Two men stood for the very first time on the world’s highest peak 67 years ago today, on May 29th, 1953.
New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (pictured) were the two men chosen from a British expedition to attempt the final ascent to the summit of Mount Everest, which at 29,035 feet is the world’s highest peak. They achieved the feat at 11-30am after a gruelling climb up the south face of the mountain on the border of Nepal and Tibet.
Standing on top of the world, they hugged each other and took in the incredible vistas all around them, took a few photographs and raised a flag. Sherpa Tenzing buried a few sweets and biscuits in the snow as an offering to his Buddhist gods, but the pair stayed only 15 minutes on the summit because their supplies of oxygen – essential at such high altitude – were running low.
They then had to quell their excitement to begin the slow and dangerous descent to safely rejoin other members of their team, led by Colonel John Hunt, waiting anxiously for news further down the mountain at Camp VI. When Col. Hunt, scanning the mountain through binoculars, saw the two men returning, they looked so exhausted he assumed they had not succeeded and immediately began planning a second attempt on the summit. But celebrations erupted when Hillary and Tenzing were seen to point to the top of the mountain and signal that they had made it.
It would be several more days before news of their successful ascent travelled round the world, breaking in British newspapers on June 2nd, the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.
Col. Hunt attributed the success of the expedition to listening carefully to other climbers who had made previous unsuccessful attempts on the peak, taking their advice and learning from their mistakes. It enabled him to plan the bid meticulously, choose the best equipment and time the ascent to coincide with favourable weather conditions. Hillary described the peak as “a symmetrical. Beautiful snow cone summit”.
Both Hillary and Col. Hunt were later knighted in recognition of their achievement, while Tenzing, who could not be knighted because he was not a citizen of the British Commonwealth, was instead awarded the George Medal. He later became director of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, in Darjeeling, and died in 1986, aged 71.
Hillary took part in several further expeditions, including a 1958 trip across Antarctica to the South Pole. He also set up a medical and educational trust for Sherpa families, who he greatly respected, and served as New Zealand’s High Commissioner to India from 1984 to 1989. He died in 2008, at the age of 88.
One aspect of Hillary and Tenzing’s ascent not made public at the time was the request for them to look out for any signs of British climber George Leigh Mallory. He and fellow climber Andrew Irvine disappeared while attempting to reach the summit in 1924 and never been seen since. Hillary and Tenzing found nothing, but Mallory’s body, mostly preserved by the intense cold, was finally found in 1999, showing signs of having sustained a major fall.
Climbing Everest remains a hugely challenging, dangerous and expensive feat, but modern equipment, the establishing of set routes and better transport to Everest Base Camp have undoubtedly made it more achievable. The number of people who have reached the top is now around 5,000, some of them having done it multiple times. But more than 300 people have also died on the mountain, whose death toll grows with every passing year.