Cover Story: On Top of the World

29 May 2013 Alan Attwood

Cover Story: On Top of the World


Today marks the 60th anniversary of the ascent of Everest. Alan Attwood explores the deadly allure of the highest peak on earth.

It seems such a mundane message: Snow conditions bad hence expedition abandoned advance base on 29th and awaiting improvement being all well. In fact, it was a coded telegram carefully composed by James Morris, correspondent for The Times newspaper, conveying his scoop that members of a British expedition had made history with the first ascent of the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest.

The code – used to befuddle any newspaper rivals who might manage to intercept his message, sent by an Indian Army transmitter – was soon deciphered by Times colleagues. Snow conditions bad, for example, meant “Everest climbed”; other key words denoted that the climbers were New Zealand-born Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

It was Hillary who took the iconic photograph of Tenzing standing triumphantly on what Hillary later described as “a symmetrical, beautiful snow-cone summit” (see our cover)just before noon on 29 May 1953. Because Tenzing’s face is covered, there are striking similarities with photographs taken on the lunar surface by the Apollo XI astronauts in July 1969. They are both landmarks in exploration.

The date was especially significant in Britain. Thanks to the resourcefulness shown by Morris, The Times in London was able to publish their exclusive story on 2 June 1953, the morning of the coronation of the new Queen, Elizabeth II. Britain was still recovering from World War II; many still remembered a prior tragic failure in exploration, when the doomed Captain Scott had trudged to the South Pole early in 1912 only to discover the damned Norwegians had got there first. Now Britain was Great again, with a new monarch and
a stirring triumph to celebrate.

The fact that Hillary, then 33, was a Kiwi (Tenzing, 39, was born in Nepal) was academic; New Zealand was very much part of the British Empire. And much about that 1953 expedition now seems quaintly English. “The most important thing is for you chaps to come back safely,” expedition leader Colonel John Hunt told his men as they headed up. “Remember that. But climb the mountain if you can.” And they did.

When the successful chaps rejoined their colleagues, Morris later described Hillary’s face as “aglow but controlled” while Tenzing’s was “split with a brilliant smile of pleasure”. Asked about the feat, Tenzing said he was: “Very excited, not too tired, very pleased.” Meanwhile, Hillary (who, like Hunt, had just earned himself a knighthood, though they didn’t know it yet) had told a Kiwi colleague, George Lowe, “Well, we knocked the bastard off.”

Tenzing’s biographer, Ed Douglas, would write: “The names Tenzing and Hillary are now so thoroughly interlinked that it is impossible to imagine one without the other, like Gilbert and Sullivan…” But they had only paired up during the expedition; it was Tenzing’s seventh attempt on the 8848m-high mountain that had defied all previous attempts to climb it, although conjecture and theories still swirl around the intriguing figure of George Mallory, the English adventurer who, with a companion, disappeared close to the summit in 1924. Seventy-five years later his frozen body was discovered high up on the mountain. Its condition suggested he had fallen, but how high he got before his fatal accident is still unknown.

Nonetheless, there is no doubting the achievement of Hillary and Tenzing. After Hillary died in January 2008 (22 years after Tenzing), Morris recalled: “His reaction to scaling Everest was the same as to all else: it came very easily to him. He expected to do it, and he had done it. He told me the whole story; it was a workmanlike account, a mountaineer’s account, as if he had climbed any other mountain. It may be that it meant far more to him than he was prepared to admit, but he would have hated to have been thought boastful. He was very modest.”

Indeed, there is an understated quality to accounts of the 1953 expedition. Presumably using Hillary as his main source, Morris – who, as Jan Morris, later earned widespread fame as a travel writer – even described the view from Everest’s peak on that May morning as “not spectacular: they were too high for good landscape, and all below looked flat and monotonous.”

But being first in anything matters. And it might well not have been Hillary and Tenzing who got the fame; another pair on their expedition had tried to ascend before them but had to turn back. Everest had seen off another challenge.

Now, when several thousand people have reached the summit – and more than 235 have died trying, with the most recent fatality occurring in April – it can be difficult to grasp the significance of that feat in 1953, the year in which Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot premiered in Paris, Joseph Stalin died and the structure of DNA was first described. Now, lists are kept of specific categories: youngest to get to the summit (13, in 2010); oldest (76, 2008); first to climb without oxygen (1978); first woman (1975); first blind man (2001); even the first to try snowboarding down (also 2001). That such statistics are kept underlines the fact that simply getting to the top is not always considered newsworthy.

But to many not in the thrall of mountains, the obvious question remains: why would you even try? It is difficult and dangerous. The weather can be treacherous; extreme altitude can cause physical exhaustion and mental impairment; and, oh yes, it is very cold. Perhaps American climber Cory Richards (National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year, 2012) put it best when he said: “Climbing is akin to love. It’s hard to explain; we endure pain for the joy that comes with discovering ourselves and the planet.”

Yet for all the talk of heartbreak, love tends to be less deadly than climbing the highest peaks. Richards and two companions nearly died in an avalanche in Pakistan in 2011.

Perhaps it is wrong to think of ‘conquering’ the mountain or, as Hillary put it, knocking off “the bastard”. Many who climb Everest, including Hillary and Brigitte Muir (the first Australian woman to do it; see our story, right) later invest considerable time and effort trying to enhance the welfare of local people and protecting the Everest environment, which has suffered because of all those determined to climb it.

Quite often, any sense of triumph at the top is fleeting. Lincoln Hall, a member of the first Australian party to climb Everest in 1984, finally reached the summit in 2006 – and then nearly died during the descent. He wrote later: “As I looked down on Makalu [another mountain] from Everest, I felt a different kind of joy. Being above the world’s fifth-highest peak gave me no sense of conquest. Rather, there was a sense of fulfilment.” On the summit, he was more exhausted than euphoric. “I was being so economical with my energy that I would not let any of it be taken by jubilation… Not until I was off the mountain.”

In 1985, veteran English climber Chris Bonington reached the summit, aged 50 (which made him, briefly, the oldest to have climbed it). The top of the world, he wrote later, “is the size of a pool table”. When he got down, and had time to reflect, he experienced “a sense of profound contentment”. Almost 32 years after the historic ascent by Hillary and Tenzing, he was also conscious of those who had died trying. Most accounts of successful ascents describe climbers passing frozen bodies.

Bonington collected some souvenirs from just below the summit, a few pebbles: limestone “formed millions of years ago at the bottom of the ocean… and then thrust up here, to the highest point of earth, by the drift together of the two tectonic plates of India and the Asian landmass”. That geological progress continues. The Himalayas are still being pushed upwards. “Each year,” Bonington observes, “Everest is a few centimetres higher.”