Race to the top of the world: the story of the 1953 conquest of Everest
The year 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, a feat achieved by a humble New Zealander and a supremely experienced Sherpa. But it had been a long trek before the world’s highest mountain had been conquered. Robin Ashcroft charts the trials, tragedies and triumphs that led to Hillary and Tenzing’s climb – and its implications for Britain on the world stage
Shortly before 11.30am on 29 May 1953, with “a few more whacks of the ice-axe”, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest. Their time at the top was brief – just 15 minutes – but well recorded. Hilary wrote that: “There was no disguising [Tenzing’s] infectious grin of pure delight.”
The New Zealander did, though, omit one detail from his original account – that, having summited the world’s highest mountain, soaring to 8,849 metres, he’d had “no choice but to urinate on it”. It’s an odd detail to mention but, as the story of their triumph shows, an important one.
In the seven decades since 1953, more than 6,000 people from many nations have stood on Everest’s summit. At that time, though, it was seen as essentially a ‘British’ mountain, first surveyed from British-ruled India and thus targeted by British mountaineers. And climbing Everest was arguably the last major British imperial project.
How did Everest get its British name?
The seeds of the story were sown in 1847, when the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India set its sights on the eastern Himalaya. On the distant horizon, 120 miles beyond the Indian-Nepalese border, rose an insignificant summit known to the British initially as Peak XV. It wasn’t until five years later that, following complex calculations, the survey’s ‘Chief Computer’, mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, established that this mountain was the world’s highest. It was named in honour of the previous surveyor general of India, Sir George Everest.
At the time, the sport of mountaineering was experiencing a golden age in Europe – in part, thanks to the efforts of Britain’s Alpine Club. But peak-baggers would be denied the chance to ascend Everest for decades more, because it stood in forbidden territory sandwiched between Tibet and Nepal. Following the euphemistically named Younghusband Expedition of 1903–04 – in effect, a British invasion – Tibet opened its borders.
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However, the region remained highly sensitive, and access for mountaineering was barred. The first real attempt to approach Everest by a western foreigner was made in 1913 by British Army officer John Noel, who donned a disguise to cross illegally into Tibet. He travelled to within 40 miles of the mountain, becoming the first westerner to see it up close before being arrested by the Tibetans and ejected back into British territory.
The ‘third pole’ for British explorers
During the 19th century, Britain – under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) – had mapped much of the globe. However, in the early 20th century the RGS fellows’ noses were firmly out of joint, with Britain having been beaten to the north and south poles. In 1919, when Noel gave a lecture to the RGS about his travels, the fellows realised that the world’s highest mountain offered an untouched new target for exploration, dubbed the ‘third pole’.
So the RGS invited the mountaineers of the Alpine Club to join with them to form a new body: the Mount Everest Committee. At that stage, barely anything was known about Everest. Noel had identified a possible climber’s route up the North and then the North-east Ridge, but nobody knew how to reach them.
The first real attempt to approach Everest by a western foreigner was made by British Army officer John Noel, who donned a disguise to cross illegally into Tibet
The first step to solving that conundrum was the 1921 Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, which approached from Tibet – Nepal still being closed to western foreigners. Its members, including ill-fated mountaineer George Mallory, succeeded in surveying some 12,000 square miles of unknown terrain. During an early traverse, Mallory peered into – but could not reach, being barred by “a hopeless precipice” – the Western Cwm, a steep-sided hollow that would prove a key stage on the summit route.
Yet the answer to the main problem still eluded them: how to gain the northern ridges? The pieces started to fall into place when the team realised that a stream issuing from a stony slope must be fed by meltwater from a hidden source – the previously unknown East Rongbuk Glacier, obscured till then by high ridges. Climbing above that ice river, on 24 September 1921 a team reached the sharp edged pass known as the North Col – and the door to Everest creaked open.
Early attempts on the summit
Expeditions intent on the summit followed in 1922 in 1924. The 1922 attempt included Mallory and was marred by the deaths of seven Sherpa porters during an avalanche – the first reported climbing deaths on the mountain. On the latter expedition, Mallory and his climbing companion Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine failed to return from their third summit at tempt; Mallory’s body lay undiscovered on the mountain for three-quarters of a century.
