Reaching the summit of Mount Everest is no easy feat. Hundreds of people have lost their lives in the attempt, and topics like safety, tourism, and sustainability on the mountain become more controversial with every passing year.
At 29,029 feet (8,848 meters), Mount Everest stands as much more than a mountain. It’s a graveyard for more than 200 bodies that have never been recovered. It’s a subject of fascination for millions around the world. And it’s a symbol of dreams — both those fulfilled and those dashed to pieces.
Climbers attempted to reach the top of Mount Everest for more than 30 years before Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary finally succeeded. This is their story, built on the lives and deaths of the many mountaineers who came before them.
In most countries around the world, spring means new blossoms, new greenery, and new life. But in Nepal, spring is climbing season, when adventurous, outdoorsy foreigners descend on the small country in droves, intent on scaling the mountains of the Himalayas.
So in March 1953, it was no surprise that a large expedition set out from Kathmandu with only one goal in mind: getting their members to the summit of Mount Everest. If they succeeded, they would be the first people to stand on the highest point in the world.
Though no one had yet made it to the top of Everest, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The mountain already had a cult following, and it had claimed 13 lives to date. Just one year before, in 1952, a Swiss team had come closer to the top than anyone else ever had. Two explorers — including Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay — made it to 28,200 feet, just a few hundred short of the summit, before turning back. And to the rest of the world, it became obvious that someday soon, someone would make it to the very top.
The 1953 expedition was a British team comprised of a handful of climbers, 20 Sherpas, more than 350 porters, and about 10,000 pounds of gear and supplies. And while the large number of team members may have seemed excessive, its members were chosen strategically. The team even hired Tenzing Norgay, who had nearly summited the previous year, as the lead Sherpa. And they decided that while all team members would acclimate and train on Everest, only a select few climbers would continue toward the summit.
One climber, a beekeeper from New Zealand named Edmund Hillary, stood out early in the expedition. Most of the Brits struggled on the ice, but Hillary had trained in similar (albeit lower-elevation) territory in New Zealand. He led the team through the Khumbu Icefall, a death trap of a glacier where new crevasses can break open and ice towers can collapse at any moment. Although the icefall is thousands of feet below Everest’s summit, many climbers acknowledge it as the most treacherous section of the mountain, so Hillary’s expertise earned him major kudos from the rest of the group.
Hillary and Tenzing were a good pairing from the start. The two hit it off long before they were officially designated as climbing partners, some expedition members later theorizing that Hillary made a special effort to befriend Tenzing. After all, he would need Tenzing’s grit and experience if he wanted any chance of making it to the summit.
But even with Tenzing’s prior success on the mountain, not to mention the combined experience of the entire team, it was a challenging expedition. Every member struggled to acclimate. Although the climbers used oxygen sets (a groundbreaking invention that literally allowed for easier breathing), the experimental technology malfunctioned frequently and often caused setbacks.
The men proceeded slowly, taking weeks to retrace the Swiss team’s route from the previous season. At long last, they reached the South Col, the saddle between Everest and a neighboring peak, where they gathered their strength for their final push. It was already late May, just a few days before the team expected monsoon season to deliver heavy snowfall. Everyone knew they had to act fast.
Expedition leader John Hunt, who had spent more than two months assessing the climbers, divided the team into pairs and made a plan. He decided that only one pair should try to make it; if they couldn’t summit, another pair would try. If the second pair also failed, then a third and final pair would give it their best shot.
Hunt gave the honor of the first attempt to the newly formed partnership of Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon. The two men made it to the South Summit, even higher than Tenzing had gone in 1952, but once they reached that point, they felt completely drained and realized that they were running low on oxygen. Rather than risking death, they returned to camp.
A few days later, Hunt sent out his second set of climbing partners — Hillary and Tenzing. The now-famous duo had a few advantages on their side: getting an earlier start and departing from a higher-elevation camp than the first pair. By 9 a.m., Hillary and Tenzing had already made it to Evans and Bourdillon’s stopping point on the South Summit. But even though they were only a few hundred feet below the true summit, they knew the final stretch would be both dangerous and technical.
And they were right — a 40-foot rock face barred the path between the South Summit and Everest’s summit. Nearly vertical and seemingly impassable, it was the last real challenge Hillary and Tenzing had to overcome to make it to the top.
There, at 28,839 feet (8,790 meters) — where oxygen is only 30 percent as rich as it is at sea level, dozens of miles past the point where most would have given up — Hillary and Tenzing did the unthinkable. Hillary braced his body between the rock face and an adjacent ice pillar and shimmied himself up. Once he reached the top, he threw a rope down to Tenzing, not knowing that future generations of climbers would name that same stretch “the Hillary Step.”
From there, it wasn’t long before the pair reached the top of the world. At 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953, Hillary and Tenzing became the first people to ever stand on the summit of Mount Everest. The New Zealander celebrated by shaking the Sherpa’s hand, but Tenzing threw his arms around Hillary and hugged him tight. They remained on top of the summit for just 15 minutes before making their descent.
It was the type of news they couldn’t keep to themselves for long. Once they reached their camp, Hillary greeted a fellow teammate by saying, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” Word of their success reached Queen Elizabeth just hours before her coronation on June 2.
Tenzing and Hillary had done what dozens of mountaineers had dreamed of doing for decades, what 4,000 climbers would continue to do in the decades that followed. They had summited the tallest mountain in the world.
Cover photo by Sinthia Soosai