Remember at the start of the day when I said there was a lot of Everest related news for the day? Well, I wasn’t kidding, but I think this is the last story I’ll post about the Big Hill for the day and possibly for awhile. After all, the climbing season is wrapped up, everyone is heading home and the Khumbu is once again becoming a very quiet place.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least write a brief post commemorating this important date. It was 60 years ago today that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to successfully summit the mountain. They were part of a large British expedition that arrived in the spring of 1953 that was intent on conquering the mountain for Queen and Country.
The team arrived in Base Camp on the South Side of the mountain in March of that year. They came with more than 400 people, including 362 porters and 20 Sherpa mountain guides. They reportedly had over 10,000 pounds of baggage that included their high altitude climbing gear, food and other supplies that they would need for a prolonged stay on the mountain.
Hillary and Norgay were not the first team selected by expedition leader John Hunt, who named Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans as the squad that would attempt the summit first. They climbed as high as the South Summit, which put them just 300 feet (91.5 meters) below the actual summit. But Evan’s oxygen mask suffered a malfunction and the men were forced to turn back. That gave Hillary and Norgay the chance they had been waiting for.
Poor weather delayed their climb, keeping them at the South Col for a few days. But when the skies cleared they moved up, working together as a team. The last hurdle that they needed to overcome was a 40-foot (12 meter) rock wall that fell just below the summit. Hillary free climbed it and lowered a rope to Norgay. That wall would later become known as the Hillary Step.
With that final obstacle out of the way, the two men ascended to the top of Everest together. Neither of them would ever say who reached the top first. It was a group effort all the way and they shared in the glory of becoming the first men to summit the mountain. Hillary and Norgay would remain friends until the Sherpa passed away in 1986, sharing a bond that would forever link them in mountaineering history.
Upon returning from the summit, the triumphant climbers were met by George Lowe, who was moving up to lend assistance as needed. When Hillary saw his friend he greeted him by saying: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” Those words would live in Everest lore alongside George Mallory’s famous “Because it’s there” quote.
Hillary would go on to lead a life of high adventure. He continued climbing in the Himalaya of course and he also visited the South Pole as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1958. He even led an expedition by jet boat up the Ganges River in 1977, going in search of its source.
Back home in New Zealand, he was a national hero, having been knighted by the Queen for his efforts. He even adorning the $5 bill there, an honor reserved for very few. But he also felt a strong kinship to the people of Nepal and he spent a lot of time in that country over the years. His generous charity work has left a lasting legacy with the people of that country, helping to build hospitals and schools with the help of his Himalayan Trust.
Sir Edmund Hillary passed away on January 11, 2008.
Norgay also continued climbing after finding success on Everest. He became the first Director of Field Training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and continued to lead expeditions throughout the region. He was the Sirdar, or lead guide, of the first tourist expedition to Bhutan when that country first began opening to the public in 1975. He too remains a legendary mountain figure in his home country, where the airfield in Lukla, the starting point of the trek to Everest, has been renamed Tenzing-Hillary Airport in honor of the two men.
If you’re an Everest fan, take a little time today to reflect on the achievements of Hillary and Norgay. The two men that showed the rest of us the way and did so with class and honor.
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