Nevertheless, their achievements were considerable, not least the 1924 ascent by Edward Norton who reached a then-record altitude of some 8,573 metres before turning back, faced with tough terrain and short on time. None of the four subsequent British expeditions of the 1930s topped that record. One of the mountaineers involved with those was Eric Shipton, who went on to play an important role in Everest missions into the early 1950s.
The Second World War enforced a hiatus in attempts. In 1950, though, the geopolitical situation changed. Chinese forces invaded Tibet, blocking the established approach route to Everest. Fortunately for would-be summiteers, Nepal had finally opened its borders to western mountaineers. Lurking in the archives of the RGS were pictures of Everest’s South-east Ridge, captured by secret photo reconnaissance flights during the Second World War. These photos opened the possibility of a climbing route from the south, via the Western Cwm spied by Mallory back in 1921.
The 1951 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition
The Mount Everest Committee duly reconvened as the Joint Himalayan Committee. Once again, the challenge was to find a way onto the mountain. As Mallory had observed on first viewing the Western Cwm, its glacier looked “terribly broken and steep” – the infamous Khumbu Icefall. The 1951 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, led by Shipton and including the New Zealander Hillary, aimed to find a route through. Hillary was the first to gain the top of the Icefall, but found access to the Western Cwm barred by a massive crevasse.
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Geographical features weren’t the only obstacles. The Joint Himalayan Committee was slow in submitting paperwork to the Nepalese government for a 1952 expedition, and a Swiss team secured the mountain for that year. Fortunately for the British, though the Swiss pioneered a route from the head of the Khumbu Icefall up to the South Col and onto the South-east Ridge, they were brought to a halt below the South Summit.
Lacking direct experience of Everest – specifically, of the ‘pyramid’ system, whereby supplies are carried up the mountain camp by camp in progressively reducing quantities to equip the highest for the summit attempt – the Swiss team’s build-up proved inadequate. Critically, they didn’t get workable stoves to their top camp, so were unable to melt ice for water. Also, the oxygen sets they brought were designed for miners, not mountaineers, and could deliver oxygen only when the climbers were resting.
Who led the 1953 expedition?
By 1953, Britain could not only call upon experience from eight previous expeditions but also on physiological research from the Second World War. Even so, the pressure was on – and other countries were waiting in the wings. If the first ascent of Everest were to be made by a British expedition, it had to succeed that year. They could no longer afford the sporting approach of the pre-war era.
It was assumed that the hugely experienced Shipton would lead the next expedition. However, he saw himself more as a mountain explorer than a climber – and, frankly, he was bored with Everest. His unsuitability became clear while leading Britain’s 1952 expedition to Cho Oyu (8,150 metres). Regarded as the most straightforward of the 8,000-metre peaks in the region, the attempt was seen as a rehearsal for Everest – but the expedition was a dismal failure.
It was assumed that the hugely experienced Eric Shipton would lead the next expedition. However, he saw himself more as a mountain explorer
Among his most strident critics was Griff Pugh, the expedition’s physiologist. During the Second World War, he had undertaken extensive research on high-altitude acclimatisation for mountain troops. Clearly, oxygen would have to be used on Everest, but Pugh also realised the critical importance of drinking water at altitude, calculating that up to 4 litres a day would be necessary. Having observed Shipton on Cho Oyu, Pugh felt strongly that his leadership wouldn’t deliver success.
Though publicly supportive of Shipton, in private Hillary concurred: “In my opinion, Eric is quite unsuitable as an Everest leader.” So the 1953 Everest expedition leader was Colonel John Hunt. A competent rather than outstanding mountaineer, he brought to the mission a soldier’s focus and a staff officer’s skills in organisation and logistics.
