Three generations of British mountaineers committed themselves to standing where no one ever had before.
Strangely, the highest mountain in the world has probably been visited most frequently not by the native Nepalese and Tibetans who have lived for centuries in its shadow, but by British explorers and surveyors. While the local populations could catch an occasional glimpse of the giant between the smaller intervening mountains and through the almost constant veil of clouds and snow that enshroud the summit, local taboos discouraged them from venturing very close.
In 1852 Sir Andrew Waugh, the Director-General of the British Ordnance Survey of India, was told that careful measurements indicated that the mountain rose more than 29,000 feet above sea level. Until then, Everest was known simply as ‘Peak XV’. Sir Andrew questioned nearby inhabitants in an effort to learn the local name of the mountain, but was unable to discover any. Since Peak XV seemed an unsatisfactory designation for the world’s highest mountain, Sir Andrew named it after his predecessor, Sir George Everest.
The thought of climbing Everest did not take hold immediately, but in 1857, only a few years after Sir Andrew Waugh’s discovery, the British Alpine Club was formed. The sport of mountaineering was enjoying tremendous popularity in Britain and within a relatively short time British climbers, under the direction and support of the Alpine Club, had conquered many of Europe’s highest and most inaccessible peaks.
By the end of the 19th century, the need for new challenges prompted mountaineers to look toward Asia, and the hope of reaching the highest point on earth became a common desire among the best British climbers. For years, however, the most difficult part of the dreamed-of ascent was taking the very first step. Neither Tibet nor Nepal would allow Europeans across their borders, and without access to at least one of these countries, Everest was beyond reach.
Not until January 1921 did the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club receive permission from Tibet to send a joint expedition to Everest. In the resulting excitement, no one could have guessed that more than 30 more years would pass before British climbers reached the summit.
Since so little was known of the local geography, the 1921 expedition was described as a ‘reconnaissance’. Officially, the expedition’s goal was to chart the best course to the summit, while the scientists of the Royal Geographical Society took advantage of their presence in Tibet to study Himalayan geology and botany. No attempt to reach the summit was planned, although the climbers were ready to jump at any favourable opportunity that might arise.
Nearing the base of the mountain, George Leigh-Mallory and a fellow climber parted from the scientists of the Royal Geographical Society and, after weeks of climbing, backtracking and detouring around obstacles, reached a saddle-shaped piece of ground called the North Col. Here, high winds halted Mallory at an altitude of 23,000 feet.
Guided by the results of this reconnaissance, a second expedition left Britain for Everest the following year. Unlike the first expedition, the second team of explorers had the summit as its primary goal. Preparations for the 1922 expedition prompted the first debate over the use of oxygen cylinders by the climbers. Purists among the mountaineers insisted that it was just not sporting to rely on an artificial supply of oxygen. Other opponents cited more practical concerns. Dependence on oxygen could be fatal if the delicate apparatus malfunctioned, and the strain of carrying the heavy cylinders up the mountain, some said, would more than offset the refreshment provided by their contents. The issue was not conclusively decided, but in the end the expedition equipped itself with the cylinders and took a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.
Even without using the oxygen, George Leigh-Mallory, E. F. Norton, and Howard Somervell climbed higher than any ever had before, but after painfully slow progress, they abandoned the effort at 27,000 feet.
A second attempt, this time with the benefit of oxygen, followed a few days later. Faced with less favourable conditions, the second party did only marginally better, reaching 27,300 feet. A third and final attempt ended in disaster when an avalanche killed seven porters. In shock and dismay, the British expedition admitted defeat.
Two years later, veterans of the 1922 expedition re-entered Tibet, confident that the lessons gained from the previous failures were adequate assurance of success. From the outset the third expedition met with more extreme weather than had either of the previous two. It took a superhuman effort just to reach the customary jumping off point on the North Col, and by the time a camp had been established there the entire expedition had nearly reached the limit of its endurance. It seemed that all the advance planning had been derailed by the weather, but, unwilling to return to England without making a try for the summit, the climbers pushed on upward and established two additional camps, the highest of which was at 26,800 feet.
On 6th June, E. F. Norton climbed to within 900 feet of the summit before giving up. Two days later, George Leigh-Mallory and Andrew Irvine made another attempt but never returned to camp. Members of the next major expedition to Everest, in 1933, found an ice-axe at 27,600 feet that apparently marked the site of a fatal accident.
