This Week in History: May 29, 1953

Mount Everest

Hillary and Tenzing Reach Summit of Mount Everest

On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 29,035 feet. Climbing with bottled oxygen, the two reached the summit as members of a British expedition led by Colonel John Hunt. Hillary and Tenzing returned from that expedition to worldwide acclaim and became celebrities in their respective countries. The summit photo of Tenzing, posed with his ice axe raised in triumph, documented an event that represented a triumph of the human spirit of exploration.

By the time of the historic climb, both the North and South Poles already had been reached; many considered Mount Everest the “third pole” because its summit marked the next remote geographic location yet to be reached through human endurance and ingenuity. British expeditions in the early 1920’s, while reaching high points on the mountain, had failed to put a climber on the summit. Tragically, Britons George Mallory (thirty-seven years old) and Sandy Irvine (twenty-two years old) had disappeared on their summit bid in 1924. Later expeditions in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and early 1950’s likewise failed. A French expedition had climbed Annapurna (26,493 feet) in 1950, but Everest remained elusive. The Swiss had nearly succeeded on Everest in 1952, with Raymond Lambert and Tenzing reaching a high point of 28,215 feet. Thus, the stage was set for the British expedition to the mountain in 1953.

In addition to team leader Hunt, the 1953 British expedition included Charles Evans , Alfred Gregory, Tom Bourdillon , Michael Ward, and two New Zealanders, George Lowe and Hillary. Tenzing served as leader of the Sherpas. The proposed route, on the south (Nepal) side of Mount Everest, wound its way up through the dangerous Khumbu Ice Fall, the Lhotse face to the South Col, the Southeast Ridge to the South Summit, and across a narrow ridge to the actual summit at 29,035 feet. As in a military campaign, the party “laid siege” to the mountain, meaning that they climbed up and down several times to establish a series of stocked camps at higher and higher elevations along the route. Working their way up and down to establish and stock these camps also helped the climbers acclimatize to the ever-thinning air. Bottled oxygen was used after Camp V. From this spot, two summit teams would try to reach the top. Bourdillon and Evans were set to work their way up to the South Summit and on to the actual summit if feasible. They got as high as the South Summit before turning back.

The two climbers came to a rather daunting obstacle—a 40-foot-high rock step. While a surmountable obstacle at sea level, at extreme high altitude the task was much more of a challenge. With Tenzing belaying him (tethering him with a rope for safety), Hillary worked his way up by utilizing a crack in the rock. After a determined effort, Hillary hoisted himself over the top and then helped Tenzing up the rock step. (This location is now known as the Hillary Step .) After catching their breath, they made their way across a narrow, exposed ridge and finally reached the summit at 11:30 a.m. Tenzing posed for summit photos holding up his ice axe, which displayed British, Nepalese, Indian, and United Nations flags. There was no sign that climbers George Mallory or Sandy Irvine (who were last seen heading toward the summit in 1924) had been there before them.

Carney, Russell N. (2008). Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest. In R. Gorman (Ed.), Great Events from History: The Twentieth Century, 1941-1970. Hackensack: Salem. Retrieved from https://online.salempress.com

To learn more about the physiology of climbing Mount Everest…

 

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