The Conquest of Mt. Everest

At 11:30 am on May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first human beings to conquer Mount Everest. At 29,028 ft., it is the highest place on earth. They were part of the Ninth British Everest Expedition, led by Col. John Hunt.

“By any rational standards, this was no big deal. Aircraft had long before flown over the summit, and within a few decades literally hundreds of other people from many nations would climb Everest too,” wrote Time Magazine, “Geography was not furthered by the achievement, scientific progress was scarcely hastened, and nothing new was discovered.” However, it was the ultimate challenge: between 1920 and 1952 the mountain claimed seven major expeditions and several lives, including that of famed mountaineer George Leigh-Mallory.

Hillary and Norgay spent 15 minutes at the summit. He recalled: “I had carried my camera, loaded with colour film, inside my shirt to keep it warm, so I now produced it and got Tenzing to pose for me on the top, waving his ice-axe on which was a string of flags—British, Nepalese, United Nations, and Indian. Then I turned my attention to the great stretch of country lying below us.” He however declined Norgay’s offer to take his photograph. He was exhausted, and quite aware that they now had to turn around and head back down.

The camera he used was Kodak Retina Type 118 introduced in 1935: a compact, foldable, and light weight. Hillary allegedly purchased it in a secondhand shop and modified it so that he could use it with gloves.

As Hillary got closer to his team, he uttered that famous phrase. ‘Well George, we knocked the bastard off!’. The pair were instantly public heroes. By 6th June, Hillary was Sir Edmund, having been appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, even before he had gotten back to Katmandu. Almost as instantly nationalism came into play. They were asked who stepped upon the summit first. In fact, Hillary was the first to reach the summit, but he maintained that this was irrelevant, and that they reached it together. 

In India and Nepal, however, the local hero, Norgay was given the prominence in welcome. A welcome sign across Nepal and Katmandu, singled out Tenzing for honor. They noted that Tenzing Norgay was then the world’s most experienced man on Everest (many climbing teams treated him as a full member of the expedition, not mere native guide, and Hunt’s team gave at the British Embassy as a Sirdar, a Sherpa leader, while other guides were forced to sleep on the floor of the embassy garage). LIFE magazine scoffed that “race-conscious Asians take over Tenzing,” and that “they bring thrilling stories of a great deed, but little men besmirch their riotous welcome.”

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3 thoughts on “The Conquest of Mt. Everest

  1. I am just perplexed why the Western Media was obsessed as to who climbed the mountain first. None of the Everest heroes could have achieved that feat without complementing each other. Also we must not forget it was the techonology of the qiwi team( Edmund Hillary) and the tenacity, loyalty, knowledge and experience of the mountains of the Sherpa team (Tenzing Norgay) that won over the erstwhile unconquerable Mount Everest.

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