Conquering Everest | History | Smithsonian
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New Zealander Rob Hall, at the 28,000-foot mark of Everest's Southeast Ridge in 1994, led Jon Krakauer's team up in 1996. A storm claimed the lives of eight climbers, including Hall's, on that widely publicized expedition (David Keaton/CORBIS)

Conquering Everest

A history of climbing the world's tallest mountain

smithsonian.com

On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary, a 33-year-old beekeeper from New Zealand and his Nepalese-born guide Tenzing Norgay, stood at the top of Everest for the first time in history. The pair hugged, snapped some evidentiary photographs and buried offerings in the snow. They also surveyed the area for signs of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, two climbers who disappeared in 1924. When met by climbing colleague George Lowe on the descent to camp, Hillary brashly reported the achievement: "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off."

Conquering the 29,035-foot monolith ultimately earned Hillary a knighthood and Tenzing Britain's esteemed George Medal for courage. Hillary later wrote: "When we climbed Everest in 1953 I really believed that the story had finished." Indeed, he and Tenzig never relived the expedition in conversations with one another and neither attempted the climb again.

Of course, that's not to say others haven't. In the wake of Sir Edmund Hillary's death at the age of 88 on January 11, 2008, we're reminded of the frontier he and Tenzing opened and of the 3,500-plus climbers who have since staked their claim in the world's tallest mountain.

One such climber is Everest guide Dave Hahn of Taos, New Mexico. The 46-year-old has made his name in Everest history by summiting nine times, a record among Westerners that he shares with one other climber. (He humbly admits that nine pales in comparison to Apa Sherpa's world record 17 ascents.) He also guided a 2006 expedition in which world champion freeskier Kit DesLauriers become the first to ski down all 'Seven Summits'.

The highlight of Hahn's career came in 1999 when his American expedition located George Mallory's body. He captured the moment the team turned over a clothing tag labeled "G. Mallory" on film, describing the experience as "a moment few can compare to." On climbing Everest, Hahn says: "It's about getting a closer look at or appreciating what others have done – about experiencing the history."

Pioneering Climbs
Mount Everest made its cartographic debut as the world's highest mountain in 1856, and British army officers began discussing the possibility of climbing it in the 1890s. The Royal Geographic Society and Alpine Club carried out the first expedition in 1921. Six more unsuccessful British attempts up the northern route followed, with climbers Mallory and Irvine thought to have reached just shy of the summit. World War II put a halt to the attempts and when China usurped Tibet in 1950, the northern approach became off limits.

The British received permission from Nepal to explore the southern route in a 1951 expedition that served as Edmund Hillary's introduction to the region. A year later, Tenzing Norgay, then one of the most experienced Sherpas, made an attempt with the Swiss. Hillary and Tenzing joined forces when they were both recruited for a Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club-sponsored expedition. The two eyed each other for a summit bid and nailed the historic first ascent.

One of the photographs Hillary took at the summit in May 1953 was of Tenzing waving his ice pick attached with the flags of the United Nations, Britain, India and Nepal. The gesture set the bar for other countries. Swiss, Chinese, American and Indian teams summited in 1956, 1960, 1963 and 1965, respectively.

The next challenge was forging new routes. All but the Chinese, who ascended the northern route, had stuck largely to the British route up the Southeast Ridge. But between the 1960s and 1980s, Everest's formidable West Ridge, Southwest Face and East Face were tackled.

Others continued to expand the definition of what was possible on Everest. Japanese climber Tabei Junko became the first woman to climb Everest in May 1975, backed by an all-female (besides the sherpas) expedition.

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