Sir Edmund Hillary Leads the First Team to Reach the Summit of Mt. Everest

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Sir Edmund Hillary Leads the First Team to Reach the Summit of Mt. Everest


In 1953 Edmund Hillary (1919- ) of Britain and Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986) of Nepal became the first individuals known to have reached the highest point on Earth, the summit of Mount Everest. Since that time, reaching Mount Everest's summit has become a matter of pride, both national and individual, and has led to a variety of expeditions sponsored by nations and private organizations and has even resulted in guided tours. This situation, in turn, has produced a steadily mounting death toll, culminating in the disastrous 1996 climbing season, in which eight climbers, many of them with paid guides, died during a single storm.


In 1852 a worker with the British Governmental Survey of India was calculating the heights of a number of mountains in the Himalayas based on information gathered over the past few years. According to the story, he completed his calculations and, paper in hand, went to his supervisor to announce that he had just located the highest mountain in the world. Named Chomolunga (Goddess Mother of the World) by the local Sherpas, Peak XV (as it appeared on the British maps) was renamed Mount Everest in honor of Sir George Everest, the Indian Surveyor General from 1830 through 1843.

The first serious attempts to climb Mount Everest began in the 1920s, when Tibet opened its borders to outsiders and gave access to the mountain. In 1924 climbers George Mallory (1886-1924) and Andrew Irvine disappeared during an attempt on the summit. Although Mallory's body was found in 1999, his camera was not located, so whether they reached the summit is not known. As Edmund Hillary, however, pointed out when asked about the possibility he was not the first to reach Everest's summit, "The point of climbing Everest should not be just to reach the summit. I'm rather inclined to think that maybe it's quite important, the getting down."

At least thirteen climbers perished attempting to climb Everest before Hillary and Norgay succeeded. The early climbers set out with (by current standards) woefully inadequate clothing, equipment, and preparation. Mallory and Irvine decided to climb with oxygen during their fatal climb in 1924 but had no synthetic fibers to keep them warm, no modern climbing gear, and little in the way of training to climb in the extreme conditions that prevail in the Himalayas. Others were little better prepared.

Hillary succeeded because, unlike most of his predecessors, he attacked the mountain as a logistical challenge as well as a problem in climbing and endurance. Hundreds of support personnel, most of them Sherpas, carried tons of supplies to establish a base camp and seven subsequent camps progressively up the mountain. Hillary and Norgay set out from the highest of these camps to reach the summit on their historic climb. With few exceptions, all subsequent expeditions have used a similar strategy: take plenty of supplies and establish several camps at successively higher elevations. The most notable exception to this approach was the solo, single-day climb by the Italian Reinhold Messner (1944- ) on August 20, 1980. Other exceptions include the elimination of some of Hillary's camps (most expeditions now use four camps plus the base camp) and the approximately 60 climbers who have reached the summit without the use of supplemental oxygen (at an altitude that commercial airliners frequent).


The most immediate impact of Hillary and Norgay's ascent was the knowledge that yet another extreme part of our planet had been conquered; human feet had trod yet another place. Everest was called the "third pole" and was perhaps even more difficult to reach than the North or South Poles. Its status as the highest point on Earth gave a certain amount of prestige to the climbers and their countries. Edmund Hillary was knighted and immediately became both national hero and international celebrity while Tenzing Norgay achieved similar acclaim among the Sherpas.

The conquest of Everest was perhaps among the first enterprises that depended as much on technology as on human perseverance and courage because without oxygen and modern equipment and clothing, Hillary and Norgay's expedition would likely have failed. From this perspective, the large number of subsequent "firsts" that have relied heavily on technology are interesting to note, perhaps because humans have reached the limits of what can be done without technology. For example, oxygen levels at Everest's peak are so low that they will not sustain life for longer than a few days, and even that duration is impossible without extensive preparation and conditioning. Other environments require even more sophisticated equipment: space suits for lunar landings, bathyscaphes for deep-ocean exploration, pressure suits and aircraft for altitude records, and so forth. Everest may well represent the limit of what humans can do without near-total reliance on technology. Or, as Peter Lloyd put it in 1984, "Were it 1000 feet lower it would have been climbed in 1924. Were it 1000 feet higher it would have been an engineering problem."

