On top of the world – Paul Clements on the conquest of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay

A warmth and respect flourished between the two Everest conquerors

Seventy years ago, at the end of May 1953, two climbers, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander and Tenzing Norgay from Nepal, stood on the world’s highest point marking the first time the summit of Mount Everest was reached. The expedition was jointly organised by the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club functioning together as the Himalayan Committee, in conjunction with the Times of London. The newspaper covered half of the expedition’s total expenses in return for exclusive press rights. From the autumn of 1952, those selected, along with the expedition leader John Hunt, started testing oxygen equipment in the Alps and north Wales.

While the planning was in place, the only element they had no control over was the weather, which was crucial to their success. The summit of Everest has one of the most extreme climates in the world where temperatures plunge to minus 48 Celsius, winds gust up to 147 m/ph, and wind chill temperatures can fall to minus 83 Celsius.

After the trek into base camp, the mountaineers and Sherpas climbed the dramatically named landmarks “Hellfire Alley” and “Atom Bomb Area’ before continuing over the “Ghastly Crevasse” and “The Nutcracker”. To reach Everest from the Nepal side it was necessary to cross the head of the treacherous Khumbu glacier, a long mass of ice blocks – some as big as houses – with deep crevasses and tall columns of constantly falling ice. The climbers then tackled the Western Cwm, a broad undulating valley with mountains on three sides, ending at the foot of the Lhotse Face with walls of glacial blue ice in an area known as the “Valley of Silence”.

In the last week of May, the party held a “council of war”, known as Hunt’s assault plan, to work out who would be selected to reach the top. There would be two teams making separate attempts: the first was on May 28th by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon, who reached the South Summit but suffered exhaustion and were forced back 300 feet from the top because of oxygen problems.


Hunt then directed Hillary and Tenzing, eagerly waiting in the wings, to launch their bid. Time was short and there was concern over the approaching monsoon snows. On the night before the ascent, the temperature was minus 34 Celsius, with hurricane force winds which Tenzing described as sounding like “the roar of a thousand tigers”. At 6.30am on May 29th, they awoke to clear skies. Hillary’s boots had frozen because he had forgotten to put them inside his sleeping bag and he thawed them on a stove. They made steady progress, although every step was an effort. Near the top, Hillary wedged himself into a small chimney-sized crack, heaving and squirming his way through and by 11.30am he and Tenzing reached the summit at 29,035 feet.

Tenzing raised his ice-axe with flags of the United Nations, UK, Nepal and India. He said a silent prayer of thanks to Chomolungma, the more poetic name his people give to Everest, meaning “Goddess Mother of the World”. In the snow he buried offerings, including sweets from his daughter to the Buddhist deities, while Hillary buried a crucifix given to him by Hunt. They spent just 15 minutes on the summit before making their way back to camp. When Hunt saw them from a distance he thought they looked so miserable that they had failed in their attempt.

But although they were successful, one nagging question forever exercised the minds of those interested in Everest trivia: who got there first? Tenzing said that over the decades there was “a lot of nonsense” talked about the subject and in his opinion this was a foolish question. The two climbers had signed a joint statement saying they reached the summit almost together. The word “almost” did not satisfy the press and they asked: what exactly does “almost” mean? The men had been tied together by a 30ft rope, known to mountaineers as the “brotherhood of the rope”. Tenzing held the loops which meant they were separated by about six feet. He came under pressure in India and Nepal to say that he was first. But in fact it was Hillary, although only by a few seconds as he was leading that day. An unassuming and phlegmatic man, Hillary resisted saying so for much of his life.

A warmth and respect flourished between the two Everest conquerors. Hillary developed a life-long love affair with Nepal and set up the Himalayan Trust, a charity for the Sherpas. Over the years the trust built hospitals, health clinics and more than 30 schools, bringing pragmatic support to a poor country. As for Tenzing, he never climbed Everest again. His final years were characterised by depression and isolation and he died in 1986 aged 72.

Nonetheless, in 2000 Time magazine named Hillary and Tenzing as two of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. And throughout the decades Hillary’s colourful if irreverent phrase to his fellow New Zealander George Lowe, “We knocked the bastard off”, has continued to resonate with mountaineers everywhere.