Hillary climbs Everest
The 29th of May 1953 AD
Mount Everest, at 29,028 feet above sea level the world’s highest peak, had for many years been the target of mountaineers and adventurers who knew they would win eternal fame by being the first to conquer its summit. Many had tried and failed, and a good number lost their lives in the attempt, including the Mallory expedition of 1924 which some believe may have succeeded, only for Mallory and his climbing partner Irvine to die during the descent.
With the Tibetan side of the mountain rendered inaccessible by the Chinese, only the Nepalese route was open to climbers, and the Nepalese allowed only one expedition a year. In 1951 the British had set up what amounted to a reconnaissance expedition to prepare for a full blooded attempt in the future. In 1952 the Swiss, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay as part of their group, reached higher than had been managed previously. The 1953 expedition led by Colonel John Hunt would be the last try at being first, with the next year booked by the French, and 1955 by the Swiss again.
Hunt was a tremendous planner, and a believer in teamwork, something that was difficult for individualist climbers to accept. But he persuaded the best British and Commonwealth climbers to join the party. He ensured they had state of the art oxygen equipment, and planned their nutrition carefully. Edmund Hillary was one of those invited to be among the group, along with his friend George Lowe.
Hillary was a committed climber, who chose his summer occupation of beekeeping as it allowed him the rest of the year for mountaineering. He had fallen in love with climbing as a teenager in New Zealand, and in spite of a certain lack of coordination – he was a gangly six feet five inches tall – had found he possessed enormous stamina and a natural gift for seeing the best routes, and the technical ability to exploit them. Hillary had been on the 1951 exploratory mission, and many of the 1953 party believed he would be one of those chosen to reach the summit.
Hunt’s expedition consisted of some 400 people, bringing with it 10,000 of supplies and equipment. Most of the party were porters, but it included 20 of the legendary mountain Sherpas, among them the 39-year-old Tenzing Norgay, vastly experienced and enormously tough.
After weeks of carefully making ground up the mountain, establishing camp after camp, what was hoped to be the final ascent began on May 26, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans trying to complete the last 1,000 feet or so. Less than 400 feet from the top Evans’ oxygen began to fail, and they were driven back, exhausted and despondent, but had the strength left to brief the next party: Hillary and Tenzing.
Supported by an advance party taking supplies up for them, Hillary and Tenzing reached the last camp an hour or so after noon on May 28, where they began the last preparations for the ascent, feeding up on tinned apricots, jam, honey, and sardines, checking equipment, and getting their minds ready for the struggle. They took on plenty of liquids to combat the devastating effects of high altitude dehydration. With their tent only held down by their own weight, the pair snatched a few hours of uneasy sleep.
At 4.30am on the 29th Hillary looked at the world outside, the weather not as good as they would have hoped, but not impossible. They waited two hours before setting out, partly to eat more biscuits with sardines and to drink hot water with lemon, and partly because Hillary’s boots had been left outside the tent and took two hours to defrost. A check of oxygen showed that one tank was only 75 per cent full, they would have less than expected to rely on.
They made steady progress, and then only 400 feet from their goal the snow conditions worsened, but they pressed on until they reached a 50 foot cliff, an easy ask at lower altitude for fresh climbers, but daunting for exhausted men working in temperatures approaching 20 degrees below zero. Hillary, however, saw a way, wedging himself into a chimney between the rock and packed snow, a drop of more than 10,000 feet beneath him, inching up what has now become known as The Hillary Step, Tenzing following behind. At the top of the chimney they had almost made it, but tantalisingly they faced a series of false summits, hoping each would be the last. Finally, of course, one was.
For decades Hillary refused to say who reached the summit first, but eventually acknowledged it was he. At the top Hillary took pictures of Tenzing, and of the various aspects beneath them, as proof they had made it. As the Kiwi thought his companion did not know how to operate the camera, and felt there might be a better time to learn, no pictures of Hillary on the summit were taken.
After just 15 minutes at the summit, wary of their dwindling supply of oxygen, the pair began the descent. George Lowe, who had climbed back to the last camp to bring them hot soup, met the pair. “Well, we knocked the bastard off,” said Hillary to his friend.
This was a time of great hope in the world, and the achievement of Hillary and Tenzing chimed perfectly with it. A new Elizabethan era was commencing, the news of the successful ascent reaching London just before the coronation of the new Queen. Hillary was knighted, Tenzing receiving a lesser award – it is said that Indian Prime Minister Nehru blocked an honorary knighthood for him. Both the successful climbers were made for life, the 33-year-old Kiwi going on to further adventures in the Antarctic and Arctic, but to his eternal credit devoting great efforts to helping the Sherpa people. When he died in 2007 at the age of 88 the world mourned at the passing of a modest but hugely determined original.
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