By Moina Arcee, Apr 18, 2014 Edited July 4, 2018
May 29 is the anniversary of the first climbers to reach the top of Mount Everest. In 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay toiled up the southern face of the mountain, a shrewd route selected after careful planning. At long last Hilary set his foot on the summit. Then Sherpa Tenzing did. The two men rejoiced and hugged each other. Hilary took pictures of the view. Sherpa Tenzing waved flags from England, Nepal, and India. They buried sweets and a cross in the snow.
Hilary described the peak of Everest as “a symmetrical, beautiful snow cone summit.” To avoid becoming corpses, however, Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing could only spend fifteen minutes at the top of the world. Their oxygen supply was low, and they had to descend back through the death zone, that hellish part of the earth that does not have enough oxygen to sustain human life.
Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing made it down alive, arriving at base camp looking like death warmed over. Seeing their condition, their comrades assumed they had failed to reach the summit. When they learned the happy truth there were toasts and huzzahs all around. Queen Elizabeth, quietly ignoring the fact Hilary was a mere Kiwi, knighted him immediately.
The feat of Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing was the culmination of a century of fascination over Himalayan mountains by the British government. One of the positive aspects of British colonialism in India was the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, its borders, and the Himalayan mountain range. The survey was an ambitious attempt to explore and define the geography, distances, and heights of the wild lands of India, Nepal, and Tibet. When the project began in 1802 it was intended to last five years. Sixty years and seven hundred employees later, the Survey not only completely mapped out India, it determined with impressive accuracy the heights of the highest peaks of the Himalayan mountains.
The highest peak was named Peak XV. As Surveyor General of India, Welsh geographer George Everest was responsible for planning and executing the rigorously scientific measurements that resulted in Peak XV being declared 29,002 feet high. So instrumental was Colonel Everest to this endeavor that his successors named Peak XV after him. Everest complained to no avail. It may have been a small victory for him that the pronunciation of Mount Everest (EV-er-est) is different than the actual pronunciation of his name (EEVE-wrist).
All the early recorded climbs of Everest were done by the British. The most famous climber was George Mallory, a Cambridge graduate, star athlete, and climbing prodigy. In 1924 Mallory and his partner, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine started in Tibet and took a northern route up Everest. They left base camp on June 8, 1924, and never came back. News of their disappearance shocked Britain, who proclaimed the two climbers national heroes in a memorial service attended by the British Parliament and the Royal Family. Over the years there was speculation as to whether Mallory had made it to the top of Everest before perishing. Was he the first human to set foot on the summit?
The British kept climbing Everest during the 1930’s. There was even an attempt (unsuccessful) to fly a plane over Everest in order to drop a Union Jack flag on the summit. The first conqueror of Mount Everest, however, was a most unlikely one.
Edmund Hilary was a small, shy, bookish boy who grew up to be six feet five inches high, serve in the New Zealand Royal Air Force during World War II, and return home to become a beekeeper. He liked climbing mountains too, and became part of the ninth British expedition to Mount Everest. After one team failed, Hilary and Tenzing were ordered up the mountain.
All went according to plan until the two came upon a sheer forty foot rock wall. Somehow Hilary wedged himself into and up a crack in the rock face. Tenzing followed. This part of the mountain is now referred to as “the Hilary Step.” From there it was on to the summit, or in the words of Sir Edmund Hilary: “A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow and we stood on top.”
Hilary went on to explore the North Pole and South Pole. He became the only man to ever stand on both poles and on the top of Everest. Hilary created the Himalayan Trust foundation to develop schools and hospitals for the Sherpas, an ethnic group inhabiting the mountains of Nepal. Modest and mild-mannered, he preferred reading books at home in New Zealand to the public spotlight.
In 1999 the BBC sponsored a research expedition to find the bodies of George Mallory and his partner Irvine. At about 27,000 feet on the north side of the mountain a corpse was found, freeze-dried and mummified. The name tag on the clothing read “G. Leigh Mallory.” An Anglican requiem service was performed and the body was covered and left where it was. To this day no one knows if Mallory was the first to reach the top of Everest. Most mountaineers, however, do not consider a climb to be successful unless the climber returns to base camp alive.
Since Hilary’s ascent of Everest, about 4,000 other climbers have reached the top. Climbing Everest is big business these days. It costs between $50,000 and $100,000 per individual to do it. None of it would be possible without the silent workhorses of Everest, the Sherpas, who go ahead of the climbers to set scaling ropes over the many difficult sections of the mountain, and position aluminum ladders over glacial crevasses.
There are about two hundred corpses on the mountains, and a hundred tons of rubbish. Nepal’s government began a clean up of Everest in 2001. In 2003 Sir Edmund commented on the recent rush to the top of Everest:
“I find it all rather sad. I like to think of Everest as a great mountaineering challenge, and when you’ve got people just streaming up the mountain – well, many of them are just climbing it to get their name in the paper really. I do believe that many of the climbs on the mountain now lack that sense of success and exhilaration that we gained from going up. There was a much bigger challenge for us than there has been for later expeditions.”
In 2008 Sir Edmund Hilary died of a heart attack at his home in New Zealand. After a state funeral, his body lay in state at Holy Trinity Cathedral. Then Hilary’s body was cremated and the ashes were scattered in Auckland. Some ashes were saved and sent to a monastery in Nepal. Hilary’s likeness appears on New Zealand currency and stamps.
People from all over the world come to Everest. But if anyone thinks Mount Everest has become child’s play, a recent event provides a chilling counterpoint. On April 18 2014 an avalanche on the mountain buried thirteen Sherpa guides. The lesson? You may ascend Everest, but you will not conquer it.
Update, May 2014: The tragic avalanche on the Khumbu icefall of Mount Everest prompted a labor dispute between the Sherpas and the government of Nepal, which pockets millions of dollars from the Everest tourism industry every year. The Sherpas, by contrast, make $5,000 a year and have no worker’s compensation, health insurance, or life insurance. Sherpas complain that every year their job becomes more and more dangerous, as inexperienced but wealthy climbers expect the Sherpas to chauffeur them up a very dangerous mountain.
Tempers ignited when the Nepalese government offered the Sherpa community a money settlement of roughly $400 for each lost life. This was received as a profound insult and the Sherpas voted to boycott the climbing season, which would effectively end the climbing season and smack everyone hard in the wallet, especially the climbers who had already paid tens of thousands of dollars in anticipation of a mountain climb. Even so, some of the climbers were outspoken supporters of the Sherpa boycott. At this writing, the government of Nepal is creating a relief fund for the Sherpas…
BBC News, On this day in History, May 29 1953.
Mount Everest, World’s Highest Mountain, http://www.mount-everest.net
New World Encyclopedia, Mount Everest
National Geographic: Everest: Pictures and stories, nationalgeograhic.com
Mount Everest: History, Facts mnteverest.net/history
Brunner, Borgna, “Mortals on Mount Olympus – A history of climbing Mount Everest.”
David Fickling, The Guardian, March 12, 2003, “We knocked the Bastard Off,” a profile of Sir Edmund Hilary.