Firantes revisits the crowning of Everest in 1953 when the world’s highest peak was first conquered.
Edmund Hillary and sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest on May 29, 1953, becoming the first to achieve this feat.
According to current standards, the 1953 British expedition, led in an almost military fashion by Sir John Hunt, was extremely elaborate due to all the gear they had to haul: 350 porters, 20 sherpas, and tons of supplies to support a group of only ten climbers. “Our climbers were selected based on their potential to reach the summit,” recalls George Band, 73 years old, who was part of the expedition. Fifty years later, memories of the campaign remain vivid in Band’s memory. “The initial plan consisted of two attempts to reach the summit, each carried out by a pair of climbers, with the option of a third attempt if necessary. In such expeditions, the leader typically decides which pair will attempt the summit when the expedition is well underway, and the performance of each climber can be assessed.” The anxiety caused by determining who would be chosen for the team that would reach the summit would become a hallmark of major Everest expeditions in the decades to come. But the stakes would never be as high again.
In the spring of 1953, the ascent of the world’s highest mountain seemed inevitable. When the British made their first attempt in 1921, Everest had already rebuffed at least ten major expeditions and two crazy solo attempts. The discovery in 1950 of a southern route in the newly opened Nepal and the first ascent the following year through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall opened a path that would become known in the 1990s as the “yellow brick road” to the summit.
At first, it seemed the Swiss would take the prize. In 1952, an elite team that included legendary mountaineer Raymond Lambert pioneered the ascent route through the Lhotse Face and reached the South Col. From that lofty perch, Lambert and sherpa Tenzing Norgay pushed up to 28,199 feet on the southeast ridge before turning back, likely higher than anyone had ever been on Earth.
By that time, the British were determined to use any means at their disposal for their spring 1953 attempt. They even hired 38-year-old Tenzing as their chief sherpa, or sirdar. Previous British expeditions, while notable for their achievements, often had a charmingly informal air. In contrast, Hunt’s intricate assault plan was more akin to a business plan. “You get there as quickly as you can with as many people as you can,” mountaineering expert Ken Wilson comments. “You have a military leader who is completely in tune with that philosophy and doesn’t think of it as some sort of amateur club.”
From the outset, 33-year-old beekeeper Edmund Hillary (not yet known as Sir Edmund) was one of the prime candidates for a place on the summit teams. “It was his fourth Himalayan expedition in just two years, and he was in the prime of his physical condition,” says Band. The mountains and glaciers of his native New Zealand had proven to be the perfect training ground for the Himalayas. Hillary had earned the respect of the expedition by leading the team that forged a route through the Khumbu Icefall. He was “a sleeves-rolled-up problem solver,” as Wilson describes him.
However, logistical failures, difficulties with some expedition members acclimatizing, and issues with some experimental oxygen equipment greatly hampered the expedition. It took the team 12 painstaking days to recreate the Swiss route on the Lhotse Face (partly, perhaps because the British did not have as much experience on the challenging ice). Desperate, Hunt began to wonder if his expedition would ever reach the South Col.
They finally reached the South Col—the necessary starting point for a summit attempt—on May 21. It was late enough in the season that they were worried about the monsoon, with its intense snowfall, which would make climbing impossible and could arrive as early as June 1.
By becoming the first men to summit Everest, Hillary and Tenzing would earn recognition that has barely faded in 50 years. Who remembers Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans today? However, Bourdillon and Evans were included in Hunt’s plans to be the first to attempt the summit. Despite starting relatively late and having problems with Evans’s oxygen equipment, Bourdillon and his partner reached the South Summit—just 331 feet below the true summit—by 1 p.m. on May 26. But Evans was exhausted, and both men knew they would run out of oxygen if they continued. They agreed to turn back. Michael Westmacott, Bourdillon’s close friend on the 1953 expedition, says, “It was a decision that Tom always regretted.”
So, three days later, Hillary and Tenzing set out for the summit. There was nothing casual about the choice of the pair. “Hunt always intended, if possible, to include a sherpa in one of the teams attempting the summit to recognize their incalculable contribution to the success of these expeditions,” says Band. “Tenzing had already demonstrated his ability to reach the summit thanks to his achievements the previous year with Lambert. Plus, he had already been at least 1200 meters higher than any of us!” In fact, Tenzing (who died in 1986) was the most experienced living veteran of Everest, having participated in six previous attempts dating back to 1935. For those who criticize the practice of guiding paying clients to Everest’s summit, veteran Everest guide has a clever, half-joking response: “Do you know who was the first client of a guide on Everest? Ed Hillary.”
But Hillary had also proved his mettle, seeming to grow stronger as the expedition progressed. Band highlights that Hillary also recognized what a good team he would make with Tenzing. “Looking back on the expedition, one can realize that he made a deliberate effort to develop a good relationship with Tenzing,” Band says. “And it paid off. Hillary and Tenzing logically formed the second team for the summit. But it wasn’t decided from the start; it was contemplated as the expedition developed.”
Starting earlier and from a higher camp than Bourdillon and Evans, Tenzing and Hillary reached the South Summit by 9 a.m. But difficulties were far from over. Beyond the South Summit, the ridge dips slightly before rising abruptly into a roughly 40-foot-high rock outcrop just before the actual summit. Scratching at the snow with his ice axe, Hillary climbed between this rock barrier, known as “Hillary’s Step,” and an adjacent ice bulge to overcome this formidable obstacle, which would become known as Hillary’s Step. The pair reached the highest point on Earth at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953.
The two men shook hands, as Hillary would later write, “according to good Anglo-Saxon etiquette,” but then Tenzing hugged his companion and patted him on the back. The pair spent just 15 minutes on the summit. “Inevitably, I thought of Mallory and Irvine,” Hillary wrote, referring to the two British climbers who disappeared high on the North Ridge of Everest in 1924. “I looked around for some sign that they had reached the summit, but I could see nothing.”
As the two men descended back to camp, the first climber they encountered was fellow New Zealander George Lowe. Hillary’s legendary greeting: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!”
Their fame had already begun to spread even before Hillary and Tenzing left the mountain. “As we neared Kathmandu, there was a very strong political atmosphere, particularly among the Indian and Nepali press, who wanted to ensure that Tenzing had been the first,” Sir Edmund recalls today. “That would prove that Indian and Nepali climbers were at least as good as foreigners. At the time, we were very uncomfortable with the situation. John Hunt, Tenzing, and I had a little meeting. We agreed not to say who stepped on the summit first.”
“For a mountaineer, it doesn’t matter much who set foot on the summit first. Many times the one who has made the greatest effort in the climb steps back and lets his companion reach the summit first.” The pact of the two men held until years later when Tenzing revealed in his autobiography, “Tiger of the Snows,” that Hillary had actually preceded him. Neither man anticipated how forcefully, thanks to their success, that patch of snow more than 8,000 meters high would shine. “Tenzing and I both thought that, once the mountain was climbed, probably no one would want to try it again,” Sir Edmund admits today. “We couldn’t have been more wrong.”