The expedition’s specialist equipment
The expedition made best use of many materials developed during the war: nylon for clothing and tents, insulated boots and aluminium equipment, but also lightweight walkie-talkies and nutritious, compact ration packs. Down clothing, filled with goose or duck feathers for insulation and worn by only one climber pre-war, was standard issue. Oxygen systems were greatly improved. Critically, the expedition carried Primus stoves, adapted by Pugh to work efficiently at altitude, to melt ice for all-important drinking water.
Peak performance: the packing list for the 1953 expedition
By 1924, climbers on Everest sported a well-designed clothing system made with the best wool, silk and cotton available. In 1953, nylon was used; however, the main leap forward from earlier expeditions was the down suit, filled with goose or duck feathers providing excellent insulation.
Nylon was woven with cotton for the windproof suits used in 1953. But the new material proved most useful in ropes: being stronger than natural fibre, it absorbs the shock of a falling climber, and doesn’t become heavy when damp, nor rigid when frozen.
“One pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back,” or so the old hiker’s saying goes. Though the boots worn in 1953 were excellent, those used in 1924 were equally well designed – the lightest ever worn high on Everest, even today. No climber wearing either design succumbed to frostbite.
These were needed on snow and ice but, despite an emerging trend to use crampons with ‘front points’, the British mountaineers preferred to cut steps in the ice, and went for an older design.
Supplementary oxygen would be needed high on Everest. Early oxygen sets were too heavy, but efforts during the Second World War led to the development of bottles that could hold enough to compensate for the weight of the sets.
Stoves and fuel
Everest has been climbed many times without bottled oxygen – but never without plenty of drinking water. By 1953, it was understood that up to 4 litres a day would be required; climbers carried specially adapted stoves and sufficient fuel to melt enough ice for drinking water.
The crevasse at the head of the Khumbu Icefall would be bridged by Duralumin ladders. However, as the expedition’s chief Sherpa (the Himalayan people who traditionally portered and assisted on the mountains) Tenzing Norgay pointed out, there were many other crevasses in the Icefall that would slow down the movement of supplies. His solution: have pine trees felled and the trunks carried in to span these fissures.
By this time, Tenzing had been on Everest six times – more than any other climber – and had climbed high on the South-east Ridge with the Swiss in 1952. As the most experienced member of this expedition, it was no surprise when Hunt chose him to join one of the summit parties. The traditional relationship between British and Sherpa was friendly but paternalistic, essentially that of client and hired hand.
With the Swiss it was more equal: both were mountain peoples, with no legacy of empire to hinder relations. To be fair to the British and Hunt, there was a genuine desire to see a Sherpa on the summit: they were very capable mountaineers, and they deserved to be there.
Hunt didn’t always get it right, as demonstrated by an early incident in Kathmandu. The climbers were housed in some comfort in the British embassy; the Sherpa contingent, billeted in garages, showed their displeasure by urinating in the road outside. The matter was dealt with effectively, but it did show that colonial attitudes were being challenged.
Preparing for the push in 1953
The expedition made good progress under Hunt’s leadership, establishing Advance Base Camp at 6,400 metres on 1 May. Following setbacks and challenges, on 21 May Wilfred Noyce and Sherpa Annullu reached the South Col. A heroic effort by a follow-on Sherpa party led by Charles Wylie ensured that sufficient logistics were at the base of the South-east Ridge for two or three summit attempts.
On 26 May, Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon were climbing on the South-east Ridge using the theoretically more-efficient but temperamental closed-circuit oxygen sets. Though this equipment malfunctioned, they succeeded in reaching the South Summit. Before retiring, they got a good view of the ridge beyond, noting a formidable step barring the ridge. On 28 May, a high camp was established at around 8,500 metres by Hillary and Tenzing, with George Lowe, Alf Gregory and Ang Nyima in support.
Tenzing had been on Everest six times – more than any other climber
New Zealander Hillary had been chosen for a summit attempt thanks to his experience and ability on ice and snow, honed on the heavily glaciated mountains of his homeland. Tenzing was selected as probably the strongest climber overall.
How did Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay make their ascent?
