At 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and
Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa of Nepal, become the first explorers to reach
the summit of Mount Everest, which at 29,035 feet above sea level is
the highest point on earth. The two, part of a British expedition,
made their final assault on the summit after spending a fitful night
at 27,900 feet. News of their achievement broke around the world on
June 2, the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, and Britons hailed
it as a good omen for their country's future.
Mount Everest sits on the crest of the Great Himalayas in Asia, lying
on the border between Nepal and Tibet. Called Chomo-Lungma, or "Mother
Goddess of the Land," by the Tibetans, the English named the mountain
after Sir George Everest, a 19th-century British surveyor of South
Asia. The summit of Everest reaches two-thirds of the way through the
air of the earth's atmosphere--at about the cruising altitude of jet
airliners--and oxygen levels there are very low, temperatures are
extremely cold, and weather is unpredictable and dangerous.
The first recorded attempt to climb Everest was made in 1921 by a
British expedition that trekked 400 difficult miles across the Tibetan
plateau to the foot of the great mountain. A raging storm forced them
to abort their ascent, but the mountaineers, among them George Leigh
Mallory, had seen what appeared to be a feasible route up the peak. It
was Mallory who quipped when later asked by a journalist why he wanted
to climb Everest, "Because it's there."
A second British expedition, featuring Mallory, returned in 1922, and
climbers George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce reached an impressive height
of more than 27,000 feet. In another attempt made by Mallory that
year, seven Sherpa porters were killed in an avalanche. (The Sherpas,
native to the Khumbu region, have long played an essential support
role in Himalayan climbs and treks because of their strength and
ability to endure the high altitudes.) In 1924, a third Everest
expedition was launched by the British, and climber Edward Norton
reached an elevation of 28,128 feet, 900 vertical feet short of the
summit, without using artificial oxygen. Four days later, Mallory and
Andrew Irvine launched a summit assault and were never seen alive
again. In 1999, Mallory's largely preserved body was found high on
Everest--he had suffered numerous broken bones in a fall. Whether or
not he or Irvine reached the summit remains a mystery.
Several more unsuccessful summit attempts were made via Tibet's
Northeast Ridge route, and after World War II Tibet was closed to
foreigners. In 1949, Nepal opened its door to the outside world, and
in 1950 and 1951 British expeditions made exploratory climbs up the
Southeast Ridge route. In 1952, a Swiss expedition navigated the
treacherous Khumbu Icefall in the first real summit attempt. Two
climbers, Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay, reached 28,210 feet,
just below the South Summit, but had to turn back for want of
Shocked by the near-success of the Swiss expedition, a large British
expedition was organized for 1953 under the command of Colonel John
Hunt. In addition to the best British climbers and such highly
experienced Sherpas as Tenzing Norgay, the expedition enlisted talent
from the British Commonwealth, such as New Zealanders George Lowe and
Edmund Hillary, the latter of whom worked as a beekeeper when not
climbing mountains. Members of the expedition were equipped with
specially insulated boots and clothing, portable radio equipment, and
open- and closed-circuit oxygen systems.
Setting up a series of camps, the expedition pushed its way up the
mountain in April and May 1953. A new passage was forged through the
Khumbu Icefall, and the climbers made their way up the Western Cwm,
across the Lhotse Face, and to the South Col, at about 26,000 feet. On
May 26, Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon launched the first assault on
the summit and came within 300 feet of the top of Everest before
having to turn back because one of their oxygen sets was
On May 28, Tenzing and Hillary set out, setting up high camp at 27,900
feet. After a freezing, sleepless night, the pair plodded on, reaching
the South Summit by 9 a.m. and a steep rocky step, some 40 feet high,
about an hour later. Wedging himself in a crack in the face, Hillary
inched himself up what was thereafter known as the Hillary Step.
Hillary threw down a rope, and Norgay followed. At about 11:30 a.m.,
the climbers arrived at the top of the world.
News of the success was rushed by runner from the expedition's base
camp to the radio post at Namche Bazar, and then sent by coded message
to London, where Queen Elizabeth II learned of the achievement on June
1, the eve of her coronation. The next day, the news broke around the
world. Later that year, Hillary and Hunt were knighted by the queen.
Norgay, because he was not a citizen of a Commonwealth nation,
received the lesser British Empire Medal.
Since Hillary and Norgay's historic climb, numerous expeditions have
made their way up to Everest's summit. In 1960, a Chinese expedition
was the first to conquer the mountain from the Tibetan side, and in
1963 James Whittaker became the first American to top Everest. In
1975, Tabei Junko of Japan became the first woman to reach the summit.
Three years later, Reinhold Messner of Italy and Peter Habeler of
Austria achieved what had been previously thought impossible: climbing
to the Everest summit without oxygen. Nearly two hundred climbers have
died attempting to summit the mountain. A major tragedy occurred in
1996 when eight climbers from various nations died after being caught
in a blizzard high on the slopes.
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