Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
By 1953, Mount Everest had been attempted about a dozen times, leaving 13 dead. It was seemingly unconquerable. Then, after several attempts and reconnaissance missions by the British, they returned with a small Army of climbers, Sherpa, and porters, among them a beekeeper from New Zealand named Edmund Hillary and a local Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. Cynics often say that given the size and style of the expedition — in which several teams of two were sent marching toward the summit in succession, in hopes at least one team would succeed — that it was sheer luck Hillary and Norgay were the ones to top out first. But consider this: Hillary had already been on four Himalayan expeditions up to that point, at a time when one was considered a lifetime achievement. He was also the one who ended up leading the entire team through the dreaded Khumbu icefall. And, as for Norgay, just like with the Sherpa of today, it’s often overlooked that he was the most experienced climber of the bunch with six previous attempts on Everest as well as multiple expeditions to other mountains. Their accomplishment was no accident.
• On May 29, 1953, Hillary and Norgay were the first to summit Mount Everest.
• Norgay attempted six times before he finally reached the summit. On the way up, Hillary had fallen into a crevasse and likely would have died if it were not for Norgay arresting his fall by anchoring the rope to his ice axe.
• From Base Camp to the summit it took them six weeks. On the way down it took three days.
The Last Word
Back in 1953, summiting Mount Everest was like landing on the moon. While their colleagues — and climbers before them — may have gotten close, only Hillary and Norgay had the elusive mix of cooperation, experience, and resolve to finally unlock the gate to Everest’s summit.