On this day, 68 years ago, two remarkable men captivated the world by reaching the summit of the highest point on earth.
At 29,035ft, on May 29 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay raised their arms to the sky and embraced one another at the top of Mount Everest. The pair had become the first explorers to set foot on the peak of the world’s highest mountain.
The final push to the summit almost didn’t happen after the climbers feared they would be stuck at 27,900ft where they had spent the night sheltering from a dramatic storm which threatened to bring the daring expedition to a halt.
News of their incredible achievement didn’t reach the wider world until four days later, when they descended to base camp and dispatched a runner to the Namche Bazar radio post from where a coded message was sent to London.
The message was read to a delighted Princess Elizabeth on the eve of her coronation as Queen.
News of the successful ascent was then sent around the world the following day as Her Royal Highness was crowned.
The 1953 attempt was launched after British expedition parties, who dominated a string of previous efforts over 30 years, were alarmed at how close a Swiss expedition featuring Tenzing Norgay had come to reaching Everest’s peak.
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A new party was quickly formed under the leadership of Colonel John Hunt – a decorated war hero and chief instructor at the Commando Mountain and Snow Warfare School in Braemar.
Hunt was keen to tap into the talent of the Commonwealth nations, and personally sought out New Zealanders George Lowe and Edmund Hillary – both renowned for their mountaineering skills. He also drafted in Nepal’s most experienced Sherpa – Tenzing Norgay.
Despite rushing the expedition together, Hunt was able to attract reasonable funding and furnished its members with the latest in insulated clothing, oxygen systems and portable radio equipment.
Many lessons had been learned from several previous attempts, with the advice and opinions noted from experienced heads.
Earlier efforts stretched back to 1921 with a British expedition that had trekked more than 400 miles across Tibetan plateaus just to reach base camp. The attempt had been reasonably successful, so much so that one of the mountaineers – George Leigh Mallory – was able to make out what he believed to be a potentially viable route to the top.
Excited at the prospect, Mallory returned the following year for two more attempts where George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce ascended above 27,000ft.
An obsessed Mallory was quizzed by a journalist about why he wanted to climb Everest. “Because it’s there,” he replied.
His second ascent of the year had to be abandoned after an avalanche claimed the lives of seven Khumbu porters.
Britain’s quest returned in 1924 when Edward Norton – climbing without oxygen tanks – came within 900ft of the summit before the weather turned and he was forced back.
Mallory was back – just four days later – with Andrew Irvine. They were never seen alive again.
In 1999, high on the mountain, climbers discovered the frozen body of George Mallory. He had suffered multiple fractures, symptomatic of a catastrophic fall.
Historians had hoped to find some clue as to whether or not Mallory or Irvine had reached the summit. It remains a mystery to this day.
What is certain, however, is that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay claimed the peak on May 29 1953 after spending nearly two months edging further and further up the mountain as key members of Col Hunt’s expedition.
They created a new route through the Khumbu Icefall, then up the Western Cwm and along the Lhotse Face before establishing camp on the South Col at 26,000ft.
The first assault from 26,000ft came from Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon. Unfortunately, a faulty oxygen system forced them to return just 300ft from the summit.
Then, on May 28, came the turn of Tenzing and Hillary who spent a sleepless night at 27,900ft before deciding to go for the top at sunrise.
They reached South Summit shortly before 9am and agreed to then take on the peak.
Hillary made the first move, slowly climbing a vertical crevice in the rock face which would later be named ‘The Hillary Step’. He lowered a rope to his colleague 40ft below, before both Norgay and Hillary set foot – together – on top of the world.
Both Hillary and Hunt were knighted later in 1953, while Tenzing Norgay was awarded the British Empire Medal.