Mount Everest was ascended for all mankind

In this very week in 1953, humanity first set foot on the summit of the world’s highest mountain in a feat of stunning resilience and skill.  The 9th British Expedition had proceeded like a military drill, creating a series of advance camps up the southern route of Mount Everest under the leadership of Col. John Hunt.  The first base camp was established at 17,900 feet.  There the team plotted its attack up the “South Ridge.”  The route taken would be through the Khumbu Icefall to the Western Cwm, up the Lhotse Face.  This route is still the most popular today.

Col. Hunt’s team divided into sections.  By May 21, climbers Wilfrid Noyce and the Sherpa guide Annullu reached the South Col.  This final jump-point is just under the Death Zone of 26,000 feet, above which humans cannot survive for long, and the pair pre-positioned more supplies and oxygen.

Hunt then selected two pairs of climbers for the ascent – if the first failed to summit, the second party would attempt and benefit from the first party’s failure through its pre-positioning of supplies.  The first team comprised Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, who set out for the summit on May 26 utilizing the pre-positioned oxygen bottles of Noyce and Annullu.  Bourdillon and Evans ascended to the 28,700 foot South Summit, coming within only 300 feet of the “real” summit, although they turned back after encountering oxygen valve-flow problems and the onset of night.

The next day, Col. Hunt dispatched his reserve team, the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay from Nepal.  Norgay had previously ascended to a record level on Everest as a member of the failed Swiss expedition of 1952 and was a climber of international renown within the close-knit community.

After slowly rock-climbing with rope and crampon the 12-foot-high sheer face blocking their way, an obstacle now known as the Hillary Step, the pair, reaching the upper limit of their endurance, trudged ever higher, until, as Edmund Hillary recounted it:

I continued on, cutting steadily and surmounting bump after bump and cornice after cornice looking eagerly for the summit. It seemed impossible to pick it and time was running out. Finally I cut around the back of an extra large lump and then on a tight rope from Tenzing I climbed up a gentle snow ridge to its top. Immediately it was obvious that we had reached our objective. It was 11.30 a.m. and we were on top of Everest!

The two victors took pictures and buried a cross in the snow.  Finally returning to his comrades on a lower camp, Hillary saw his friend George Lowe and uttered the triumphant words: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”  Amazingly, no one else demanded to trudge up to the summit, too; it had been a team effort, and only the team’s accomplishment mattered.  Hillary showed his gentlemanly status by refusing to say who had first set foot on the top, himself or Norgay (it was Hillary).

The news was sent from Base Camp by runner and coded message.  By a patriotic coincidence, it reached London the very morning of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2 and was released to the world by BBC radio the same day.  As the party returned to Base Camp, Col. Hunt and Edmund Hillary learned that the new queen had made them knights.

Today Mount Everest is climbed routinely.  Even relatively inexperienced climbers, rich enough to pay for expedition guides who outfit them with every possible need, feel the need to get dragged up the summit while live-tweeting nearly every step.  But Everest is still a lethal mountain.  Since the year 2000, there have been 1.4 deaths for every 100 summits, and with the heavy traffic up the routes, this translates to 54 fatalities in the last 15 years.

This only seems to add to the allure of the climbing public.  Jamling Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, remarked on the 50th anniversary of the first ascent:

But the spirit of adventure is not there anymore. It is lost. There are people going up there who have no idea how to put on crampons. They are climbing because they have paid someone $65,000. It is very selfish. It endangers the lives of others.

This commercialization of the mountain, however, in no way diminishes the achievement of the 1953 British Expedition, which made it to the top first in the finest spirit of disciplined teamwork and effort ever to mark a human endeavor.

Christopher S. Carson, a lawyer, writes from Milwaukee.

In this very week in 1953, humanity first set foot on the summit of the world’s highest mountain in a feat of stunning resilience and skill.  The 9th British Expedition had proceeded like a military drill, creating a series of advance camps up the southern route of Mount Everest under the leadership of Col. John Hunt.  The first base camp was established at 17,900 feet.  There the team plotted its attack up the “South Ridge.”  The route taken would be through the Khumbu Icefall to the Western Cwm, up the Lhotse Face.  This route is still the most popular today.

Col. Hunt’s team divided into sections.  By May 21, climbers Wilfrid Noyce and the Sherpa guide Annullu reached the South Col.  This final jump-point is just under the Death Zone of 26,000 feet, above which humans cannot survive for long, and the pair pre-positioned more supplies and oxygen.

Hunt then selected two pairs of climbers for the ascent – if the first failed to summit, the second party would attempt and benefit from the first party’s failure through its pre-positioning of supplies.  The first team comprised Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, who set out for the summit on May 26 utilizing the pre-positioned oxygen bottles of Noyce and Annullu.  Bourdillon and Evans ascended to the 28,700 foot South Summit, coming within only 300 feet of the “real” summit, although they turned back after encountering oxygen valve-flow problems and the onset of night.

The next day, Col. Hunt dispatched his reserve team, the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay from Nepal.  Norgay had previously ascended to a record level on Everest as a member of the failed Swiss expedition of 1952 and was a climber of international renown within the close-knit community.

After slowly rock-climbing with rope and crampon the 12-foot-high sheer face blocking their way, an obstacle now known as the Hillary Step, the pair, reaching the upper limit of their endurance, trudged ever higher, until, as Edmund Hillary recounted it:

I continued on, cutting steadily and surmounting bump after bump and cornice after cornice looking eagerly for the summit. It seemed impossible to pick it and time was running out. Finally I cut around the back of an extra large lump and then on a tight rope from Tenzing I climbed up a gentle snow ridge to its top. Immediately it was obvious that we had reached our objective. It was 11.30 a.m. and we were on top of Everest!

The two victors took pictures and buried a cross in the snow.  Finally returning to his comrades on a lower camp, Hillary saw his friend George Lowe and uttered the triumphant words: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”  Amazingly, no one else demanded to trudge up to the summit, too; it had been a team effort, and only the team’s accomplishment mattered.  Hillary showed his gentlemanly status by refusing to say who had first set foot on the top, himself or Norgay (it was Hillary).

The news was sent from Base Camp by runner and coded message.  By a patriotic coincidence, it reached London the very morning of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2 and was released to the world by BBC radio the same day.  As the party returned to Base Camp, Col. Hunt and Edmund Hillary learned that the new queen had made them knights.

Today Mount Everest is climbed routinely.  Even relatively inexperienced climbers, rich enough to pay for expedition guides who outfit them with every possible need, feel the need to get dragged up the summit while live-tweeting nearly every step.  But Everest is still a lethal mountain.  Since the year 2000, there have been 1.4 deaths for every 100 summits, and with the heavy traffic up the routes, this translates to 54 fatalities in the last 15 years.

This only seems to add to the allure of the climbing public.  Jamling Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, remarked on the 50th anniversary of the first ascent:

But the spirit of adventure is not there anymore. It is lost. There are people going up there who have no idea how to put on crampons. They are climbing because they have paid someone $65,000. It is very selfish. It endangers the lives of others.

This commercialization of the mountain, however, in no way diminishes the achievement of the 1953 British Expedition, which made it to the top first in the finest spirit of disciplined teamwork and effort ever to mark a human endeavor.

Christopher S. Carson, a lawyer, writes from Milwaukee.