Kings of the mountain: conquering Mount Everest
Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Everest in 1953, it has become a trash-ridden tourist trap, but their amazing achievement will never be forgotten.Peter Iantorno March 11, 2015
A fierce gust of wind whips around the impossibly tall mountain, knocking the tall muscular figure of Edmund Hillary off his feet and chilling him to the bone. The summit of Mount Everest is just metres away, but with barely any oxygen in the air and thick snow weighing down heavily on the New Zealander, every step is torture.
Images of the many brave explorers who had fallen on this very mountain before him flash through Hillary's mind as he wonders if he'll be next, but he's driven on by an extraordinary climbing partner - Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay - who knows the mountain terrain like the back of his hand.
After scaling an imposing 12-metre sheer rock face (which would later be known as Hillary Step), Hillary and Tenzing battle through the driving snow and high winds and drag themselves, finally, to the summit of Mount Everest: the whole world now below them, and above, nothing but the infinite skies.
There's no logical reason why anybody should want to climb Everest. At 8,848 metres above sea level (more than 10 times the height of the Burj Khalifa), with high winds, loose snow and ice that could give way at any moment, sending climbers plunging to certain death in the great chasms of rock below, it has to be one of the most inhospitable environments for humans on the planet.
A leisurely stroll up Jebel al Jais, it certainly ain't, but ever since man looked up to the heavens and saw a mountain puncturing the clouds, the desire to conquer that mountain has been one so strong that it has pushed the bravest explorers to their limits, and driven many people to their deaths.
The first recorded Everest expedition was in 1921 - more than 30 years before Hillary became the first man to reach the mountain's peak. Colonel Charles Howard-Bury and mountaineer Harold Raeburn led a team, which reached just over 7,000 metres before being forced back due to adverse weather conditions. "We are about to walk off the map..." George Mallory, one of the men on the mission, wrote in a letter to his wife, shortly before becoming the first man to set foot on the mountain itself.
The following year, climbers George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce used canned oxygen for the first time, helping them reach 8,320 metres on the mountain before they too were forced back down as conditions worsened. While some questioned why, having come so far, the pair decided to turn back, the very real dangers of the mountain were highlighted later that year, as a group led by Mallory was caught in an avalanche, in which seven Sherpa climbers tragically died - the first reported deaths on Everest. While the first loss of life on Everest was undoubtedly mourned, the lure of the mountain was simply too much to resist for Mallory, and he joined a third expedition in 1924, led by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Norton, along with Geoffrey Bruce and newcomers Noel Odell and Andrew Irvine.
Lt-Col. Norton led from the front, attempting an assault on the peak without oxygen, and outlasting his climbing partner, reaching a record height for the time of 8,573 metre - just 275 metres short of the summit - before turning back due to exhaustion.
Next Mallory and Irvine mounted an attempt, and with Irvine's modified oxygen apparatus combined with Mallory's experience, hopes they would reach the summit were high. However, the sight of the pair trudging up the sleep slope away from camp would be there last time either of them was seen, as they both perished on the mountain.
Nine years passed before the next attempt, led by Brit Hugh Ruttledge in 1933, with many in the climbing fraternity now believing that the mountain was simply impossible to climb. And sure enough, Ruttledge's group was forced to turn back long before even reaching Norton's existing record. For the next 19 years, Norton's record stood, as climbing parties from the UK, US, Denmark, Canada, and the Soviet Union all tried and failed to conquer to seemingly unconquerable mountain. However, in 1952, a Swiss expedition led by Edouard Wyss-Dunant rekindled some hope that perhaps the mountain could eventually be beaten, as climber Raymond Lambert and Nepalese Indian Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached a height of 8,595 metres (just 150 metres below the summit) before turning back.
This gave the world a new belief. Surely, if we could get so close to the summit, there had to be a way to make that last 150 metres. That was the belief of Colonel John Hunt, who on February 12, 1953, while a young Queen Elizabeth II was eagerly awaiting her impending coronation in London, set sail for Bombay, on his way to lead a team of climbers to achieve the unachievable.
Meeting the British team in Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and a team of 20 Sherpas (including Tenzing) joined the group and made their way to the Everest base camp. After a marathon effort and one aborted attempt due to bad weather, at 11.30am on May 29, 1953, Hillary and Tenzing finally reached the summit. They had conquered the mountain, and news of their success was returned to Britain just in time for it to be announced at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2.In the years that followed, many more people tried to follow in the footsteps of Hillary and Tenzing. Some succeeded - a 1956 Swiss expedition, a 1963 American ascent and a 1965 effort from India among them - but many still failed, and more than 250 lives have been lost on the mountain so far.
The modern Mount Everest is rather a different place to the days of brave explorers charting the unknown. Nowadays, some 25,000 people visit Everest every year, with sometimes hundreds of people making an ascent to the summit every day. In fact, it's now so busy that tailbacks have been known to develop around the famous Hillary Step, with people queuing for hours just to get the chance to retrace the steps of the great man. And with the masses of human traffic, invariably masses of waste follows, as the hoards leave behind them a mountain of their own, in the form of spent oxygen tanks and ripped-up tents, leaving Everest looking more like Glastonbury after the festival has ended than the world's tallest peak.
But while the mystique and heroism of climbing Everest may have been diluted by the throngs of happy-snapping day-trippers we see today, the extraordinary achievements of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, who conquered the majestic mountain for the first time, will never be forgotten.