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"

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The expedition went like clockwork. It was rather like a military campaign. Hunt took few chances in his organization, and tested everything first. He’d brought two kinds of oxygen equipment to the mountain, for instance, and climbers tried them both. Camps established on the mountain flanks enabled men to haul equipment up in stages, and when they were sick or overtired during those three months on the mountain, they went down to the valleys to rest. Two pairs of climbers made final assaults. The first team, Thomas Bourdillon and Charles Evans, turned back 285 feet from the top. It was late in the day, and the exhausted climbers saw the final approach as too risky. Nobody was killed or injured on the 1953 British Everest Expedition.


Everest was not the most difficult mountain in the world. Many were technically harder to climb. Once more it was a matter of allegory that made its ascent so wonderful an event. It was as though down all the years some ectoplasmic barrier had surrounded its peak, and piercing it had released an indefinable glory. It was Ed Hillary the New Zealander who said they’d knocked the bastard off, but he meant it in no irreverent sense—more in affectionate respect. For myself, cogitating these mysteries in the course of the expedition, and gazing at the spiraling plume of snow that habitually blew like a talisman from Everest’s summit, agnostic though I was I did begin to fancy some supernatural presence up there. It was not the most beautiful of mountains—several of its neighbors were shapelier—but whether in the fact or simply in the mind, it did seem obscurely nobler than any of them.


I doubt if such muzzy notions occur to the multitudinous trekkers who today go to Everest, or the people who climb it on commercially run expeditions. That barrier has long been pierced, that old glory has been expended, and a perennial problem now is the litter that disfigures the slopes of the mountain along with the occasional corpses of its casualties. But in 1953 it was pristine still—the country marvelously unfamiliar, the people delightfully themselves, and our expedition, it seemed to me, entirely amiable. Ours was not only, I thought, the last innocent adventure of the British Empire; it was perhaps the last truly innocent adventure of all.


For in those days, by and large, mountaineering was not half so competitive a sport as it would later become. Nationalism had crept into it, indeed, and nations did rival each other for the prize of this summit or that, as they had once competed for the South Pole or the headwaters of the Nile. But climbing mountains was still by and large an amateur occupation, a grand hobby, still a very English sort of hobby, actually. When, between the wars, a Sherpa porter turned up for an expedition laden with expensive equipment, the Britons of the party nicknamed him pointedly “The Foreign Sportsman.”


Everest 1953, I fear, did much to corrupt all this. Nationalists squabbled with a vengeance for the honors of success on the mountain, and Tenzing in particular was the subject of their rivalries. He was Asian, was he not, so what right had the imperialists to call it a British expedition? Why was it always Hillary and Tenzing, never Tenzing and Hillary? Which of them got to the top first, anyway? All this came as a shock to the climbers, and even more to me. When it came to such matters I was the most amateurish of them all, and it had never occurred to me to ask whether Hillary the Antipodean or Tenzing the Asian had been the first to step upon that summit.



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