Medal mission: Olympic journey to the top of the world

Scaling Everest honors 1924 Olympic vow
Scaling Everest honors 1924 Olympic vow

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Scaling Everest honors 1924 Olympic vow 02:29

Story highlights

  • British climber Kenton Cool attempts to carry Olympic gold medal to Mt. Everest summit
  • Climb in honor of explorers who made world's first attempt to scale mountain in 1922
  • The explorers turn back just 2,000 feet from summit after avalanche kills seven Sherpas
  • However, they were still awarded Olympic gold medals for their efforts
In 1922 a team of British explorers set off on a historic first attempt to climb the world's highest mountain. They never reached the top of Mount Everest, but their incredible feat of scaling within 2,000 feet of the summit was considered so groundbreaking they were each awarded an Olympic gold medal.
Bowed but unbroken, climber Lt. Col. Edward Strutt made a pledge that at the very next opportunity one of the gold medals would be taken to the top of the world -- the summit his team never saw.
Almost 90 years later, that dream is finally being realized as British climber Kenton Cool attempts to carry one of the medals to the peak of Mount Everest. CNN caught up with Kenton at base camp, where he is tweeting about his climb in real time.
With less than 100 days until the London Olympics, it's a touching tribute to the British men who captured the nation's imagination.
"I have a picture at home of those 1922 expedition members and they were so famous back then," Kenton said.
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"It was a bit like looking at a picture of the Manchester United football team. They were world-famous people yet they've been lost to history a little bit. I wanted to bring them back to the forefront of peoples' minds."
The team were forced to turn back after an avalanche killed seven Sherpas who were helping carry equipment. But International Olympic Committee founder Pierre de Coubertin -- often referred to as the "grandfather of the modern Olympics" -- still awarded 21 gold medals to the expedition.
On being handed the 1924 Paris Olympic medals, second-in-command Strutt made his heartfelt pledge. But the vision was buried in the passage of time, and, as Cool points out: "Then the war came along."
Cool, who has already scaled Everest nine times, hopes to reach the summit in mid-May.
"It's such a romantic, true story," he said.
He admitted that even with his experience, Everest was still a "beast" to climb -- and a life-threatening one at that.
"Coming down is at least as dangerous if not more dangerous as going up. So the emotions will be welling up inside me and I know there will be a few tears," he said.
"Everest is a very different beast now to what it was in 1922. And of course we have all the knowledge of how to climb it. But it still doesn't take away from the fact that Everest is a very dangerous mountain.
"She's a very fickle person and if she wants to she'll change her outlook on things and she'll kill people just like that."
However, unlike the original explorers, Kenton will have the benefit of modern technology. Their feat is perhaps even more extraordinary considering the clunky oxygen tanks, woolen jackets and fur hats they had for survival. Crucially, in one of the most brutal environments on earth, none of these garments were waterproof.
"Today we get Internet access, we can look at weather forecasts, weather patterns. We've got state-of-the-art technology when it comes to clothing, titanium oxygen tanks, to super lightweight boots," Cool said.
"As soon as you get above 7,000 or 8,000 feet you enter the death zone. It's a ticking time bomb. You've got a limited amount of time which the human body can survive up there, so yes things are stacked more in our favor now than in 1922 but it's still a mountain which deserves an awful lot of respect."
Glyn Hughes, honorary archivist at Britain's Alpine Club, has kept extensive records of the 1922 expedition.
"They were as prepared as their knowledge at the time allowed them to be, but that knowledge was extremely limited in a lot of areas," he told CNN.
"They were very well provisioned. They had wonderfully rich foods, nothing like you have now when you go climbing -- very heavy, very rich and totally inappropriate."
Despite the original adventure receiving worldwide acclaim, Glyn said it was a gallant failure, with the death of the Sherpas casting a shadow over the expedition.
"There's actually a lot of guilt because porters were killed but none of the climbing members were," he said.
"A number of them said they felt dreadful about this. They would have felt better if at least one of them had died with the porters."
Kelly Morsehead, the great-granddaughter of one of the original climbers, will be following Kenton's challenge closely.
Henry Morsehead had tried to scale the mountain without oxygen, but eventually had to stop his climb due to frostbite. He never received his gold medal after it was lost in the post.
"To even attempt such a feat is complete madness. As the famous words go, they wanted to climb Everest because it was there. That is what they said was their mission, which is absolutely baffling and awe inspiring," Kelly said.
"It's a chance for everything to come back together again. And to fulfill what's almost rightly theirs -- to get that final step with the medal being at the top of the summit."