On This Day

Edmund Hillary, hillay norgay, Edmund Hillary tenzing norgay, tenzing norgay
Associated Press
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay pose at the British Embassy in Katmandu, June 26, 1953.

On This Day: Hillary and Norgay Reach Peak of Mount Everest

May 29, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and sherpa Tenzing Norgay of Nepal battled ice and storms to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain.

The Ascent Up Everest

Since 1921, more than a dozen expeditions had attempted to reach the peak of the 29,029-foot-high Mount Everest, but all had fallen short. In 1953, a British expedition led by Col. John Hunt set off with 14 climbers, 35 Nepalese Sherpas and more than 350 porters carrying some 18 tons of food and supplies.

After two weeks, the expedition reached the South Col, some 25,800 feet up on the southeast side of the mountain. Hunt sent two climbers, Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon, to make the final ascent to the peak, but they were forced to turn back.

Hunt then ordered the second pre-selected climbing team, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to attempt the final climb. They set out up the south summit on May 28, and set up camp that night at 27,900 feet.

They continued their trek the following morning at 6:30 a.m. They encountered rocks, ice and powder, which gave way beneath Hillary’s feet, sending him 30 feet down before he could regain hold. Lastly, they had to climb up a 40-foot ice face—now known as Hillary Step—called “the most formidable obstacle on the ridge” by Hillary.

The two reached the peak at about 11:30 a.m. Hillary described: “I continued hacking steps along the ridge and then up a few more to the right … to my great delight I realized we were on top of Mount Everest and that the whole world spread out below us.”

The two spent just 15 minutes at the peak. Hillary took photographs and left behind a crucifix on behalf of Col. Hunt. Norgay buried a gift of biscuits and chocolate to the gods of the mountain, and the two men planted flags on behalf of the United Nations, Nepal and the United Kingdom. The two descended back to the rest of the team; when Hillary was asked about their climb, he replied, “Well, we knocked the bastard off.”

Hillary and Norgay quickly became international celebrities. News of their triumph reached Britain on June 2, the same day as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Weeks later, the queen knighted Hillary and Hunt, and gave Norgay the British Empire Medal.

Background: Early Everest Expeditions

The first of the modern expeditions up Everest began in 1921, when the Dalai Lama allowed westerners access to the Tibet side of the mountain. In 1924, British explorer George Mallory, who famously answered a query about why he wanted to climb Everest with the response, “Because it’s there,” died in an unsuccessful ascent alongside Andrew Irvine.

There remains a mystery of whether the two reached the peak. Equipment and parts of their camp have been spotted by several expeditions, and Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999, but Irvine’s camera—which would likely answer the question of where they reached—has yet to be found.

Western expeditions were halted after World War II, when the Dalai Lama closed off Tibet to foreigners. In 1950, westerners began climbing the mountain from the Nepal side. A 1952 expedition, which included Norgay, came close to reaching the peak, setting the stage for the Hunt expedition the following year.

Later Expeditions Up Everest

In the years since the first ascent, more than 3,000 people have made the climb, leading some critics to point out a lost “spirit of adventure” as wealthy teams create small towns on their way up the famous mountain. Norgay’s son joined the chorus in 2003, noting that inexperienced climbers often buy their way onto the mountain.

A combination of some of the world’s most challenging terrain and the inexperience of many climbers have made the trip to the peak one of the most dangerous undertakings in the world, resulting in more than 200 deaths since Hillary and Norgay’s first ascent.

One of the more tragic of these events ended in the death of eight climbers in 1996, detailed in survivor Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.

Key Players: Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary

Edmund Hillary
Edmund Hillary, a beekeeper from New Zealand, participated in a 1951 exploratory expedition up Everest along with Norgay. After reaching the peak, he went on to live a life rich in adventure, exploring both the north and south poles.

While Hillary never held public office, he became a prominent government figure in his native New Zealand, advocating on behalf of conservation efforts and public service until his death in January 2008.

Tenzing Norgay
Tenzing Norgay was born either in Nepal or Tibet, and raised in the Nepalese mountain village of Thame. His name, meaning “fortunate,” was given to him by a high lama. He served as a porter on Everest expeditions in the 1930s, and tried to summit the mountain in several expeditions beginning in 1947.

Norgay was 39 when he finally reached the peak and went on to become a hero in Nepal and India, where he lived until his death in 1986.  Though he never returned to the peak, his son followed in his footsteps and made the ascent in 1996.

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