As long as there have been natural obstacles to conquer, man has tried to conquer them. Humans have crossed deserts and jungles, forded rivers, and sought to go higher and lower than ever before. And there has been one prize that every explorer and adventurer hoped to claim: being the first person to climb to the top of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. Ultimately, it was the names Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay that went down in history when they reached the summit on 29 May 1953. 70 years later, here’s a reflection on the fabled journey that took two men to the top of the world.
The Western world first discovered the mountain in 1852, as British surveyors happened upon it during the ongoing charting of India. It had different names – the Nepalese called it Sagarmatha, and to the Tibetans, it was Chomolungma. People who lived on the mountain referred to it as the ‘Mother of the Universe’. The British opted to rename it in honour of the Surveyor General of India, Sir George Everest. Impressively, a trigonometric calculation by a team in 1856 determined the height of the mountain (29,023ft) to within 26 feet, and that was despite the measurements being taken from points up to 150 miles away.
It would be almost 70 years before the first exploration of Everest was made. A 1921 British reconnaissance expedition led by George Leigh Mallory found a route that took into account the fact Nepal was sealed until 29 years later. The following year, a serious formal attempt to climb the mountain was made – the climbers made it to 27,297ft before an avalanche, which killed seven Sherpas. Another team of Brits made an attempt in 1924, which would become the most famous after the Hillary expedition. Mallory and Andrew Irvine might have reached the peak, but they vanished – Mallory’s body was eventually found on the mountain in 1999, missing the camera some say would have proved the success of his mission.
They trained for three weeks on neighbouring mountains, and then they determined a route up the Khumbu Icefall
Up to 1953, the mountain had defeated 10 major expeditions. One was the year before, in which a team of Swiss climbers nearly made the peak – Tenzing was part of the attempt, but he and a teammate made it to 28,210ft before retreating due to a lack of supplies. But then, it was the turn of the British, namely an expedition spearheaded by army colonel Sir John Hunt (later knighted for his efforts) and sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club. 350 porters, 20 Sherpas and a load of supplies were employed to support a vanguard of ten climbers, all of whom were chosen as potential summiteers. They trained for three weeks on neighbouring mountains, and then they determined a route up the Khumbu Icefall.
The expedition pushed its way up the mountain in April and May 1953. They forged a new passage though the Icefall, and then the climbers made their way up the Western Cwm, across the Lhotse Face and to the South Col, at around 26,000ft. On 26 May, Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon launched the first assault on the summit, and they came within 300 feet, but they had to turn back as one of their oxygen sets began to malfunction. On 28 May, Tenzing and Sir Edmund set out – they set up high camp at 27,900ft, and began the final ascent at 9:00. After a steep rocky climb, Hillary inched himself up what would become known as the Hillary Step. He threw down a rope, and Tenzing followed, and the two men reached their objective at around 11:30.
[Sir Edmund] was keen to stress, however, that the whole expedition was a team effort
Sir Edmund described the final moments of the climb: “As we carried on cutting steps along the left-hand side of the ridge it seemed to go on and on forever and we were really getting quite tired. But then I noticed that the ridge ahead suddenly dropped quite steeply away and way out in the distance I could see the high plateau of Tibet. I looked up to the right and there I guess about 40 feet above me was a rounded snow slope. Then it was only a matter of a few more whacks with the ice axe going straight up this snow slope and Tenzing and I stood on top of Everest.” He was keen to stress, however, that the whole expedition was a team effort – that, although he and Tenzing were first to the top, they’d never have made it if they hadn’t been supported by the other members.
Sir Edmund was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II after the climb, one of her first acts after her coronation, and he would spend much of his life supporting the Sherpa people. He built 27 schools and spearheaded a number of projects to give back to the community before his death in 2008 at 88. Towards the end of his life, he was thrilled to see his son Peter continue in the family tradition, reaching the peak of Everest on 25 May 2002. Tenzing, meanwhile, died at his home in Darjeeling, India, in 1986, after suffering a severe coughing spell at 71. He was a recipient of the British Empire Medal for his role, and later revealed in his autobiography Tiger of the Snows that Sir Edmund had preceded him to the top.
Many climbers followed in the footsteps of Sir Edmund and Tenzing, and set all sorts of records in the process – for the fastest climb, the number of times, the first ascent without oxygen, etc. So many people are climbing it, there was even a queue forming. But it will forever be the pair and their team who hold the feted place in the history books, and Sir Edmund was surprised that there were any successors: “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt. We couldn’t have been more wrong.”