Between 1922 and 1953, 13 people died attempting to climb Everest. Between the first successful ascent and 1996, a total of 167 successful expeditions had placed 676 climbers atop Everest and, between 1922 and 1996, 148 people died on the mountain. Technology, experience, and repetition are obviously making Everest easier to climb, something being done with increasing regularity. This fact is also making death on Everest a more common event. Climbers also talk about the "world's highest garbage dump," where hundreds of abandoned and exhausted oxygen bottles lie, littering the slopes. They also talk matter-of-factly about climbing past the corpses of previous climbers who died attempting the summit. At high altitude with tight climbing schedules there is no time for adventurers to recover either bottles or bodies to return them to the bottom of the mountain.

As noted above, many of these factors have combined to make Mount Everest the world's most inaccessible tourist attraction. With the exceptions of the Kumbu Icefall and the Hillary Step, most of the climb is described as not being technically challenging, just terribly difficult because of the altitude, cold, and winds. These conditions have led to the growth of a small industry in which paying customers are guided to the summit. This option is still limited, of course, to those who are in adequate physical shape and who can pay tens of thousands of dollars for the trip, but the fact remains that you can reach the summit of Mount Everest by paying a guide to take you there. This development, in turn, has led to an increase in both the number of people reaching the summit of Everest and in the numbers of deaths on Everest's slopes. Between 1953 and 1973, a total of 38 people reached Everest's summit and 28 died trying to do so. Between 1973 and 1996, a further 638 people reached the summit and there were an additional 120 deaths. In 1985, however, the first amateur climber made the first commercial ascent and, since that date, more than 600 people have reached the summit while more than 75 have died trying to do so.

The statistics mentioned above are not meant to be a simple recitation of success and death. Rather, they demonstrate convincingly that Mount Everest, even nearly 50 years after it was first climbed, continues to compel people to climb it, even in the face of steadily mounting death tolls. In fact, the ability of inexperienced but driven people to sign up on expeditions has led to an explosion in deaths as well as successful climbs.

Lastly, it must be noted that Everest's pull on the imagination has been subject to politics. Serious attempts to climb Everest were impossible until Tibet opened its borders, because many of the best routes to reach the mountain went through there. Later, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, these routes (and climbing routes from the north) were again closed to any who lacked permission from the Chinese government. The Tibetan routes have again been opened but only to those able to pay a hefty climbing fee, and climbers taking the favored Nepalese route must also pay a substantial fee for the privilege. These fees are in the vicinity of $10,000 per person to climb from the Nepalese side of Everest, with similar fees to climb from the Tibetan side. Add to this cost the supplies that must be purchased and the substantial numbers of Sherpas who are hired for these expeditions and the economic impact of Everest expeditions to the local governments becomes substantial. In fact, in 1996 nearly 200 climbers paid to attempt an Everest ascent.

People have been drawn to extremes for all of recorded history. Whether evidenced as exploring space, traveling to the South Pole, or climbing the world's highest peak, many are compelled to seek novelty continually. This urge often becomes a compulsion, which led Jon Krakauer to note "... attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument." Identifying Mount Everest as the highest point on Earth guaranteed that many would try to climb it and that someone would succeed. And, the feat once accomplished, more knew it was possible and this knowledge led them to try.


Further Reading

Coburn, Broughton. Everest, Mountain without Mercy. Washington, DC: National Geographic Books, 1997.

Dyhrenfurth, G.O.To the Third Pole: The History of theHigh Himalaya. London: W. Laurie, 1955.

Hornbein, Thomas. Everest: The West Ridge. Seattle, WA:The Mountaineers, 1980.

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. New York: Villard Books,1997.

Unsworth, Walt. Everest, a Mountaineering History. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers, 1981.

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Sir Edmund Hillary Leads the First Team to Reach the Summit of Mt. Everest

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