The ruler and spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, viewed the tragedy as a sign that the spirits who lived on the mountain were angered by the European intrusion and he again closed his country’s border for nearly a decade. During the frustrating interval the mountain became an obsession with British climbers, who felt they had a personal score to settle. A new generation of mountaineers, including Eric Shipton, Hugh Ruttledge, and Frank Smythe, stepped forward to take the place of the Everest pioneers.
Eric Shipton later remembered that when British climbers returned to the mountain in 1933, none of the members of the expedition seriously questioned their ability to reach the summit, but again Everest threw an obstacle in the confident team’s path. Monsoon weather, which usually does not begin until June, arrived three weeks early, bringing with it some of the worst conditions ever encountered on Everest. The wind and snow drove one of the native porters temporarily out of his mind. Convinced he was dead, he refused to walk, pointing out to the others that a corpse had never been known to do so.
Both the 1933 expedition and another smaller attempt made two years later met with no more success than any of the previous efforts. In 1936 the early arrival of the monsoon again dashed the hopes of a major expedition. By 1938 enthusiasm for further attempts was beginning to wane in some quarters and the Alpine Club’s Everest Committee was undergoing financial difficulties. A small expedition mounted that year by climbers who paid part of their own expenses did nothing to alter the now-familiar result of the Everest expeditions.
The 1938 effort was the last before the Second World War diverted Britain’s attention away from the Himalayas, but this interval marked a decisive turning point in the British campaign against Everest. Following the War, the Tibetan border was again closed, but Anglo-Nepalese relations underwent a renaissance. Thus the southern route to Everest, never before attempted, was opened for exploration.
In 1951 a reconnaissance, comparable to the 1921 exploration to the north, probed the southern approaches to Everest in search of a feasible path to the summit. A practical route was discovered, but contrary to the northern slope, the most difficult part of the southern ascent was at a relatively low altitude, where ice that had fallen from above was twisted by the shifting surface of a glacier into deep crevasses and towering ledges.
The following year, the first major non-British assaults on Everest were made by Swiss expeditions. Though a friendly spirit of co-operation existed between the British and Swiss mountaineers, there must have been some carefully restrained feelings of satisfaction among British climbers when the Swiss failed to snatch away the prize that had eluded the Alpine Club for so long.
In 1953 British explorers returned to Everest in earnest and the Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society selected John Hunt to lead the latest attempt. The veteran mountaineer had been born in nearby India and had spent much of his life in Everest’s shadow. He came from rugged stock, being a distant relation of Sir Richard Burton.
Throughout his life, Hunt seemed to find himself almost constantly in the vicinity of mountains. During his childhood, he spent many summers on holiday in the Alps, where he first acquired a taste for climbing. After graduating from Sandhurst, he received a second lieutenant’s commission in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and posted to India. While on leave from his duties, he climbed in the nearby mountains, acquiring skills and a reputation that earned him a spot in several major mountaineering expeditions prior to the Second World War. The War put a stop to his recreational climbing, but gave him new opportunities to employ his talents when he was made the chief instructor of the Army’s Commando Mountain and Snow Warfare School. Following the War, he was sent to Greece, where he trained troops on Mount Olympus.
By the time Hunt was put in charge of the assault on Everest, the Alpine Club’s frustration had turned to desperation. The 1953 expedition’s planners considered every conceivable innovation that might prove decisive. The use of oxygen was still controversial, but since the 1920s breathing apparatus had become lighter and more reliable; therefore, the practical objections to its use were no longer as valid.
Those who still protested that it gave climbers an unfair advantage must have been horrified at some of the more radical suggestions made to Hunt. Among the colourful devices suggested by well-wishers were helium balloons that could be attached to the climbers to reduce their weight, and motorized sleds on which they could ride in comfort. Other suggested that the burden of hauling oxygen to the top of Everest could be eliminated by any of a number of alternatives, including airlifting oxygen cylinders to the expedition once it had reached a critical altitude; shooting cylinders up Everest with a mortar; or doing away with cylinders altogether by substituting an oxygen pipeline, complete with ‘faucets’ at which climber could pause for a gulp of fresh air. ‘If yet another notion had been adopted’, remembered the expedition leader, ‘we might have put ourselves into pressurized suits’ and climbed the mountain ‘looking very much like advertisements for “Michelin” tyres.’
The expedition embraced none of these recommendations, but many of its members now considered oxygen itself as essential as food and warm clothing, and not an ‘unfair’ luxury, so the less exotic breathing apparatus was welcomed.
