I) located at 17,900 feet. During the first phase, climbers blazed a trail through the shifting terrain of the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, and set up camps II and III. Next the team navigated the Western Cwm (a glacier hollow running from the top of the icefall to the south west face of Everest), established camps IV and V, and packed in supplies from base camp to camp IV. Then they forged a path up the steep Lhotse Face, and established camps VI through VIII from 23,000 to 26,000 feet. Lastly, the final assault phase was launched.

By the time the peak was summited most team members had climbed the height of the mountain more than three times. This can be easily seen when we highlight the routes taken by Hillary (orange) and Tenzing (green) over the complete expedition.

 

The drama of the final days and the successful summit is presented in the upper-right hand section of the graphic. In order to maximize the chance of success Hunt decided to send two assault teams with the second team advancing before knowing the results of the first group. The first  team of Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon left advanced base on May 22 and almost became the first men to climb Everest. Hillary and Tenzing, the second assault team, left two days later. On May 26, Evans and Bourdillon climbed to 28,750 feet less than 300 feet from the top. Unfortunately, faulty oxygen gear and strong winds forced them to turn back. The second assault team of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary left advanced base on May 23 and on May 28 at 27,900 feet they established camp IX. On the morning of May 29, they left their tent at 6:30 a.m. and five hours later they became the first people to summit the highest mountain on Earth.

 

 

 

While this graphic focuses on one expedition, it is important to remember the victorious climb of Mount Everest in 1953 was the result of the heroic effort and sacrifice of every member of the twelve major expeditions from 1921 to 1953. In the words of Sir John Hunt, leader of the 1953 climb, “the conquest of Everest is a tale of sustained and tenacious endeavor by many, over a long period of time.” Each expedition added critical knowledge to the planning, route selection, skills, and equipment necessary for success.

Below is a image of the original chart in Gregory's book.

November 10, 2014 by Larry Gormley
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