Everest: 50 years of
man’s biggest-ever conquest
FIFTY years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Ev we look back at the history of the world’s tallest and most dangerous mountain.
In 1953, a wiry New Zealander and his diminutive Nepalese companion hauled themselves up and stood on the "symmetrical, beautiful snow-cone summit" of the tallest mountain on earth. Fifty years later, Britain’s Royal Geographical Society is making the anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s conquest with a book of more than 300 images of Mount Everest drawn from Society’s photographic archives and tracing more than a century of attempts to ascend the mighty peak.
According to Everest: Summit of Achievement, it all began in 185 the headquarters of the Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India at Dehra Dun, Radhanath Sikdhar, head of computations, burst into the office of Superintending General, Andrew Waugh, and announced that he had discovered the highest mountain in the world! In the midst of the Himalayan mountain chain between Tibet and Nepal, he said, one peak tower metres above sea level (in 1999, the latest satellite technology put the height at 8850 metres).
In fact, Sikdhar’s
calculations were the culmination of at least years work measuring and
surveying the topography of the entire Indian continent, including the
towering Himalayan peaks to the And, with typical imperial hauteur,
Waugh promptly proposed naming Peak XV after Colonel George Everest, his
predecessor and the man who had started the survey.
This came as news to the Tibetan locals who lived beneath the highest and called the snowy peak Chomolungma or "the Goddess Mother of the World". Nor did they understand the motives of the British men who, by the 1880s, began to arrive to climb the place they believed to be the home of the gods and therefore out of limits to mere mortals.
But, having measured and named Mount Everest, the British were determined to literally stamp their authority on it. Indeed, climbing expeditions multiplied with every season as the race was who would become the first to conquer the summit.
Everest is the most unforgiving of mountains, pitted with hidden crevasses, and prone to avalanches and unpredictable storms that can last weeks. What’s more, once climbers pass 2,400 metres, they are vulnerable to altitude sickness that can hinder their reactions and cloud their judgement. Beyond 7,600 metres and into the "death zone", they are in danger of oxygen deprivation as the percentage of oxygen in the air plummets and to compensate, their breathing and heart rate increases.
Any exertion, whether making a cup of tea or climbing into a sleeping bag can leave climbers exhausted. Blood thickens, increasing the risk of blood clots and strokes; insomnia sets in; and loss of a petite is common just at the very point when climbers most need to stay nourished and hydrated. In 1921, the Royal Geographical Society sent a team to explore and identify would-be routes to the summit without any co-ordination of equipment or gear. Each climber was free to chose his own clothes and footwear, yet the team somehow managed to reach 6,700 metres before the icy cold and wind of the Himalayan autumn forced their retreat.
A year later, a better-equipped expedition using oxygen at high altitude reached 8,320 metres before wind turned them back. Sadly, on June 7, during a second attempt, an avalanche struck four rop parties, killing seven of the local Sherpas who had already become indispensable as porters and advisors to the British climbers. They were the first-recorded climbing fatalities on Everest, but would not be the last.
In 1924, the Royal Geographic Society launched another attempt to climb Everest with a team that included George Mallory, a veteran of both previous expeditions, who, when asked why he was so desperate to climb the peak, had famously answered, "because it’s there".
Now, aware that the entire climb had to be planned in a meticulous manner and executed carefully, the team set up three camps between 7,750 and 8,300 metres, and decided to make two simultaneous attempts at the final ascent.
On June 8, Mallory and his climbing companion Andrew Irvine (Because he knew how to work the oxygen equipment) set off for the summit with photographer Noel Odell and two Sherpa following some distance behind them.
Later that day, as the sky cleared, Odell looked up toward the first peak and saw a dark dot moving across the snow, then a second. He kept watching the ridge and wall for a long time but could not spot them again. The next day, with the help of oxygen, Odell continued up to the highest tent where he hoped to find a victorious Mallory and Irvine. But the tent was empty and his whistles and yodels went unanswered. No one will ever know whether the pair succeeded in reaching the summit of Everest, only that they did not return. It was another nine years before a new Everest Committee was formed in order to try again, but it too failed. In 1993, Francis Sydney Smythe came within 300 metres of the summit before exhaustion and hallucinations forced him to descent and rejoin the rest of his climbing party.
A year later, Maurice Wilson, an eccentric former officer in the British Army, attempted to climb Everest alone. His body was found the following spring at 6,400 metres, near a food depot abandoned in 1993 expedition.
Again and again, new routes were mapped out and attempts were made to scale the peak — to end in failure or tragedy.
However, by 1953, when Edmund Hillary set out with the rest of the British team, much had changed. Led by Colonel John Hunt, who had studied every previous assault on the mountain and prevailing weather conditions, the climbers were dressed in high-altitude nylon weatherproof clothing. They were also equipped with lightweight oxygen for the final ascent.
Shrewdly, Hunt also rotated his climbers, and, once they neared the peak, sent on the strongest to make the final assault. After an earlier pair had been forced to retire just 300 feet short of the summit, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, recognised as the fittest in team, were chosen for the last attempt.
"We didn’t know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt Everest, recalls Hillary. "And even using oxygen as we were, if did get to the top, we weren’t at all sure whether we wouldn’t be dead or something of that nature."
