Climbing Mount Everest: 60th anniversary of Hillary's ascent

The Himalayas, (photo by James Tye)
The Himalayas

Today is the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent of Mount Everest. Born in Auckland in 1919, Hillary had cut his teeth climbing in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. In 1951 Hillary took part in a reconnaissance of Everest led by Eric Shipton – another pioneering giant of mountaineering – and in 1953 he and his Sherpa companion Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the top of the world. 

Though he went on to climb many other Himalayan mountains, in later life Hillary was best known for his charity work amongst the Sherpas of Khumbu.

Hillary quote


The organisation which he founded, the Himalayan Trust, now supports schools and hospitals throughout the region. Hillary and was made an honorary Nepalese citizen in 2003. He died in 2008. 

We once had the pleasure of working with Sir Edmund Hillary on a hardback guide, Sir Edmund Hillary's Sagarmatha, in 1991 and a few years later he had some kind words to say about our Insight Guide to Nepal.

A new edition of Insight Guide Nepal is currently in production and is due to be published next spring. To mark the ascent anniversary, here's a sneak preview of some of the Everest coverage in the book, along with some of the beautiful photography from our new shoot.

The Himalayas

Eight of the world’s ten highest mountains rise from Nepal’s mountain spine, and many of its lesser peaks stand higher than the tallest summits of Europe and America. The entire northern flank of Nepal is defined by the Himalayas, a saw-toothed ridge of rock and ice levitating over the horizon in a long white line. This, then, has always been the ultimate playground for the mountaineering elite. The stories of the first ascents of the awesome 8,000-metre giants of Nepal’s mountain pantheon are true epics of human endeavour. In a frenetic “Golden Decade” in the mid-20th century hardy European climbers struck out into the unknown from bleak base camps, and with a seemingly ceaseless momentum ticked off each of the highest tops in the space of just seven years. That, however, was not the end of the story, for once the summits had been reached there was always the challenge of a return by a more difficult route, of an attempt without supplemental oxygen, and of climbing harder and faster than those who had gone before. And for those willing to lower their sights by a thousand metres or so, there is still an appealing array of virgin summits waiting to be bagged. Today, with organised fee-paying parties slogging up Everest in their dozens each year, it’s easy to forget that mountaineering remains a deadly serious business. Many of the pioneers came to grief on the slopes, and though tweed and hobnailed boots have given way to synthetic fibres and plastic, avalanches, sudden storms and the sheer crippling impact of altitude remain as hazardous as they ever were. Himalayan mountaineering is still a sport played out in the edge-lands of endurance. 


The Himalayas


The early days of mountaineering

One summer’s day in 1949 the British mountaineers Bill Tilman and Peter Lloyd, and a young Nepalese Sherpa called Tenzing Norgay, made it to the top of a 5,928-metre (19,450-ft) mountain by the name of Paldor in the Lantang region. Tilman’s party was one of the very first foreign expeditions to be allowed into the remote upper reaches of Nepal, and Paldor was the first of the country’s mountains to be scaled by outsiders. Within the next ten years, however, Tilman’s successors would have tackled every 8,000-metre mountain from Kanchenjunga to Dhaulagiri.

Mountaineering as a sport had begun in Europe a century earlier. Mont Blanc had been climbed for the first time in 1786, but it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the sporting gentlemen of Victorian Europe overcame their horror of rugged landscapes and began to scale mountains for pleasure. The early name for the sport – alpinism – reveals its dominant venue, and until the turn of the 20th century most mountaineering took place in the Alps of France and Switzerland.

Early attempts at Himalayan peaks took place either within British domains, or via the Tibetan back door. The true age of mountaineering in Nepal – and the brief but heady heyday of high-altitude pioneering – began in the years following Tilman’s ascent of Paldor. Nepal was a far cry from Switzerland, however, and the effort required to tackle 8,000-metre mountains was enormous. Vast armies of climbers, porters and Sherpas marched towards base camps to lay siege to the peaks. The expeditions often lasted for months. 

Once the virgin summits had been scaled, those at the cutting-edge of mountaineering looked towards more difficult routes on steeper ridges and faces. In recent years, Himalayan endeavour has taken individuals to the very limits of endurance in solo, turbo-charged, record-breaking climbs. The mountains have seen an increasing number of wild performances – flying in hot air balloons or hang-gliding and ski descents. However, high-performance Himalayan climbing remains the preserve of the extreme few because of the high level of expertise required, and the majority of mountaineers are confined to the traditional approach utilising established camps, fixed ropes, bottled oxygen, and the careful assistance of armies of Sherpas.


Yaks in the Himalayas


Everest – highest point on earth

In 1921 the ill-fated mountaineer George Mallory described his first view of Mount Everest. It was, he wrote, “a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world”. 

As the highest peak on earth it was inevitable that Everest – known as Sagarmatha in Nepal and Chomolungma in Tibet – would gain a disproportionate amount of attention from mountaineers. Standing at 8,848 metres (29,028ft), it had challenged the skills of British climbers over several decades prior to the opening up of Nepal. Mallory and others had been obliged to attempt the mountain from the north, and they had always met with failure and sometimes with tragedy. The closing of Tibet coincided fortuitously with Nepal’s opening, and efforts were renewed to find a way to the top from the south side of the mountain.

