The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 25, 2003
Lead Article

Everest: 50 years of man’s biggest-ever conquest
Lisa Sabbage

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.


Rising to the occasion; Tenzing & Hillary
Rising to the occasion; Tenzing & Hillary

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.

A painting of Tenzing on Mt Everest
A painting of Tenzing on Mt Everest

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.

For the most part, Chomolungma remains the territory of the gods. AF



Bound by the magnanimity of the Himalayan spirit
M.S. Kohli

  M.S. Kohli
M.S. Kohli

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 members of the 1924 Everest Expedition
The members of the 1924
Everest Expedition

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 Everest climb.)


“A few more whacks of the ice-axe, a few very weary steps, and we were on the summit...”

 Edmund Hillary
Edmund Hillary

AT 6.30 am we crawled slowly out of the tent and stood on our little ledge. Already the upper part of the mountain was bathed in sunlight. It looked warm and inviting, but our ledge was dark and cold. We lifted our oxygen on to our backs and slowly connected up the tubes to our face-masks. My 30-lb load seemed to crush me downwards and stifled all enthusiasm, but when I turned on the oxygen and breathed it deeply, the burden seemed to lighten and the old urge to get to grips with the mountain came back. We strapped on our crampons and tied on our nylon rope; grasped our ice-axes and were ready to go.

I looked at the way ahead. From our tent very steep slopes covered with deep powder snow led up to a prominent snow shoulder on the south-east ridge about a hundred feet above our heads. The slopes were in the shade and breaking trail was going to be cold work. Still a little worried about my boots, I asked Tenzing to lead off. Always willing to do his share, and more than his share if necessary, Tenzing scrambled past me and tackled the slope. With powerful thrusts of his legs he forced his way up in knee-deep snow. I gathered in the rope and followed along behind him.

We were climbing out over the tremendous South face of the mountain, and below us snow chutes and rock ribs plummeted thousands of feet down to the Western Cwm. Starting in the morning straight on to exposed climbing is always trying for the nerves, and this was no exception.

The after-taste of success: Hillary and Tenzing sip a warm brew a day after the conquest
The after-taste of success: Hillary and Tenzing sip a warm brew a day after the conquest

Ahead of us the ridge was sharp and narrow, but rose at an easy angle... Taking every care, I moved along on to the left-hand side of the ridge...

We were making fast time now and the slope was starting to ease off. Tenzing gallantly waved me through, and with a growing feeling of excitement I cramponed up some firm slopes to the rounded top of the South Summit. It was only 9 am. With intense interest I looked at the vital ridge leading to the summit—the ridge about which Evans and Bourdillon had made such gloomy forecasts...But as I looked, my fears started to lift a little...

I looked at the route ahead. This next piece wasn’t going to be easy...In a sudden urge to escape our isolation I waved and shouted, and then as suddenly stopped as I realised my foolishness. Against the vast expanse of Everest, 8,000 feet above them, we’d be quite invisible to the best binoculars. I turned back to the problem ahead. ...Held on a tight rope by Tenzing, I cut a few handholds and then thrust my ice-axe as hard as I could into the solid snow and ice. Using this to take my weight I moved quickly along the ledge. It proved easier than I had anticipated...

Before attempting the pitch, I produced my camera once again. I had no confidence that I would be able to climb this crack, and with a surge of competitive pride which unfortunately afflicts even mountaineers, I determined to have proof that at least we had reached a good deal higher than the South Summit. I took a few photographs and then made another rapid check of the oxygen—2,550 lb. pressure. Three and a half hours to go I examined Tenzing’s belay to make sure it was a good one and then slowly crawled inside the crack.

In front of me was the rock wall, vertical but with a few promising holds... But slowly I forced my way up—wriggling and jabbing and using every little hold. In one place I managed to force my ice-axe into a crack in the ice, and this gave me the necessary purchase to get over a holdless stretch. And then I found a solid foothold in a hollow in the ice, and next moment I was reaching over the top of the rock and pulling myself to safety. The rope came tight—its forty feet had been barely enough.

I lay on the little rock ledge panting furiously. Gradually it dawned on me that I was up the step, and I felt a glow of pride and determination that completely subdued my temporary feelings of weakness. For the first time on the whole expedition I really knew I was going to get to the top. "It will have to be pretty tough to stop us now" was my thought. But I couldn’t entirely ignore the feeling of astonishment and wonder that I’d been able to get up such a difficulty at 29,000 feet even with oxygen. When I was breathing more evenly I stood up and, leaning over the edge, waved to Tenzing to come up. He moved into the crack and I gathered in the rope and took some of his weight. Then he, in turn, commenced to struggle and jam and force his way up until I was able to pull him to safety—gasping for breath. We rested for a moment. We seemed to have been going for a very long time and my confidence was fast evaporating. Bump followed bump with maddening regularity. A patch of shingle barred our way, and I climbed dully up it and started cutting steps around another bump. And then I realised that this was the last bump, for ahead of me the ridge dropped steeply away in a great corniced curve, and out in the distance I could see the pastel shades and fleecy clouds of the highlands of Tibet.

To my right, a slender snow ridge climbed up to a snowy dome about forty feet above our heads. But all the way along the ridge the thought had haunted me that the summit might be the crest of a cornice. It was too late to take risks now. I asked Tenzing to belay me strongly, and I started cutting a cautious line of steps up the ridge. Peering from side to side and thrusting with my ice-axe, I tried to discover a possible cornice, but everything seemed solid and firm. I waved Tenzing up to me. A few more whacks of the ice-axe, a few very weary steps, and we were on the summit of Everest.

(Excerpt from Hillary’s book High Adventure)