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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"

So it was an emblematically powerful expedition that the RGS sponsored this time. It had a strong military element—most of its climbers had served in the armed forces. Most had been to one of the well-known English private schools; several were at Oxford or Cambridge. Two were citizens of that most loyally British of the British dominions, New Zealand. One was from Nepal, and therefore seemed a sort of honorary Briton. Nearly all of them had previous Himalayan experience, and professionally they included a doctor, a physicist, a physiologist, a photographer, a beekeeper, an oil company executive, a brain surgeon, an agricultural statistician and a schoolmaster-poet—a poetic presence was essential to the traditional ethos of British mountain climbing. Astalwart and practiced company of Sherpa mountain porters, many of them veterans of previous British climbing parties, was recruited in Nepal. The expedition was, in short, an imperial paradigm in itself, and to complete it a reporter from the LondonTimes, in those days almost the official organ of Britishness in its loftiest measures, was invited to join the expedition and chronicle its progress.

 

The leader of this neo-imperial enterprise was Col. John Hunt, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, a distinguished mountaineer, one of Montgomery’s staff officers in World War II, and an old India hand. The reporter from The Times was me.

 

Three men, in the end, came to dominate the exploit. Hunt himself was the very incarnation of a leader, wiry, grizzled, often wry and utterly dedicated. Whatever he was asked to do, it seemed to me, he would do it with earnest and unquenchable zeal, and more than anyone else he saw this particular task as something much grander than a sporting event. As something of a visionary, even a mystic, he saw it as expressing a yearning for higher values, nobler summits altogether. He might have agreed with an earlier patron of Everest expeditions, Francis Younghusband of the RGS, who considered them pilgrimages—“towards utter holiness, towards the most complete truth.” Certainly when Hunt came to write a book about the adventure, he declined to talk about a conquest of the mountain, and simply called it The Ascent of Everest.

 

The second of the triumvirate was Tenzing Norgay, the charismatic leader of the Sherpas with the expedition, and a famously formidable climber—he had climbed high on the northern flank of Everest in 1938, on the southern flank in 1952, and knew the mountain as well as anyone. Tenzing could not at that time read or write, but his personality was wonderfully polished. As elegant of manner as of bearing, there was something princely to him. He had never set foot in Europe or America then, but in London later that year I was not at all surprised to hear a worldly man-about-town, eyeing Tenzing across a banquet table, say how good it was to see that “Mr. Tenzing knew a decent claret when he had one.” When the time came for Hunt to select the final assault parties, the pairs of climbers who would make or break the expedition, he chose Sherpa Tenzing for one of them partly, I am sure, for postimperial political reasons, but chiefly because he was, as anyone could see, the right man for the job.

 

His companion to the summit was one of the New Zealanders, emphasizing that this was a British expedition in the most pragmatic sense—for in those days New Zealanders, like Australians and even most Canadians, thought themselves as British as the islanders themselves. Edmund Hillary the beekeeper was a big, burly, merry, down-to-earth fellow who had learned to climb in his own New Zealand Alps but had climbed in Europe and in the Himalayas too. He was an obvious winner—not reserved and analytical like Hunt, not aristocratically balanced like Tenzing, but your proper good-humored, impeturb-able colonial boy. There was nobody, I used to think, that I would rather have on my side in the battle of life, let alone on a climb up a mountain.

 

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