Hunt applied his military experience to the conquest of Everest, drilling his team in the Swiss Alps, the Scottish Highlands, and the mountains of Wales. During this ‘boot camp’ the mountaineers tested a wide variety of clothing, tents, boot, oxygen tanks, and other gear. Even after the party reached the Himalayas, they devoted three weeks to practice climbs on smaller peaks. As a result, the 1953 expedition was better prepared than any of the previous efforts.
On about 12th August, the expedition established its Base Camp, the first of nine small outposts that the climbers set up on the slopes of Everest. As expected, crossing the ice-fall proved extremely difficult. For nearly two weeks they duelled with the glacier, using ladders to cross deep cracks and picks to topple upright blocks of ice. The surface of the glacier changed almost daily; new crevasses appeared, old ones snapped shut, and new snowfalls covered laboriously cut trails.
Nevertheless, the British mountaineers successfully traversed the glacier. The next stage of the ascent, 4,500 feet to the South Col, was made through such poor weather that the expedition fell far behind schedule. A New Zealander, Edmund Hillary, and the native porter, Tenzing Norgay, both of whom Hunt had been resting for the final climb to the summit, were committed to the effort. Hillary’s presence boosted the morale of the other climbers and on the next day they finally reached the South Col and established Camp VIII.
Like Hunt, Hillary had become interested in mountain climbing at a young age. He took the sport seriously, spending two seasons each year in the mountains of New Zealand, sharpening his skills. Despite suffering serious wounds during the Second World War, he resumed climbing after the armistice. The New Zealand Alpine Club recognized his accomplishments by selecting him to join both Eric Shipton’s 1951 expedition to Everest and, two years later, Hunt’s attempt. By 1953 Hillary had acquired an excellent reputation outside his native country. Hunt later wrote of him:
Although his climbing experience dates from immediately after the war, he had quickly risen to the foremost rank among mountaineers in his own country. His testing in the Himalaya[s]had shown that he would be a very strong contender, not only for Everest, but for an eventual summit party. Quite exceptionally strong and abounding in a restless energy, possessed of a thrusting mind which swept aside all unproved obstacles, Hillary’s personality had made its imprint on my mind . . . long before we met.
Following their success in reaching the South Col, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay returned to a lower altitude to rest, while Charles Evans and Thomas Bourdillon made a first effort to reach the summit. Hunt and Sherpa Da Namgyal followed the first pair with the supplies need to set up a final camp. The expedition leader reached 27,750 feet before the heavy load he carried exhausted him. Leaving the supplies for Camp IX behind, he and Da Namgyal returned to their starting point. Evans and Bourdillon achieved a notable success, climbing to a new record altitude. But running out of both daylight and oxygen, they were forced to turn back just 300 feet below the summit.
With oxygen enough for only one more attempt, Hillary and Tenzing got their long-awaited chance to conquer Everest. For the first part of their ascent, four other climbers accompanied them, carrying extra supplies for Camp IX to add to those Hunt had already left behind.
Hillary and Tenzing pitched a tent at 28,200 feet and spent the night alone on a narrow ledge of ice. Taking periodic breaths from their dwindling stocks of oxygen, the two rested as much as possible before the next morning’s 800-foot ascent.
The morning of 29th May broke to reveal some uncharacteristically fine weather. The climbers left their tent at 6.30 a.m. and after a steady five-hour climb, noticed that the slope abruptly angled downward, revealing the familiar features of the North Face. ‘I felt good at the top’ Hillary remembered. ‘It was a beautiful day with a moderate wind. As we got there, my companion threw his arms around me and embraced me.’ Neither of the climbers felt particularly tired. Hillary removed his oxygen mask and for about 20 minutes the two men photographed each other, gazed down upon glaciers nearly 30,000 feet below, and searched unsuccessfully for any indications that George Leigh-Mallory had been there before his death.
The report of Hillary’s success reached England just hours before the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and was interpreted as a sign of good times to come for the new Monarch. Three years later a Swiss expedition would duplicate Hillary’s feat, and in 1963 four Americans reached the summit, two via the supposedly unassailable West Ridge. All of these subsequent mountaineers, however, benefited from the lessons learned by the nine British expeditions–a debt acknowledged in the United States by President Eisenhower as early as 1954, when he awarded Hunt and Hillary the National Geographic Society’s Cullum Medal.