Waking at 4am, Hillary and Tenzing emerged from their tent and shouldered the reliable open-circuit oxygen sets. They reached the South Summit at 9am before embarking on the final knife-edge ridge, with its challenging step – subsequently named after Hillary, who climbed it first. At the top, he signalled Tenzing to come up, where he “collapsed at the top like a giant fish” – or so Hillary said.
At times, the ridge seemed “never ending” and a “grim struggle” – till, suddenly, the slope “instead of rising, now dropped sharply away” – and the summit was theirs. Keen to avoid claiming precedence, Hillary wrote in The Ascent of Everest that “we stood on top.” Much later, Tenzing revealed that Hillary had reached the summit a few steps before him.
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As for Hillary relieving himself, it demonstrated an important point. Pugh’s insight on drinking enough water had been crucial, as had Hunt’s logistical planning. That ensured sufficient supplies of oxygen, stoves and fuel to melt ice at the final camp. Britain’s pre-war gentlemanly, rather amateur approach had been replaced by hard-nosed professionalism.
Timeline: the steps to the summit of Everest
Radhanath Sikdar of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India calculates that the mountain known simply as Peak XV is the world’s highest. It is subsequently – and somewhat controversially – named after the former surveyor general of India, George Everest.
Young British lieutenant John Noel slips illegally over the border from India into Tibet, approaching to within 40 miles of Everest. Before being arrested and deported, he identifies a climber’s route up the mountain’s northern ridges.
Noel delivers a lecture to the Royal Geographical Society. This enthuses fellows to establish (with the British Alpine Club) the Mount Everest Committee, targeting the so-called ‘Third Pole’.
A British reconnaissance expedition explores, surveys and maps the Everest massif from the Tibetan side, identifying a viable approach route to the mountain’s northern ridges.
1922 & 1924
During two further British expeditions, climbers work their way up the North and North-east Ridges. On the latter mission, Edward Norton reaches about 8,573 metres – within 300 metres of the top. George Mallory and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine disappear a few days later on a further summit attempt.
1933 to 1938
Four expeditions return to Everest; none climbs higher than Norton’s record altitude.
The Everest Reconnaissance Expedition makes the first ascent of the Khumbu Icefall from the recently opened Nepali side – China having invaded Tibet in 1950, closing off the northern approach.
A Swiss expedition gains permission from Nepal to mount the only expedition on Everest this year, climbing high on the South-east Ridge but stopping short of the summit.
Rattled by the Swiss effort, the British Everest Expedition is determined to achieve the first ascent. On 29 May 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stand on the summit.
Dougal Haston and Doug Scott become the first Britons to reach the summit, climbing via the tough South-west Face on an expedition led by Chris Bonington.
Much has been made of how the news was whisked to London by Times correspondent James Morris in time for the coronation of Elizabeth II four days later. But as Mike Westmacott, the climber who escorted Morris down through the Icefall, later commented: “Yes, we were keen to get the news out, and James was worried about losing the scoop, but we’d largely forgotten about the coronation. It was an accident, but a happy accident.”
Amid talk of a new ‘Elizabethan Golden Age’, the ascent was the icing on the cake for 2 June 1953. “All this – and Everest too!” cheered the Daily Express. That day was a watershed, redolent with postwar hopes for a more meritocratic society. The British mountaineering establishment, too, was being challenged by a new generation of climbers. Two years later, on 25 May 1955, the first ascent of the world’s third-highest summit, Kangchenjunga, was achieved by Joe Brown, a working-class plumber from Manchester (albeit with the middle-class George Band).
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Mountaineering, as with much of British society, was becoming more open. Leading mountaineers were no longer drawn only from the public schools, Oxbridge or the officers mess. In 1975, the first British climbers to summit Everest were the decidedly egalitarian hippyish Doug Scott and Dougal Haston.
And, the sun having set on the British empire, the Sherpa’s standing on Everest also changed radically. Today they are highly respected in their own right, making a good living leading clients to the summit instead of merely shouldering loads for ‘Sahib’.
Robin Ashcroft is a writer specialising in mountaineering and the history of exploration
This article was first published in the June 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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