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Summit of Mount Everest

EverestAt 11:30 in the morning on May 29, 1953, Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund P. Hillary reached the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. The two men smiled and shook hands as they stood upon the highest ground on Earth, more than 29,000 feet above sea level.

The expedition had begun three months prior, in early March, in Kathmandu, Nepal, under the command of John Hunt. The team of twelve climbers were accompanied by an army of low-altitude porters and high-altitude Sherpas who, according to plan, dwindled from 450 men to zero as supplies were consumed, the terrain rose, and the air thinned to one-third the oxygen found at sea-level.

Overcoming the treacherous, shifting glacial ice of the Khumbu Icefall at 18,000 feet, the expedition established Advanced Base Camp at 21,200 feet, in the Western Cwm (pronounced “coom”) canyon beneath the icy face of Mount Lhotse, the second tallest mountain in the Himalayan chain. When bad weather brought the team to a halt on the Lhotse Face, Hillary convinced Hunt to allow him, Norgay, and Wilf Noyce to forge ahead alone, thus breaking the physical and psychological impasse.

Everest2The climbing team and nineteen Sherpas reached the South Col, the 28,500-foot-high midpoint in the ridge connecting Lhotse and Everest. The time had come for the final assault on the summit. Hillary and Norgay wanted the job, and Hunt agreed.

Trudging up the avalanche-prone soft snows of the South Summit, Hillary and Norgay encountered a forty-foot vertical rock wall. Clinging to a fissure in the rock, Hillary made his way up and over the wall, ever since known as the Hillary Step, and then belayed the rope for Norgay, who followed. The last great physical obstacle was past, but now an unexpected obstacle loomed. “We couldn’t find the summit,” Hillary later phrased it, in good humor. “It wasn’t until we came to a place where we could see that the ridge ahead dropped away, and we could see Tibet in front of us, that I realized we must be pretty close to the summit. Up above us the snow rounded off into a dome, and we realized that that must be the top.” (Quoted in LIFE: The Greatest Adventures of All Time, 2000)

Everest3In the years after reaching the top of the world, Tenzing Norgay traveled widely and served for twenty-two years as field director of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. He died in 1986. Sir Edmund Hillary, knighted for his achievement, has dedicated much of his life to building hospitals and schools to better the lives of the people of the Himalayas. The year of the summit victory, Hillary, Norgay and Hunt all were elected as honorary members of The Explorers Club. Hillary now serves as the Club’s honorary chairman.

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Background image photography courtesy of members Christoph Baumer, Neil Laughton, Matt Harris and Don Walsh's image of the Bathyscape Trieste