Mount Everest Day – May 29, 1953 – 70th Anniversary

The New Zealander Edmund Hillary, and the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, have become the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest on the Nepal-Tibet border. They reached the top of the world at 1130 local time after a gruelling climb up the southern face.

The two men hugged each other with relief and joy but only stayed on the summit for 15 minutes because they were low on oxygen. Mr Hillary took several photographs of the scenery and of Sherpa Tenzing waving flags representing Britain, Nepal, the United Nations and India.

All hopes rested on Hillary and Tenzing who on 28 May established their high camp at a point 2/3 of the way to the summit from the South Col. The day of their summit attempt, the 29th of May, dawned cloudless and still. By 9am they were on the South Summit examining a final ridge of steep ice interrupted by a 40 foot piece of rock now known as the Hillary Step. They chimneyed up between ice and rock and at 11:30am they were on the summit, the first men to stand on the highest point on the surface of Planet Earth.

So it was that three days later Hillary and Tenzing set out for the top. Their pairing was hardly an accident. “It had always been Hunt’s intention, if feasible, to include a Sherpa in one of the summit teams, as a way of recognizing their invaluable contribution to the success of these expeditions,” Band says. “Tenzing had already proved he had summit potential by his performance the previous year with Lambert.

In fact, he had been at least 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) higher than any of us!” Indeed, Tenzing (who died in 1986) was the most experienced Everest veteran alive, having participated in six previous attempts on the mountain dating all the way back to 1935. (To those who criticize the practice of leading paying clients on Everest, Himalayan Experience founder and longtime Everest guide Russell Brice has a barbed, half-joking response: “You know who the first guided client on Everest was? Ed Hillary.”)

But Hillary, too, had proved his worth, seeming to grow stronger as the expedition progressed. Band notes that Hillary had also realized what a powerful team he and Tenzing would make. “During the expedition, with hindsight, one can see that he made a deliberate effort to develop a good partnership with Tenzing,” Band says. “It paid off. Hillary and Tenzing were the logical second party for the summit. But this was not determined at the outset, only during the course of the expedition as it evolved.”

With an earlier start from a higher camp than Bourdillon and Evans’s, Tenzing and Hillary reached the South Summit by 9 a.m. But the difficulties were far from over. After the South Summit, the ridge takes a slight dip before rising abruptly in a rocky spur some 40 feet (12 meters) high just before the true summit. Scraping at the snow with his ax, Hillary chimneyed between the rock pillar and an adjacent ridge of ice to surmount this daunting obstacle, later to be known as the Hillary Step. The pair reached the highest point on Earth at 11:30 a.m. on May 29.

The men shook hands, as Hillary later wrote, “in good Anglo-Saxon fashion,” but then Tenzing clasped his partner in his arms and pounded him on the back. The pair spent only 15 minutes on top.  “Inevitably my thoughts turned to Mallory and Irvine,” Hillary wrote, referring to the two British climbers who had vanished high on Everest’s Northeast Ridge in 1924. “With little hope I looked around for some sign that they had reached the summit, but could see nothing.”

When we came out toward Kathmandu, there was a very strong political feeling, particularly among the Indian and Nepalese press, who very much wanted to be assured that Tenzing was first,” Sir Edmund recalls today. “That would indicate that Nepalese and Indian climbers were at least as good as foreign climbers. We felt quite uncomfortable with this at the time. John Hunt, Tenzing, and I had a little meeting. We agreed not to tell who stepped on the summit first.

“To a mountaineer, it’s of no great consequence who actually sets foot first. Often the one who puts more into the climb steps back and lets his partner stand on top first.” The pair’s pact stood until years later, when Tenzing revealed in his autobiography, Tiger of the Snows, that Hillary had in fact preceded him.

Neither man anticipated how much, in the wake of their success, the appeal of that patch of snow more than five miles in the sky would grow. “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt,” Sir Edmund admits today. “We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

SOURCE: National Geographic; Everest Trust