Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mountain climbers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, became the first persons to climb to the top of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain.

Summary of Event

On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 29,035 feet. Climbing with bottled oxygen, the two reached the summit as members of a British expedition led by Colonel John Hunt. Hillary and Tenzing returned from that expedition to worldwide acclaim and became celebrities in their respective countries. The summit photo of Tenzing, posed with his ice axe raised in triumph, documented an event that represented a triumph of the human spirit of exploration. Mountaineering Mount Everest [kw]Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest (May 29, 1953) [kw]Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest, Hillary and (May 29, 1953) [kw]Mount Everest, Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of (May 29, 1953) Mountaineering Mount Everest [g]Asia;May 29, 1953: Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest[04160] [g]Nepal;May 29, 1953: Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest[04160] [g]Tibet;May 29, 1953: Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest[04160] [c]Exploration and discovery;May 29, 1953: Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest[04160] [c]Sports;May 29, 1953: Hillary and Tenzing Reach the Top of Mount Everest[04160] Hillary, Edmund Tenzing Norgay Hunt, John

By the time of the historic climb, both the North and South Poles already had been reached; many considered Mount Everest the “third pole” because its summit marked the next remote geographic location yet to be reached through human endurance and ingenuity. British expeditions in the early 1920’s, while reaching high points on the mountain, had failed to put a climber on the summit. Tragically, Britons George Mallory (thirty-seven years old) and Sandy Irvine (twenty-two years old) had disappeared on their summit bid in 1924. Later expeditions in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and early 1950’s likewise failed. A French expedition had climbed Annapurna (26,493 feet) in 1950, but Everest remained elusive. The Swiss had nearly succeeded on Everest in 1952, with Raymond Lambert Lambert, Raymond and Tenzing reaching a high point of 28,215 feet. Thus, the stage was set for the British expedition to the mountain in 1953.

In addition to team leader Hunt, the 1953 British expedition included Charles Evans Evans, Charles , Alfred Gregory, Tom Bourdillon Bourdillon, Tom , Michael Ward, and two New Zealanders, George Lowe and Hillary. Tenzing served as leader of the Sherpas. The proposed route, on the south (Nepal) side of Mount Everest, wound its way up through the dangerous Khumbu Ice Fall, the Lhotse face to the South Col, the Southeast Ridge to the South Summit, and across a narrow ridge to the actual summit at 29,035 feet. As in a military campaign, the party “laid siege” to the mountain, meaning that they climbed up and down several times to establish a series of stocked camps at higher and higher elevations along the route. Working their way up and down to establish and stock these camps also helped the climbers acclimatize to the ever-thinning air. Bottled oxygen was used after Camp V. From this spot, two summit teams would try to reach the top. Bourdillon and Evans were set to work their way up to the South Summit and on to the actual summit if feasible. They got as high as the South Summit before turning back.

The other summit team consisted of Hillary and Tenzing. A high camp (Camp IX) was established at about 27,900 feet. (A more recent trend among climbers on this route is to establish fewer camps, with a high camp usually located at the South Col, at only 26,000 feet.) The evening before their climb, the two ate and drank liquids before crawling into their high-altitude sleeping bags. Bottled oxygen helped them to stay warm and get some sleep. The temperature that night dropped to -27 degrees Celsius, but luckily the wind had abated. The next morning they rose at 4:00 a.m., ate and drank, and pulled on all their warm clothing. Breathing bottled oxygen at three liters per minute, they left their tents at 6:30 a.m. Hillary and Tenzing were roped together and took turns leading and cutting steps in the frozen snow, reaching the South Summit at 9:00 a.m. At one point, Tenzing’s oxygen tube had frozen. Hillary cleared it, and then cleared his own. The weather remained good.

The two climbers came to a rather daunting obstacle—a 40-foot-high rock step. While a surmountable obstacle at sea level, at extreme high altitude the task was much more of a challenge. With Tenzing belaying him (tethering him with a rope for safety), Hillary worked his way up by utilizing a crack in the rock. After a determined effort, Hillary hoisted himself over the top and then helped Tenzing up the rock step. (This location is now known as the Hillary Step Hillary Step .) After catching their breath, they made their way across a narrow, exposed ridge and finally reached the summit at 11:30 a.m. Tenzing posed for summit photos holding up his ice axe, which displayed British, Nepalese, Indian, and United Nations flags. There was no sign that climbers George Mallory or Sandy Irvine (who were last seen heading toward the summit in 1924) had been there before them.