After an uncomfortable night, they left the last camp at South C the freezing chill dawn of May 29, 1953. Five hours later, at 11.30 am, Hillary and Tenzing stepped on to the summit. Their first task was to scan the peak for signs of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. Failing to discover any evidence that they had been beaten, the pair then spent 15 minutes taking photographs and eating mint cake, before making Buddhist offerings of sweets and biscuits and planting the flags of Britain, Nepal and the United Nations in the snow.
The 1953 conquest did not put a cap on Everest expeditions. Sad many others have tried to follow in Hillary and Norgay’s footsteps only to stumble or fall. Of the 4,000 or so people who tackled the mountain, only 660 have succeeded, while more than 140 have died trying.
On one single day in 1996, eight climbers died during a private climbing expedition. One of the survivors, Beck Weathers, a doctor from Dallas, Texas, lost his nose, his right hand and part of his arm, and the fingers on his left hand to frostbite.
Bound by the magnanimity of the Himalayan spirit
THIS year the world is celebrating the golden jubilee of the first-ever ascent of Everest by man, represented by the two world-famous climbers, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Sir Edmund and Jamling Norgay, son of the late Tenzing Norgay, would be the focus of spotlight at the celebrations in India on May 20 and 21. While India honours Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and the legendary Sherpas, controversies like - Who climbed Everest first, Tenzing or Hillary? Was Tenzing an Indian or a Nepalese? - linger on even until today. This is a good occasion to throw some light on these issues.
As is usual in mountaineering, Hillary and Tenzing were roped together. They were taking turns at the lead. The lead climber has to work harder. He carefully inspects the route, avoiding any crevasses, cuts steps wherever necessary and even fixes rope on steep pitches for safety. When one gets tired, the second climber takes over the lead, their roles reversing every few minutes. It is a sheer coincidence who happens to lead the rope at the time of stepping on to the summit. So the right way of expressing this historic ascent would be to say that Hillary and Tenzing, roped together, were the first human beings to reach the top of the world.
John Hunt and the two summiteers wisely decided not to entertain any question as to who stepped on to the summit first? Later on, Tenzing, in his autobiography, did clarify that Hillary was leading the rope and was the first one to reach the summit. The fact is that Hillary and Tenzing equally share the honour and glory of reaching the summit together.
The other controversy about Tenzing relates to his citizenship. When he climbed Everest some proclaimed that a Nepalese had reached the summit. Others claimed that he had moved to India when he was 13 years old and had settled down in Darjeeling, and as such was an Indian citizen. Even today, some believe that though domiciled in Darjeeling, he was a Nepalese citizen at the time of climbing Everest and only later on became an Indian citizen. When I recently wrote to Dr. Harka Gurung about this book, he too expressed the feeling that Tenzing was the first Nepalese to climb Everest and not Phu Dorje whom I consider as the first Nepalese to climb Everest. To my mind all such thoughts are of no consequence.
In case of Sherpas it is well known that they take great pride in being known as Sherpas. Being domiciled in Tibet, Nepal or India to them is inconsequential. They belong to the Himalayas and political divisions are not very important to them. Actually, the concept of citizenship comes to them only when a passport is required for travel abroad or seeking Government employment. Many Sherpas are known to move from India to Nepal and vice versa, depending on job opportunities. One need not over-stretch this point. Tenzing was born in Nepal but had moved to Darjeeling for obvious reasons. Those were the years when Nepal was firmly closed to foreign expeditions and Darjeeling had become a centre for recruitment of Sherpas to various Everest expeditions which used to enter Tibet via Kalimpong.
In all humility, let me take my own case to illustrate the point. I was born in Pakistan where I climbed the Kaghan hills during the first 15 years of my life. After the Partition of India, I moved over to India and had done several climbs in the Indian Himalayas. I also had four major expeditions in Nepal. During my 19 years with Air India I promoted trekking tours more in Nepal than in India. During 1981-84, I visited Pakistan every year to attend their trekking conventions and offered them advice on how to promote trekking-tours in their mountains. In 1984, I spent four months in Bhutan, trekking all over and drew a master plan for promotion of trekking tours in the Himalayan Kingdom. I feel a sense of pride that, like the Sherpas, I too have imbibed their spirit of being a Himalayan.
Some people feel that by settling in India and by accepting employment from the Government of India as Director of Field Training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, Tenzing forsook Nepal which is being cited as the reason that the Royal Government of Nepal has not yet declared him a national hero. To my mind, both Nepal and India should be proud of Tenzing and do whatever they can to honour him.
A shining example, worthy of emulating, is of the India-born American astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, who died along with her six colleagues in the Columbia crash on February 1, 2003. Both India and USA honoured her and paid her rich tributes. President George Bush, in his address to the nation, talked very highly of her and even mentioned her Indian origin. People of India, T.V. channels and the Union Cabinet went out of their way to honour her. Kalpana herself, when asked how has her original identity played out for her in the course of her various achievements, quoted philosopher Seneca, "I was not born for one corner. The whole world is my native land". But the same analogy, all Sherpas feel that the whole Himalayas is their native land.
Tenzing was proud of his birth in Nepal and to fulfil his dream of reaching the top of Chomolungma, he had moved over to Darjeeling. After climbing Everest, he was offered an excellent job at the HMI, Darjeeling, which enabled him to help both India and Nepal. There was no proposal for any assignment in Nepal.
(The author is the
Chairman of the Himalayan Environment Trust and former President, Indian
Mountaineering Foundation. His book Sherpas - The Himalayan Legends was
scheduled for formal release during the Golden Jubilee of the first