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Finally, the Top of the World

A witness to the first ascent of Mount Everest 50 years ago this month recalls Edmund Hillary's aplomb, Tenzing Norgay's grace and other glories of the "last earthly adventure"

It did not always seem so at the time. When those two men came down from the mountaintop, all one of them said was: “Well, we’ve knocked the bastard off.”

 

Many hundreds of people from all parts of the world have climbed to Everest’s summit by now, and hundreds of thousands have trekked through its foothills, but in 1953 the region was still almost unknown to foreigners. No tourists and very few adventurers had ever been there. The mountain was bang on the line between Tibet and Nepal, two of the world’s most shuttered states, but during the 19th century the British, then the rulers of India, had regarded them as more or less buffer states of their own empire, and had seldom encouraged exploration. Everest had first been identified and measured from a distance, when a surveyor working far away in Dehra Dun, in the Indian foothills, had realized it to be the highest of all mountains, and in 1856 it had been named after Sir George Everest, former surveyorgeneral of British India. It was known to be holy to the people living around it, it looked celestial from afar, and so it became an object of tantalizing mystery, an ultimate geographical presence.

 

Nobody tried to climb it—certainly not the Sherpa people who lived at its foot—until 1921, when a first British expedition was allowed to have a go. Between the two world wars five other British attempts were made. All went to Everest via Tibet, attacking the northern side of the mountain, but after World War II, Tibet was closed to foreigners, and for the first time climbers approached the mountain from the south, in Nepal. By then the British Raj had abdicated, and in 1952 a Swiss expedition was the first to make a full-scale attempt from the Nepali side. It failed (but only just). So there arose, in the following year, a last chance for the British, as their empire lost its vigor, its power and its purpose, to be the first on top.

 

The empire was fading not in despair, but in regret and impoverishment. The British no longer wished to rule the world, but they were understandably sad to see their national glory diminished. They hoped that by one means or another their influence among the nations might survive—by the “special relationship” with the United States, by the genial but somewhat flaccid device of the Commonwealth, or simply by means of the prestige they had accumulated in war as in peace during their generations of supremacy. When in 1952 the ailing King George VI died, they pinned their hopes of revived fortunes upon his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, who would accede to the throne in June of the following year. All was not lost! It might be the start, trumpeted the tabloids, of a New Elizabethan Age to restore the dashing splendors of Drake, Raleigh and the legendary British sea dogs.

 

With this fancy at least in the backs of their minds, the elders of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London, who had organized all the previous British expeditions to Everest, made their plans for a final grand-slam assault upon the mountain. The British had long thought that if it was not exactly their right to be the first on the top of the world, it was in a way their duty. Everest wasn’t in the British Empire, but it had been within a British sphere of influence, as the imperialists liked to say, and so they considered it a quasi-imperial peak. As early as 1905, Lord Curzon, the inimitably imperial viceroy of India, had declared it “a reproach” that the British had made no attempt to reach that summit of summits; nearly half a century later the British public at large would have been ashamed if some damned foreigners had beaten them to it.

 

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