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It took the two only one hour to make their way back to the South Summit. Heading down, they reached their high camp at 2:00 p.m. and rehydrated, switched oxygen tanks, and gathered their sleeping bags to carry down to the camp at the South Col. About 200 feet above that camp, George Lowe met them with hot soup and more oxygen.

After a cold night on the col, they worked their way down through the other camps. Eventually, everyone at Base Camp learned that Hillary and Tenzing had made the summit. As Hunt wrote in his 1953 book The Ascent of Everest, Ascent of Everest, The (Hunt)

That evening we thought again of those many earlier climbers, of their struggles, their skill and courage, of all they had contributed toward the ascent of Everest. . . . I looked around the tent at these men who had finished the job . . . how fully they each and all had shared in the achievement so brilliantly concluded by Tenzing and Hillary!

On their way down the mountain, expedition members were greeted with celebrations in each town as they traveled to Kathmandu and then to Delhi. They finally arrived in London on July 3, more than one month later.

Significance

Less than a week after the summit, in a June 2 news report, the Times of London announced that the British expedition had succeeded. News of the historic climb reached the people of Great Britain the same day Queen Elizabeth II was coronated. Hillary and Tenzing received international acclaim for their ascent, and they became major celebrities—Hillary in native New Zealand and in England (where he was knighted) and Tenzing in Nepal, Tibet, and India.

Hillary, a former New Zealand beekeeper, went on to participate in explorations in the Antarctic. Later, he helped to establish many schools and hospitals in Nepal and worked to protect the fragile environment of the region. Tenzing took a position as director of field training for the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, located in Darjeeling. He also operated a trekking company called Tenzing Norgay Adventures.

Reaching the summit of the world’s highest mountain was a tremendous accomplishment, especially in 1953. Many have tried and failed to reach the top, even in later years with far superior equipment and support. Since the 1920’s, many failed attempts led to doubts about whether it could ever be climbed. As Colonel Hunt observed in his 1954 book, reaching the summit was made possible by good planning, the latest equipment, the assistance of the Sherpas, an excellent climbing team, and good weather during the last half of May. Also, in no small part, the expedition succeeded because of the accumulated experience of the many expeditions that had gone before it. “There is no height, no depth, that the spirit of man, guided by a higher Spirit, cannot attain,” Hunt concluded. Mountaineering Mount Everest

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hillary, Edmund. Nothing Venture, Nothing Win. New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1975. Hillary’s early autobiography. Includes illustrations, some in color, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The View from the Summit. London: Doubleday, 1999. Another autobiography by Hillary. Includes maps and other illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunt, Sir John. The Conquest of Everest. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954. The expedition book written by Sir John Hunt, which includes “A Chapter on the Final Assault by Sir Edmund Hillary.” Also includes a foreword by the duke of Edinburgh, the “patron” of the expedition. First published in 1953 as The Ascent of Everest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jamling Tenzing Norgay. Touching My Father’s Soul: A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. A book by the son of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Jamling is also a climber, who witnessed the 1996 climbing disaster on Everest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. New York: Villard, 1997. Krakauer’s best-selling account of guided climbing on Mount Everest in 1996, and of the subsequent tragedy in which eight climbers perished on the mountain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mantovani, Roberto. Everest: The History of the Himalayan Giant. Seattle, Wash.: The Mountaineers, 1997. A large-format history of Everest, filled with black-and-white and color photographs of the mountain and its mountaineers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ortner, Sherry B. Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. A scholarly study by an anthropologist who has spent her career studying the Sherpas of the Himalayas, who have aided mountain climbers in the region since the first decade of the twentieth century. Notes, bibliographical references, index, and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Unsworth, Walt. Everest: The Mountaineering History. Seattle, Wash.: The Mountaineers, 2000. A definitive 789-page history of mountaineering that includes discussion of the climbs of Mount Everest.

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