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Everest — To the Top of the World

Everest lies on the border between Nepal and China's Tibetan Plateau. (To see a larger map, go to the Photo Gallery.)
Erik Dunham, NPR Online /
Everest lies on the border between Nepal and China's Tibetan Plateau. (To see a larger map, go to the Photo Gallery.)

A half century ago, Edmund Hillary, a beekeeper from New Zealand, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Nepal, reached the top of Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth. To mark next month's anniversary of that epic ascent, their sons returned to Everest to understand what it must have been like for the two men who did it first. For National Geographic Radio Expeditions, NPR's Elizabeth Arnold reports.

First attempted in 1921 by the British, Everest had spurned 10 major expeditions. In 1952, Raymond Lambert and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay pioneered a route up the steep Lhotse face, reaching the South Col, 28,000 feet up on the southeast ridge. It proved to be the easiest way to the summit, and armed with that knowledge, Tenzing became in great demand.

A year later, the British put together a massive expedition, but only two climbers were sent to summit. The first pair, both British, turned back 330 feet short of the top, low on oxygen. Then Sir John Hunt, the expedition leader, who had always wanted to include a Sherpa on the summit team, chose Hillary and Tenzing. Tenzing's son Jamling believes what happened was preordained.

"I certainly believe it was their destiny to climb this mountain," says Jamling Norgay. "There'd been so many attempts in the past. My father himself had tried to climb this mountain six times before, and I believe very much that my father and Hillary, they were the people meant to be on top of this mountain on this particular day."

Nearly 50 years after their fathers proved to the world it could be done, Peter Hillary and Jamling Norgay, along with Brent Bishop, the son of one of the first Americans to summit, retraced their fathers' footsteps as part of a National Geographic expedition.

The immensity of what Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did that bright blue day in 1953 is nearly impossible to imagine, even for the most seasoned climber. There were no fixed ropes and aluminum ladders, no polar fleece, no GPS for guidance. Just two men, tied together, hacking steps in the ice to climb more than 29,000 feet.

"You know we had this psychological barrier," Sir Edmund Hillary, now 83, recalls. "We didn't know if it was humanly possible for a human being to set foot on top of Everest, even using oxygen. All the physiologists had warned us that it might be impossible. So my feeling was we were going to give it all we had and if everything went well, maybe we'd get to the top."

At 11:30 a.m. they reached the highest point on Earth. Hillary and Tenzing spent a total of 15 minutes on the summit. They thought once they had climbed it, it was unlikely anyone would ever make a similar attempt. They couldn't have been more wrong. Last year alone 500 climbers set out for the summit. But seeing it now through his father's eyes, Peter Hillary says it's impossible make comparisons.

"We came to the Hillary stair dad and Tenzing climbed 50 years ago, this 40-foot, very steep rock and ice step just before the summit, and these guys came across it, you can imagine their anxiety, 'Can we do it? Do we have the skills to get up this thing? We've only got an hour before we've got to start turning back or we're going to start losing our oxygen.' All these sort of issues — well, we came along there and of course three or four of our Sherpas had already pulled the fixed rope ... It's a totally different situation."

Peter Hillary calls what his father did "climbing into the unknown." But there are still unknowns, new unknowns as technology brings more people and more ambition to the mountain. From the film shot on the day Peter attempted the summit, it's clear the route is dangerously crowded. Climbers are precariously stacked up on the ridge.

Much has changed in 50 years. When Hillary and Tenzing shook hands and embraced on that patch of snow five and a half miles in the sky, they had no witnesses.

On the day Peter Hillary summited, 78 other climbers topped out as well. Since 1953, around 1,200 people have reached the top of Everest, but nearly 200 have died trying. In 1996, the mountain had its worst death toll. Fifteen people died, eight in one storm that trapped several groups near the summit. Jamling Norgay, on an IMAX expedition to film Everest, made the summit that year. But after witnessing the tragedies, he vowed never to try for the summit again.

"We believe strongly that when you climb this mountain you have to climb this mountain as if a child crawling up to its mother's lap," says Norgay. "You don't conquer Mount Everest. We believe climbing with pride, arrogance and disrespect can lead to trouble, and that's sort of what happened in the last couple of years, where people are climbing for the wrong reason and people are climbing who should not be there at all."

This story coincided with "Surviving Everest," a two-hour documentary of Peter Hillary and Jamling Norgay's climb, that aired April 27, 2003 on the National Geographic Channel.

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