The leading lights of British mountaineering were soon probing the corrugated foothills east of Kathmandu to find an approach to the Khumbu. Fresh from his assault on Paldor, Bill Tilman traced a way to the foot of the Khumbu icefall in 1950 and the following year Eric Shipton’s team went through the icefall to reach the Western Cwm. The British, however, were not alone in their endeavour and all but lost the great prize in 1952 when a Swiss expedition came close to success. 

The following spring another British expedition headed for the mountain. The team was led by Colonel John Hunt, a highly decorated British Army officer who had been born in Shimla in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. Hunt had been chosen for his organisational skills as well as his mountaineering experience, and he presided over the summit attempt with a keen military eye. His team was made up of the finest mountaineers of Britain and New Zealand as well as the most experienced local Sherpas and an accompanying army of 350 porters. 


Sherpa in the Himalayas


Hunt had his men inch their way back up and down the mountain over the course of some seven weeks, ferrying equipment and supplies to a series of staging posts on the South Face. During a crossing of the Western Cwm in late April, one of the New Zealand climbers, Edmund Hillary, was saved from tumbling into a crevasse by the same Sherpa who had stood with Tilman and Lloyd on the summit of Paldor four years earlier. A powerful bond was forged.

On 2 May Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon made the first reconnaissance of the Lhotse Face, reaching the expedition’s highest point so far. On the same day, Hillary and Tenzing – now climbing as a team – made a staggering return journey from Base Camp to Camp IV in a single day. By now these two partnerships – Evans and Bourdillon, and Hillary and Tenzing – had emerged as the most likely candidates for the final summit bid.

Throughout May the team continued to inch its way up the mountain, with more high camps and supply dumps established, followed by further retreats to lower altitude. On 21 May Wilfred Noyce and Sherpa Annullu made it to the windswept saddle of the South Col at 7,906 metres (25,938ft) and set up Camp VIII. The following day Hillary and Tenzing set out on another mad dash for supplies, making a return journey over almost a vertical mile between camps IV and VIII in less than 30 hours. With all the toing and froing by the end of the month they would, in effect, have climbed the mountain three times.


Hiking in the Himalayas


The final ascent

On 26 May Evans and Bourdillon headed up from Camp VIII in clear weather. They made it to the South Summit, just 100 metres (300ft) short of the highest point, but with their oxygen tanks malfunctioning and time running short they were forced to turn back. Two days later Hillary and Tenzing set out for their own attempt. By nightfall they were 8,500 metres (27,900ft) above sea level. They bivouacked at the bleak spot christened Camp IX, and the following day they continued upwards. Hillary led the way over the vertical outcrop of rock, now known as the Hillary Step, which formed the final hurdle. From there onwards it was a simple slog up the ultimate snowy incline.

At 11.30am on 29 May 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stepped on to the summit of Everest, the highest point on the surface of the earth. “I stretched out my arm for a handshake,” Hillary later wrote, “but this was not enough for Tenzing who threw his arms around my shoulders in a mighty hug.”

The pair had proudly brought to a close what has been called “an Edwardian quest for the poles of the earth”. Their achievement also made for an auspicious start to the new Elizabethan age as the news reached London in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June – though others have pointed out that it was fitting that the final triumph in the era of British imperial exploration belonged to a beekeeper from the furthest corner of the Commonwealth and a Sherpa from the only South Asian country that had never been part of the Raj.


The Himalayas


Coping with high altitude

At Mount Everest Base Camp (5,357 metres/17,575ft) the amount of oxygen in each breath is half that of sea level. At the top of Everest this has shrunk to one third of that at sea level. Human beings evolved at low altitude, but the potential to adapt to even these great heights is built into our bodies. Breathing automatically accelerates; red cell production is increased to carry more oxygen, and given time, the body adjusts. If you were deposited by helicopter at the summit of Everest, without prior acclimatisation and without artificial oxygen, you would lose consciousness within minutes and die within hours. The fact that a properly acclimatised person can live and function at that height is something of a genetic miracle, and a testament to the body’s remarkable capacity for adaptation.

Heroic feats by the world’s finest mountaineers have led the way for less experienced climbers eager to test their skills in Nepal’s mountains. But the impact of altitude is a serious concern even for those going no higher than base camp. From around 2,400 metres (8,000 feet) most people begin to feel the effects of altitude. As you climb higher the impacts are complicated by the threat of a condition known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) which results when you ascend faster than your body can adjust. Headaches, nausea and tiredness are the commonest symptoms, but they can progress to pulmonary or cerebral edema. Below 5,500 metres (18,000 ft) the onset of AMS is usually slow enough to allow an easy descent to lower altitude. Above that height, the syndrome can strike with devastating speed. 

What does this mean for the Himalayan trekker heading for Everest Base Camp? Simply allowing adequate time to acclimatise is the single biggest measure that can be taken to prevent problems with altitude. Mountaineers aiming for the summit of Everest spend weeks in the rarefied air at the base of the mountain allowing their bodies to adjust. On a smaller scale the same approach is essential on the trail, with rest days to allow for acclimatisation, and a willingness to turn back should more severe symptoms develop. 


The Himalayas


Coming soon! Insight Guides Nepal....

IG Nepal

The new edition of Insight Guides Nepal is due out next spring (2014), with updated text by Tim Hannigan and new photography from James Tye.

In the meantime, take a look all of our guides to Asia...