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

(Continued from page 5)

As we waited chatting in the snowy sunshine outside the tents, conversation turned to the forthcoming coronation of the young queen, to happen on June 2—three days’ time; and when Hillary and Tenzing strode down the Cwm, and gave us the thrilling news of their success, I realized that my own moment of allegory had arrived. If I could rush down the mountain that same afternoon, and get a message to the Indian radio station, good God, with any luck my news might get to London in time to coincide with that grand moment of national hope, the coronation—the image of the dying empire, as it were, merging romantically into the image of a New Elizabethan Age!


And so it happened. I did rush down the mountain to base camp, at 18,000 feet, where my Sherpa runners were waiting. I was tired already, having climbed up to the Cwm only that morning, but Mike Westmacott (the agricultural statistician) volunteered to come with me, and down we went into the gathering dusk—through that ghastly icefall, with me slithering about all over the place, losing my ice ax, slipping out of my crampons, repeatedly falling over and banging my big toe so hard on an immovable ice block that from that day to this its toenail has come off every five years.


It was perfectly dark when we reached our tents, but before we collapsed into our sleeping bags I banged out a brief message on my typewriter for a Sherpa to take down to the Indian radio station first thing next morning. It was in my skulldug code, and this is what it said: SNOWCON DITION BAD . . . ABANDONED ADVANCE BASE . . . AWAITING IMPROVEMENT. It meant, as the Indian radiomen would not know, nor anyone else who might intercept the message on its tortuous way back to London, that Everest had been climbed on May 29 by Hillary and Ten-zing. I read it over a dozen times, to save myself from humiliation, and decided in view of the circumstances to add a final two words that were not in code: ALLWELL, I wrote, and went to bed.


It went off at the crack of dawn, and when my runner was disappearing down the glacier with it I packed up my things, assembled my little team of Sherpas and left the mountain myself. I had no idea if the Indians had got my message, had accepted it at face value and sent it off to Kathmandu. There was nothing I could do, except to hasten back to Kathmandu myself before any rivals learned of the expedition’s success and beat me with my own story.


But two nights later I slept beside a river somewhere in the foothills, and in the morning I switched on my radio receiver to hear the news from the BBC in London. It was the very day of the coronation, but the bulletin began with the news that Everest had been climbed. The queen had been told on the eve of her crowning. The crowds waiting in the streets for her procession to pass had cheered and clapped to hear it. And the news had been sent, said that delightful man on the radio, in an exclusive dispatch to The Times of London.



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus