At 11:30 am on May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first human beings to conquer Mount Everest.
“Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned May twentynine stop awaiting improvement stop all well,” a message went out from Namche Bazaar in northeast Nepal. The message sound like the expedition had failed. However, it was a coded message, planned ahead by The Times, to convey the opposite. The decrypted message read: “Everest Climbed Hillary Tenzing May 29”.
The 27-year-old Times reporter James Morris was the only journalist to accompany the 1953 expedition. From the base camp where he was, a runner took the message thirty miles down the mountain to a police post with Namche where there was a radio transmitter. From there, it was transmitted to the British Embassy in Kathmandu, which in turn, wired it to London.
It was later claimed that the news was held back so that the Times could announce it on June 2, 1953, the day of the Queen’s Coronation, but that ignored the slow communication problems that plagued the expedition. In fact, it was quite an achievement to get the news of the 29 May ascent to London by 2 June.
The Times had long been a sponsor of expeditions to scale Everest, including George Mallory’s ill-fated attempt in 1924. The 1953 expedition too was partly sponsored by the paper, which obtained exclusive rights of publication. Other papers had sent reporters to Kathmandu, with hopes to intercept the news, hence the need for secrecy. Various plans to relay the message were floated: the nearest telephone was 180 miles away, and thought to be too remote. Carrier pigeons, fire beacons on the mountain, and even floating messages downriver in a watertight container were considered. Morris recalled half-jokingly that one idea floated was to consider the “strange powers of telepathy for which Tibetan sages are allegedly noted.”
On the team’s arrival, they saw the Namche police station, which the Indian Government had set up to keep an eye on communist China) and used it to get the dispatches out. Runners were paid based on how fast they could deliver the message: £10 if in eight days, £30 in six. The fateful message was sent via runner to Namche and a longer report was carried “over the mountains, through the rhododendrons and the forests, to Kathmandu”.
The story however did not appear on the front page of the Times. It would be another 13 years before news stories were printed on the front page of The Times. The paper however printed out special black and white and color supplements to mark the occassion later.
(See Life Magazine’s coverage here).