Great Explorers - A Tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary

A tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary (July 20th 1919 – January 11 2008), written shortly after his death. Updated October 2015.

Hillary cuts an iconic figure in mountaineering history. Hillary is a man known for many things - his philanthropy, his charisma, an illustrious career in adventure - but nothing more so than being the first man to summit Everest. On 29 May 1953 at the age of 33, he and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers known to have reached the summit of Mount Everest. They were part of the ninth British expedition to Everest, led by John Hunt.

Trekker enjoying breathtaking views of Everest Trekker enjoying breathtaking views of Everest

Hillary's climbing career began in his native New Zealand long before. His Everest attempts began with a British reconnaissance expedition to Everest in 1951 led by Eric Shipton before joining the successful British attempt of 1953.

In 1952 Hillary and George Lowe were part of the British team led by Eric Shipton that attempted Cho Oyu. After that attempt failed due to the lack of route from the Nepal side, Hillary and Lowe crossed the Lho-La into Tibet and reached the old Camp II, on the northern side, where all the pre-war expeditions camped.

1953 Everest Expedition

John Hunt led Hillary's 1953 expedition to Mt. Everest. The route to Everest was closed by Chinese-controlled Tibet, and Nepal only allowed one expedition per year.

The Hunt expedition totalled over 400 people, including 362 porters, twenty Sherpa guides and 10,000 lbs of baggage and like many such expeditions, was a team effort. Hillary forged a route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.

Everest Basecamp in climbing season Everest Basecamp today

The expedition set up base camp in March 1953, working slowly it set up its final camp at the South Col at 7,900 metres (25,900 ft). On 26 May Bourdillon and Evans attempted the climb but turned back when Evans' oxygen system failed. The pair had reached the South Summit, coming within 300 vertical feet (91 m) of the summit. Hunt then directed Hillary and Tenzing to go for the summit.

Snow and wind held Hillary and Tenzing up at the South Col for two days, they set out on 28 May with a support trio of Lowe, Alfred Gregory and Ang Nyima. The two pitched their tent at 8,500 metres (27,900 ft) on 28 May while their support group returned down the mountain.

On the following morning Hillary discovered that his boots had frozen solid outside the tent. He spent two hours warming them before he and Tenzing attempted the final ascent wearing 30-pound (14 kg) packs. The crucial move of the last part of the ascent was the 40-foot (12 m) rock face later named the "Hillary Step". Hillary saw a means to wedge his way up a crack in the face between the rock wall and the ice and Tenzing followed. From there the following effort was relatively simple. They reached Everest's 29,028 ft (8,848 m) summit, the highest point on earth, at 11:30 am. As Hillary put it, "A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow, and we stood on top."

They spent only about 15 minutes at the summit. They unsuccessfully looked for evidence of the earlier Mallory expedition. Hillary took Tenzing's photo, Tenzing left chocolates in the snow as an offering, and Hillary left a cross that he had been given. Sadly because Tenzing did not know how to use a camera, there are no pictures of Hillary there.

The two had to take care on the descent after discovering that drifting snow had covered their tracks to complicate the task. The first person they met was Lowe, who had climbed up to greet them from their monumental achievement with hot soup.

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