On top of the world

Published July 2020, KIT MAGAZINE

There was something irresistible about scaling Everest. Many people tried and failed. For the two climbers who first made it to the summit of the tallest mountain on earth, it took seven weeks, a lot of guts and a ton of teamwork.

1953.

It was a year of firsts. The first colour television was sold. The double helix structure of DNA was first discovered. And Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to make it to the top of Everest and live to tell the tale.

BECAUSE IT’S THERE

At an astounding 8,848m in height, the mountain’s peak had long been an elusive goal for mountaineers. Since British explorers first confirmed its status as the world’s highest point in the 1850s, adventurers had dreamed of conquering the soaring summit, and journeyed from around the globe to try their luck.

Why did people want to climb Everest? For some, the reason was fame. For others, it was fortune. But for most, it was the pure challenge. When asked by a reporter why he wanted to climb Everest, the mountaineer George Mallory – who vanished while attempting to summit in 1924 – famously answered: “Because it’s there!”

But it was far from certain it could be achieved. Oxygen levels are dangerously low on the mountaintop. Imagine you’re flying high over the clouds in an aeroplane. You could look out the window and see the top of the mountain right next to you. That high up, it’s almost impossible to breathe. Just putting one foot after the other can feel like you’re lifting a truck. Many doubted it was possible for a human body to even survive at this altitude.

Even after slowly training to withstand these conditions, climbers still face countless other dangers on Everest. Yawning crevasses open up beneath their feet, leading to bottomless dark. Life-preserving equipment breaks down. Temperatures are freezing, avalanches and earthquakes are common, and the weather is horribly unpredictable.

That’s why so many failed. Some even died. Everest became shrouded in mystery. Could it be done? And if so, who would be the first to do it?

NEVER GIVE UP

Hillary and Norgay claimed the honour. Exhausted and elated, the two men staggered onto the mountain’s highest point, about the size of a dining room table, on May 29, 1953. They stayed just 15 minutes – long enough to snap a couple of photos – before hurrying back down to safety.

Hillary was an explorer from New Zealand. Norgay belonged to the Sherpa people who live near the mountain, in Nepal. Both men had tried and failed the ascent many times in the past. But they had both refused to give up.

On their successful attempt, the pair had joined a massive British expedition. The group had set up a base camp in March and then made slow, steady progress over seven weeks. Hundreds of porters were needed to carry the tons of gear to support the dangerous quest.

On May 28, the support group helped Hillary and Norgay set up their last tent at 8,500m, and then descended, leaving the two men to rest overnight in the thin, freezing mountain air before climbing the final leg the next day.

The two slept uneasily. Time was of the essence. Monsoons and heavy snows were about to hit, which would destroy their chances of success. Rising while it was still dark, Hillary discovered that his boots had frozen solid overnight, and he was forced to spend two precious hours thawing them out.

Finally ready, with their heavy packs on their backs and little sleep on their side, they began to climb. It was a nerve-wracking scramble. Eventually, though, they heaved themselves up over the final stretch of vertical rock, which would become known as the Hillary Step.

Both men arrived on top of the world at 11.30am.

WHAT THE MOUNTAIN TEACHES

We can all draw lessons from this heroic journey – lessons in perseverance and teamwork. Imagine yourself on the knife-edge of a mountain ridge, high above the clouds, a fatal drop on both sides. You are barely able to breathe. You struggle to put one foot after the other, over slippery boulders of ice. Each step forward is a roll of the dice, each step an act of sheer bravery and will.

In the last 300m of the climb – high up in what is nicknamed ‘the death zone’ – both climbers knew the clock was ticking. They would soon perish from lack of oxygen. Yet they had to remain calm and calculated with each step.

Hillary and Norgay had to work together to get it done. They were joined to each other by heavy rope. If one slipped on the treacherous terrain, his partner was the only thing standing between him and a grim fate. Despite the fact that neither man was fluent in the other’s language, Hillary and Norgay patiently gave each other directions along the path of least danger.

After facing such extreme conditions, it might have been tempting for either man to claim the glory of this historic achievement for himself. But on their return both men said that they had reached the summit together – not one after the other, the way newspapers reported it. “I say I first Hillary second, Hillary say Hillary first I second – no good. We both together,” Norgay told journalists in 1954.

THE NEXT GREAT CHALLENGE

Hillary and Norgay paved a trail of hope that day. Everest had seemed all but impossible. But since their 1953 success, nearly 5,000 people have reached the summit, with just under 1,000 people making the attempt each year. Though the trip up is still extraordinarily dangerous and demanding, improvements in training, equipment and scientific knowledge have made the impossible seem within the reach of many.

With this explosion of interest, however, a new challenge has emerged. Unfortunately, people have left behind more than 50 tons of garbage on the mountain. While the peak will probably always lure us as a powerful symbol of our struggle against our limitations, we are today forced to reflect on our responsibility to the mountain that has taught us so much. Thankfully, clean-up missions are underway to protect the future of this sacred place.

But even facing these new challenges, we can take insight and inspiration from Hillary and Norgay’s story. It reminds us that, whatever our goal, we must stick at it, cultivate a positive attitude, and build a team we trust.

Words: Rose Mascaro

Rose Mascaro is a writer, editor and teacher who is passionate about teaching others how to build a life of creative bliss. A published writer, and the 2020 editor of Teen Breathe magazine Australia, she has a Master of Arts in creative writing.