First to the Everest summit: 60 years on

By James McCormack 23 May 2013
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It’s been 60 years since two men first claimed Everest’s summit, but hundreds still attempt it every year.

“WELL, GEORGE, WE KNOCKED the bastard off.” It is now 60 years since Edmund Hillary rolled back into camp on 29 May 1953 and announced to fellow Kiwi George Lowe, and indeed to the world, that Everest had finally been climbed. Much has changed in the interim: technology, climbing styles and – perhaps most notably – the number of climbers.

By the beginning of 2013, 3842 people had stood on Earth’s highest point. And yet the anniversary remains significant.

“It’s like a birthday, really,” says Hillary’s son Peter, 58. “An opportunity to celebrate. But it retains a certain currency to this day because we’ve begun to realise it was more than climbing the world’s highest mountain; it expanded the horizon of possibility for everyone.”

Crack Everest team and the final push

Ten previous expeditions had tried and failed, although some had come tantalisingly close to the 8848m summit. On the prior year’s Swiss attempt, a pair of climbers ascended as high as 8600m. One, a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay, returned for the 1953 British assault. At that time, Norgay probably knew more about Everest than anyone alive.

And, says Peter, unlike many Sherpas then, he was very ambitious. John Hunt, the expedition leader, was naturally keen to procure his services. But Ed Hillary, too, had a deal of familiarity; this was his third Himalaya expedition.

Gaining experience was difficult in those days; Nepal allowed few on the mountain, a far cry from today. In 2012, 568 individual permits were issued, and on 19 May alone, 179 climbers reached the summit. Four died that day and many critics blame, in part, the overcrowding.

In later years – reflecting on the ever-growing numbers – Hillary often said he was lucky; they were the sole expedition in the entire region. And unlike those forced to tread today’s “beaten track”, he wrote, they were able to pioneer their own path. Nothing was certain. Not even life itself, for physiologists of the day weren’t convinced survival at that altitude was possible.

It wasn’t until Hillary wriggled and jammed his way up what we now call the Hillary Step – a 12m wall of rock and ice at nearly 8800m – that he knew they would make it.

Everest was never just a mountain

In the context of the times, the achievement was powerfully symbolic. Much of the world was traumatised by war and the loss of another generation of young men. But this ascent, wrote The Times of London was “the hope of a new heroic age”.

For the Empire’s subjects, the British expedition’s success seemed especially propitious, for the news broke on the day of Elizabeth II’s coronation, “a splendid trophy” for the young queen.

Recognition was, unfortunately, patchy for Norgay. In one triumphant Sydney Morning Herald article, he was never even mentioned. But the common assumption that he received virtually no acknowledgement isn’t entirely true either. On the front page of The New York Times, “the famous Sherpa guide” gained more column space than Hillary.

On arriving in Kathmandu, crowds in their tens of thousands chanted his name – Hillary later wrote he’d never seen such terror as in Tenzing’s eyes then – book deals ensued, and there was a meeting with the Queen for him and his wife.

Hillary remained tied to Nepal

As for Sir Edmund, knighted for his Everest success, he considered his greatest achievement to be not so much ascending Everest, but in what he achieved afterwards helping local people. Hillary said he never felt sorry for the Sherpas. He admired them. Their lives were hard, but they were resilient.

Yet that didn’t mean he couldn’t assist. In collaboration with locals, he established hospitals, schools, medical clinics and environmental programs. “Dad felt that what you did in the past was fine,” says Peter, “but what he was really interested in was what you were doing now, and what you can do in future.”

When Hillary’s wife Louise and daughter Belinda died in a plane crash near Kathmandu in 1975, he became even more committed. It was a way, says Peter, of creating something positive from the sacrifice. “He hurled himself back into it, and he never stopped. It was a testimony to the sort of man he was.”

Despite progress in the region’s education and health, challenges persist, for Nepal remains poor. For this reason, Peter disagrees with those arguing for substantially reduced commercial climbing on Everest: “We can’t in any conscience wish to take it away from the Nepalese people.” However, that doesn’t deny problems exist.

How to manage the many footprints on the mountain

Foremost is the number of inexperienced climbers, those who would not attempt Everest were it not for the fixed ropes and ladders, the drug dexamethasone to combat altitude sickness and the existence of guides willing to virtually drag them, if necessary, to the top.

Make no mistake; reaching the summit is still an achievement. Everest has not been tamed. Climbers regularly die, but numbers are such that on that fateful day of 19 May last year, a two-hour queue formed at the Hillary Step.

Yet Peter notes most ascend via the south-east or north ridges. “The other faces of this huge mountain have no-one on them. For hard mountaineers who want to climb something new and amazing, the opportunities are still there.”

In this fundamental respect, climbing Everest has changed little since 1953. There are still dreams to achieve, and the chance to fulfil human potential. It was Tenzing Norgay and Ed Hillary who showed us that possibility.

Edited captions and photos in the attached gallery are from the book Alfred Gregory – Photographs from Everest to Africa by Alfred Gregory. RRP $100. © Lantern 2007.