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"

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Fifty years ago, on May 29, 1953, two men stood on the summit of Mount Everest, Chomo-lungma (Goddess Mother) to its own people. At 29,035 feet it is the highest spot on earth, and nobody had ever been up there before. Above it there was only space.


Not many modern adventures, at least of the physical, peaceable kind, ever achieve the status of allegory. It was easier in the old days. Nobody would deny profounder resonances to the journeys that first demonstrated the shapes of continents, joined old worlds with new and were immortalized not merely in history, but in art. In our own time, though, perhaps only two such exploits have been so charged with meaning that they have become in some sense transcendental. One was, of course, that ultimate feat of exploration, that giant step for all mankind, the arrival of Apollo 11 upon the moon. The other was the first ascent of Mount Everest.


You may think this a rather presumptuous claim. The moon was unique, Everest only one of a hundred great mountains. It may suggest to you the definition of allegory offered by Robert Musil, the Austrian novelist: something supposed to mean more than it has any right to mean. Everest was the final terrestrial objective. Expeditions had been trying to climb it for 30 years and more. Still, it was only a slab of rock, and even one of its unsuccessful challengers was able to console himself with the thought that getting to the top of it would have been “perfectly useless to everybody, including the person who did it.”


Perfectly useless! So it was. The first ascent of Mount Everest contributed nothing new to our knowledge of the world, let alone the universe. Yet the moment the news of the ascent reached the world at large it entered the realm of allegory. To this day people of a certain age remember that moment rather as they remember, say, the death of John F. Kennedy—meaning something more than it had any right to mean, more than just an event, but the reflection of a time.


It was allegorical in many senses. The mountain stood on one of the earth’s frontiers, where the Himalayan range separates the Tibetan plateau from the vast Indian plains below. The adventure was symbolically a last earthly adventure, before humanity’s explorers went off into space. The expedition that first climbed Everest was British, and a final flourish of the British Empire, which had for so long been the world’s paramount power. And as it happened, the news of its success reached London, the capital of that empire, on the very morning a new British queen, Elizabeth II, was being crowned in Westminster Abbey. Almost everything meant more than it had a right to mean, on Everest in 1953.



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus