Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mount Everest Anniversary: Hillary, Mallory and Further Thoughts

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the first summiting of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.  At the time, this stupendous feat ranked with Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic, but whereas Lindbergh's daring can be purchased for the mere price of ponying up sufficient coin for a nice seat on Icelandair, so now the ascent of the greatest mountain on the planet can be purchased for some telling stamina, the time of some guides, and about $65,000.

But for the British expedition of 1953, this was then an unspoiled wilderness in the starkest of terms.  The British were surprised at the success of the Swiss in reconnoitering the mountain in 1952, with members climbing to 28,199 feet of the 29,035-foot mountain, and knew that they would have to make a serious attempt to summit it before the upcoming French and Swiss attempts.  The Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society chose Colonel John Hunt over Eric Shipton, a controversial choice at the time, to lead their next and ninth expedition. 

Colonel John Hunt, CBE, DSO (these prior to the assault on Everest, from action in Italy and Greece during World War II) was already a noted mountaineer from his upbringing in India and experience with the Indian Army under the British, as he had led several mountain ascents into the Himalayas, an experience which found him in command of the Commando Mountain and Snow Warfare School at the beginning of the war. 

He chose a team noted for their mountaineering experience as well as their temperament, and successfully guided the enormous logistical feat of staging tons of gear and supplies in successive altitudes up the mountain.  Hunt's first choice to attempt the summit, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, made it within about 350 feet of the summit but were beaten back by exhaustion and oxygen problems on the 26th, and Hunt chose Hillary and Norgay, a veteran of the Swiss expedition the year before, for the final attempt a few days later when the weather was more cooperative. 

Edmund Hillary was a native of Auckland and like his father, an ANZAC veteran of the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I, was a beekeeper by profession but an avid mountaineer in his own right.  Experience in World War II as a navigator in the RNZAF broke him out of his Kiwi world.  He was part of Himalayan expeditions in 1951 and 1952 and helped chart routes by way of Nepal, since the previous Tibetan routes were closed after Communist China forcibly absorbed Tibet in 1950. 

Hillary and Norgay made it to what they discovered to be the last obstacle, a 40-foot rock face now called the Hillary Step.  Hillary wedged himself between the rock and an ice overhang to surmount it, and after "a few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow", Hillary and Norgay stood atop the world's highest point, some two-thirds of the way up through the atmosphere, and gazed down on the largest vista ever seen by earth-bound man, a hundred miles to the horizon, and remarked on the curvature of the Earth while standing at the cruising altitude of a modern airliner.

Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir John Hunt, and Tenzing Norgay

This was a tremendous news flash at the time, but Hillary was insistent that the credit go to the entire team and he was equally insistent that both he and Norgay summited at the same time to ensure that his friend receive equal credit.  (Some years later, Norgay graciously declared that in fact it was Hillary who was the first to the top.)  The two remained only for some fifteen minutes, quick enough for each to leave a crucifix and some cookies and chocolate for the gods of the mountains, and to snap a photo of Norgay and shots of the surrounding territory below them to establish that they had indeed made the top.  (Apparently Norgay was unfamiliar with how to work the camera and Hillary did not feel that there was enough time to instruct him, so there is no photo of Hillary on the summit.)

Tenzing Norgay on top of the world, 1953

Whether or not the team was the first to summit has been a controversial question for some time, as there is the story of the 1924 British expedition that made the attempt from the north side.  George Mallory and his partner Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine were sighted briefly as they were some 800 feet from the summit, before they disappeared.  (It was Mallory who is credited with the snappish reply to the inane question of a reporter who enquired about the appeal of climbing the mountain: "Because it's there.")  There are two features on that side, the First Step (relatively easy to scale) and the Second Step (far more time consuming) which figure into the story, as the last sighting had the two of them crossing over the Second Step in a matter of five minutes.  Some analyses believe that this was an error and the sighting was likely that Mallory and Irvine were scaling the First Step instead.  They were also late on their schedule for what are still unknown reasons.

The 1924 Expedition, with Mallory (hatless) and Irvine to his left

Chinese mountaineers later gave testimony, on separate occasions, to the presence of their bodies at separate locations at about the 27,000 foot level.  In 1960, Xu Jing spotted a body (a "foreign mountaineer", which at the time could have only been Mallory or Irvine) in a location that could correspond to a later (1995) spotting by a Sherpa named Chhiring.  In both cases, the climbers were somewhat in extremis and the details are confusing, but both could have spotted Irvine's body, which has yet to be discovered again.  The body of Mallory, however, was glimpsed by a Wang Hung Bao in a 1975 expedition and reported to a teammate as an "English dead", just hours before Wang was swept to his death in an avalanche.  That teammate passed the information to an American inquiry in 1979.

Eric Simonson led an expedition in 1999 to discover their remains and succeeded in locating, almost by chance in that enormous expanse, the body of Mallory, which by then had bleached and frozen into a state of organic white alabaster.  He had suffered broken ribs, a broken right leg, and a serious blow to his head above the right eye before his descent was stopped by a outcrop of stone.  He would have died within minutes in the snow squall which had overtaken them. 

One prize that the Simonson Expedition was seeking was a camera that the two missing explorers were known to have had with them (perhaps two) that could have evidence of a summit, but it was not with Mallory's body.  Kodak insists that, if handled very carefully, the camera can still yield some photographic evidence after all this time if it is subjected to modern techniques that they have at their disposal.  (I personally have to question the possible photographic quality after its presence for some 90 years at an altitude that is exposed to serious cosmic radiation, but that is for the scientists.)  The Holy Grail of a future expedition to locate the remains of Irvine would be the possibility of retrieving the camera fairly intact. 

Sir Edmund, ever the gentleman, addressed the controversy by stating, "Well, I may not have been the first to climb to the summit, but I was the first to do so and return."  This echoes the sentiment of Mallory's own son John, who was three years of age when his father disappeared on the north slope: "To me, the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive.  The job is only half done if you don't get down again."

The question remains about whether Mallory and Irvine died on their way to the top, or on the way down after their success.  It has been generally believed that they were unsuccessful – historian and mountaineer Tom Holzel stated his theory that Mallory, utilizing Irvine's extra oxygen, made a solo attempt after Irvine elected to remain at the Second Step, but after the collection of further evidence, Holzel has reversed himself.  (Holzel continues in his efforts to launch another expedition to locate Irvine's remains, and believes that he has found the location by high-definition aerial photography.)  Study of the attempt has also led to a better understanding of the role of barometric pressure at that altitude, beyond the more obvious weather considerations, and its unseen physiological effects which can tack on several hundred feet of artificial altitude by a slight variation in pressure. 

These stories are compelling, but nevertheless, two other thoughts come to mind when the subject of Everest pops up.  In 2003, the 50th anniversary, Hillary (who passed away in 2008) marked the occasion to lament, in no uncertain terms, what the area had become.  "I'm not very happy about the future of Everest.  Yesterday there were 1,000 there [at the main base camp] and some 500 tents.  There was a booze place for drinks.  Sitting around the base camp and knocking back cans of beer – I do not particularly view that as mountaineering. … They act as if they are the lords of the area. They don't consider the welfare of the local people. … Having people pay $65,000 and then be led up the mountain by a couple of guides, I personally think, is far less attractive.  It isn't really mountaineering at all."  Bravo.

The other item is the remark from Hillary Clinton, quoted in 1995 (and by her husband Bill in his book in 2004), that her mother was inspired by Sir Edmund's ascent and named her after him as a means to pass on to her daughter the inspiration of achieving great things as a woman.  Mrs Clinton mentioned this to Sir Edmund in person when she met him quite by chance in 1995 in Katmandu.  It is said that Sir Edmund tactfully pointed out (well, as tactfully as he was capable, surely) that the only written reference that her mother would have seen when Mrs Clinton was born in 1947 would have been his name in an Auckland phone book under the heading of 'beekeeper'.  Sir Edmund's ascent of Everest didn't occur until she was six years old.  This is another classic example of the Clintons as wholly political creatures who don't have the wherewithal to do a simple check of the facts, and whose glib need to popularize themselves yields to never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

Mountains have always had an enormous appeal to me, partly I suspect because I have spent so much of my adult life in sand, either on beaches or in deserts.  Now the closest mountain of real note is Mount Rainier and I have never had the satisfaction of being exhausted from exploring where I wanted, limited by practicalities of others.  My appetite was whetted years ago by occasional opportunities with the military, in various places stateside and later in the Alps and Dolomites.  It was always just enough to impress upon me the wonderful sense of the solitude of just a happy few in an immense expanse of rock and snow, with a sky a deeper blue filled with a keener light, surmounting a kaleidoscope of monochrome rocky grays and ice white.  Mother Nature there reveals her true self as a harsh mistress, ready to quickly snuff out the life of the unwary or careless in order to demonstrate our insignificant place on the planet.  But the thrill of knowing the truth of the matter still draws me.


  1. Interesting history, thanks. So many have followed them that the near-summit is now littered with the decomposing (in still-colorful apparel) of those who died just before reaching their goal.

  2. Thanks for the addition, Dick -- a very helpful illustration. When last I checked, the number of dead around the summit was somewhere around 175. With this, the number is well north of 200, with 8 more so far this year.

    Sir Edmund had his opinion on the matter too, in talking about the death of David Sharp in 2006:

    "They don't give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress and it doesn't impress me at all that they leave someone lying under a rock to die. ... I think that their priority was to get to the top and the welfare of ... a member of an expedition was very secondary."


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