ON MAY 29TH, 1953, Edmund Hillary, a beekeeper from New Zealand, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Nepal, climbed onto the frozen, windswept summit of the highest mountain on Earth – and straight into the pages of the world’s history books. Standing alone atop Everest, these two intrepid, experienced, physically battered mountaineers were just the tip of a spear. Below them on the mountain and behind them in time, countless dreamers, explorers, inventors and laborers had collaborated to lift these two men to this pinnacle of human achievement.
The epic British expedition that finally reached the peak of Mount Everest was an enormous undertaking. With the threat of French and Swiss expeditions nipping at their heels, the Joint Himalayan Committee of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society made the decision to go “all in” on an effort that would marshal the best resources, innovations and expertise they could muster from all corners of the fading British empire. Led by John Hunt, a British Army Colonel and experienced climber, the planning and execution of the expedition took on the character of a highly coordinated, high stakes military campaign.
The team assembled in Kathmandu, Nepal, in early March. In addition to eleven experienced mountaineers and 20 Sherpa guides, the expedition included two doctors, a cameraman, numerous scientists and a reporter from the Times of London. Hundreds of porters were needed to carry more than 10,000 pounds of specialized equipment and provisions to the base of the mountain. Much of the gear was state-of-the-art for the time – including two different types of oxygen tanks, customized walkie-talkies, high-tech clothing and vacuum-packed food. Through a combination of modern science and old-fashioned imperial might, the 1953 expedition was determined to avoid the pitfalls that had doomed the previous eight attempts to “conquer” Everest.
Over the coming weeks, the group would establish a series of camps at ever-higher elevations on the face of the mountain. (Many of these camps are still in use today). Routes were painstakingly established through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. Steps were laboriously cut into solid ice. Supplies were hauled across gaping crevasses and shifting glaciers. Finally, in late May, two climbers were positioned to make an attempt on the summit. Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans struggled to within 300 feet of their goal when exhaustion and a malfunctioning oxygen tank forced them to retreat.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were up next. The hopes of the entire expedition – and indeed of an entire nation – were on these two men. On May 28th, they set up camp on a barren, exposed slope at 27,900 feet. It was bitterly cold; neither man slept. Hillary’s boots froze solid overnight, and it took two precious hours in the early morning to defrost them. Finally, at 6:30 a.m., Norgay and Hillary strapped on their crampons and shouldered their 30-pound packs. It was now or never.
The two veteran mountaineers took turns in the lead, stopping to clear ice from each other’s breathing tubes. Conditions were good and they made steady progress, but the challenges soon began to mount. Roped together, Hillary and Norgay gingerly navigated the Cornice Traverse, where a single misstep to the left would have meant an 8,000-foot fall down the southwest face of the mountain. And a single misstep to the right – a 10,000-foot drop down the Kangshung face. No sooner had they cleared this obstacle than they were faced with the daunting prospect of a 40-foot wall of rock and snow directly in their path. Hillary gritted his way up a chimney formed between the rock and a vertical cornice of snow, belaying Norgay after him. That feat ensured that this formidable wall on the highest reaches of Everest would forever afterward be known as Hillary’s Step.
Pushing onward through unknown territory, the climbers couldn’t be sure where they were in relation to the elusive summit. They hacked steps in the ice along a ridge, clambered to their right over a rise – and suddenly there was nothing left to climb! At 29,028 feet, all was beneath them. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were literally standing on top of the world.
The news of their extraordinary achievement elated their expeditionary team – and electrified the world. Announced on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation to a nation still recovering from the depredations of World War II, the successful ascent of Everest was a welcome and inspiring testament to the power of shared purpose and steadfast collaboration.
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