Mount Everest, Hillary, Tenzing and others

Tenzing on the summit of Mount Everest

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Mysteries of the men who scaled the highest peak

Tuesday 28 May 2013

In 1953, when news could be managed better than it is today, on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation the nation heard that Everest, the world’s highest mountain, had been climbed.

New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had stood on the 29,000-foot high summit of Mount Everest, now also known by its Tibetan name Qomolongma.

It was typical of the many previous examples of empire expeditions.

The white man takes the credit and the local folk are there to do the heavy work and carry the bags.

Tenzing Norgay didn’t know his own birthday. Following his famous climb he celebrated his birthday on May 29, the day he had reached the summit.

He was born Namgyal Wangdi and changed his name on the advice of a local holy man. He was one of the most experienced Nepalese Indian Sherpa mountaineers, having taken part in previous Everest and other Himalayan expeditions.

Edmund Hillary was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and started climbing at 16. While at university he made his first major climbs, reaching the summit of Mount Ollivier in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

He became a bee farmer, a mainly summer occupation that allowed him to go climbing in the winter.

He first visited Everest in 1951 on a reconnaissance expedition and in 1953 joined the British expedition. There has been some speculation that the expedition had a second purpose, to spy on suspected secret Chinese rocket bases beyond the mountain.

Hillary and Tenzing’s successful climb was the second attempt on the summit from the South Col base camp, 25,900 feet up. They climbed all day and pitched their tent for the night.

In the morning Hillary found his boots had frozen solid. It took two hours to thaw them out before they could start the final climb. They reached the summit at 11.30am on May 29 1953.

Hillary photographed Tenzing but in what must be the world’s worst missed photo opportunity he had no pictures taken of himself at the summit.

There has always been some controversy as to which of them actually reached the summit first. Tenzing gave Hillary the credit. Hillary said they did it together.

The descent was difficult as fresh snow had covered their tracks. Above the base camp a fellow expedition member, George Lowe, greeted them with hot soup. Hillary declared: “Well George, we finally knocked the bastard off.”

Sir Edmund never lost his love of adventure, participating in other expeditions including one to the South Pole. Directly after the Everest climb he led a expedition to find the yeti.

To his credit all his life he campaigned to improve the life of those in Nepal who lived in the shadow of Everest. He was honoured for this work by the Kathmandu government.

Tenzing Norgay went back to carrying white mountaineers’ bags up the mountain.

Were Hillary and Tenzing really the first?

An increasing number of historians of mountaineering suspect a British climber called George Leigh Mallory actually reached the summit as early in 1924.

On June 6 1924 George Mallory and his companion Andrew “Sandy” Irvine left their tented base camp to make an attempt on the summit. They were never seen alive again.

In 1960 a Chinese expedition found Irvine’s body at a much higher elevation than anyone had expected.

It wasn’t until 1999 that a US group found the body of Mallory, just 600 yards from the summit with a broken rope fixed to his harness. But was he going up or coming down?

He had carried a picture of his wife in his wallet. He had told her he would leave it on the summit as a tribute to her. The picture had gone from his wallet.

It is hard to imagine mountaineering in the 1920s. Little specialist equipment existed. Mallory wore silk underwear and woollen tweeds from Burberrys. His boots were leather with iron nails for grip.

He did have the first primitive oxygen equipment and he borrowed a Kodak camera just before setting out for the summit.

The search goes on for that borrowed camera. Even after more than 80 years, the freezing conditions at the top of Everest would mean the film would still be able to give up its secret.

Is there a picture of Mallory on the highest spot on Earth 30 years before Hillary and Tenzing?

7 thoughts on “Mount Everest, Hillary, Tenzing and others

  1. Yet who was the first one to set foot on the summit? To judge by a banner erected shortly after in Kathmandu, in which a semi-conscious Hillary is dragged to the summit by Tenzing, it would appear to have been a matter of some debate and no small amount of international pride. Meanwhile, back in Britain, it was unthinkable that news could break – on Coronation Day – that Hillary had climbed Everest, but had been pipped to the post by a local.


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