Finally, the Top of the World
A witness to the first ascent of Mount Everest recalls Edmund Hillary’s aplomb, Tenzing Norgay’s grace and other glories of the “last earthly adventure”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was not, however, an amateur at my trade. Just as the physiologist had been busy all those months recording people’s metabolisms, and the poet had been writing lyrics, and the cameraman had been taking pictures, so I had been active sending dispatches home to The Times. They went via a cable station in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. There was no road to Kathmandu from the mountain. We had no long-distance radio transmitters, and certainly no satellite telephones, so they went by the hands of Sherpa runners—perhaps the very last time news dispatches were transmitted by runner.
It was 180 miles from the mountain to the capital, and the faster my men ran it, the more I paid them. The journey was very hard. The best of them did it in five days—36 miles a day in the heat of summer, including the crossing of three mountain ranges more than 9,000 feet high. They very nearly broke the bank.
I kept a steady stream of dispatches going, and I was not at all surprised to find that they were often intercepted by rival papers and news organizations. I did not much care, because they generally dealt more in description or surmise than in hard fact, and were couched anyway in a fancy prose that no tabloid would touch; but I did worry about the security of the final, all-important message, the one that would report (or so we hoped) that the mountain had actually been climbed. This I would most decidedly prefer to get home without interference.
Fortunately, I had discovered that some 30 miles from our base camp, at the foot of the mountain, the Indian Army, keeping a watch on traffic out of Tibet, had established a radio post in touch with Kathmandu. I arranged with its soldiers that they would, if the need arose, send for me a brief message reporting some important stage in the adventure. I resolved to keep this resource in reserve for my final message. I could not, however, afford to let the Indians know what such a message contained—it would be a secret hard to keep, and they were only human—so I planned to present it to them in a simple code that appeared not to be in code at all. A key to this deceitful cipher I had sent home to The Times.
The time to use it came at the end of May, and with it my own chance to contribute to the meanings of Everest, 1953. On May 30 I had climbed up to Camp 4, at 22,000 feet in the snow-ravine of the Western Cwm, a valley at the head of a glacier that spills out of the mountain in a horrible morass of iceblocks and crevasses called the Khumbu Icefall. Most of the expedition was assembled there, and we were awaiting the return of Hillary and Tenzing from their assault upon the summit. Nobody knew whether they had made it or not.
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.
Fifty years on it is hard to imagine what a golden moment that was. That the young British queen, at the very start of her reign, should be presented with such a gift—a British expedition reaching the top of the world at last—seemed then almost magical, and a generous world loved it. The news ran around the globe like a testament of delight, and was welcomed as a coronation gift to all mankind. It was nothing like so momentous an achievement as that giant moon-step the Americans were presently going to take, but it was altogether simple, apolitical, untechnological, an exploit still on a human scale, and wholly good.
Oh, the world has changed since then! Coronations and empires have lost their last allure, and mankind is not often drawn together in such guileless rejoicing. I remember, during an Everest lecture tour in the United States later in 1953, desperately trying to find a taxi in New York City to take Hillary and the rest of us from the Waldorf-Astoria to some celebratory banquet or other. We were late—we were always late, being young and exuberant—but I went to the head of the taxi line on Park Avenue and explained the situation to the elderly American at the head of the queue—Edmund Hillary—frightfully late—important function—awful cheek of me—but might he possibly consider letting us go first? His face lit up, and he made a courtly half-bow. “For Hillary of Everest,” he said, “it would be a pleasure and a privilege.”
For me the whole adventure was a pleasure and a privilege, and it has never been tarnished in my memory. Some of the climbers went on to be famous, some died young on other mountains, some returned from the limelight to their diligent professional lives. Tenzing was the first of the expedition’s stars to die, age 72 in 1986. The British government had honored him, as a foreign citizen, with the George Medal; but it probably did not mean much to him, because anyway he had long been one of the most famous men on the face of the earth. Hunt died in 1998, age 88, by which time he was a peer of the realm—Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine, a Knight of the Garter and one of the worthiest of all the British kingdom’s worthies. Ed Hillary lives grandly on, surviving innumerable perilous adventures to become Sir Edmund Hillary, Knight of the Garter and New Zealand’s ambassador to India from 1984 to 1989, and to devote his later years to the welfare of his comrades of the Himalayas, the Sherpas.
Whenever I met those climbers again at Everest reunions, every few years, they seemed to me much as they always had been: getting older and grayer, of course, but lean and wiry still, as climbers must be, and essentially a very decent lot of gentlemen. Would they ever ask for more? And could one want more of allegory—a very decent lot of gentlemen, reaching the top of the world?
Where will “Sir Ed” celebrate the ascent’s big anniversary? Not at the queen’s London gala. Hint: For decades he has aided the Sherpas.
They call him Burra Sahib—big in stature, big in heart—and they have it just right. Yes, he has had lucrative endorsement gigs with Sears, Rolex and now Toyota (and has led expeditions to the South Pole and the source of the Ganges). But 6-foot-2 Edmund Hillary has mostly devoted himself to the Sherpas, a Tibetan word for the roughly 120,000 indigenous people of mountainous eastern Nepal and Sikkim, India, since he and Tenzing Norgay, the most famous Sherpa of all, summated Mount Everest 50 years ago. “I’ve reveled in great adventures,” Sir Edmund, 83, says from his home in Auckland, New Zealand, “but the projects with my friends in the Himalayas have been the most worthwhile, the ones I’ll always remember.”
Hillary and the Himalayan Trust, which he founded in 1961, have helped the Sherpas build 26 schools, two hospitals, a dozen clinics, as well as water systems and bridges. He also helped Nepal establish SagarmathaNational Park to protect the very wilderness that his ascent has turned into the ultimate trekking and climbing destination, attracting 30,000 people a year.
His love of the area is tinged with sadness. In 1975, Hillary’s wife and youngest daughter were killed in a plane crash while flying to one of the hospitals. “The only way I could really have any ease of mind,” he now recalls, “was to go ahead with the projects that I’d been doing with them.” (A grown son and daughter survive; he remarried in 1989.)
History’s most acclaimed living mountaineer grew up in rural New Zealand too “weedy,” he says, for sports. But heavy labor in the family beekeeping business after high school bulked him up for his new passion—climbing. Impressive ascents in New Zealand and the Himalayas earned him a spot on the 1953 Everest expedition. Hillary was knighted in 1953, and he graces New Zealand’s $5 note and the stamps of several nations. Yet he works hard to debunk his heroic image. “I’m just an average bloke,” he says, albeit with “a lot of determination.”
It’s of a piece with Hillary’s modesty that he would rather talk about his partner Tenzing, a former yak herder who died 17 years ago. “At first he could not read or write, but he dictated several books and became a world ambassador for his people.” What Hillary admires about the Sherpas, he adds, is their “hardiness, cheerfulness and freedom from our civilized curse of self-pity.”
To hear him tell it, climbers are ruining Everest. Since 1953, 10,000 have attempted ascents: nearly 2,000 have succeeded and nearly 200 have died. Hillary concedes that Nepal, a very poor country, benefits from the permit fees—$70,000 per expedition—that climbers pay the government. Still, he has lobbied officials to limit the traffic. “There are far too many expeditions,” he says. “The mountain is covered with 60 to 70 aluminum ladders, thousands of feet of fixed rope and footprints virtually all the way up.”
Hillary plans to celebrate the golden anniversary of the first ascent in Kathmandu, he says, with “the most warmhearted people I know.”