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1953: Mountaineering
Conquest of Everest.

On May 29, 1953 occurred the greatest event in the history of mountaineering and one of the greatest in man's physical conquest of the earth. This was the attainment of the so-called "third pole" — the climbing of Mount Everest, highest summit in the world.

Two men reached the top: Edmund P. Hillary, a 34-year-old New Zealander and (of all things) a beekeeper by profession; and Tensing Bhotia (also known as Tensing Norkay), aged 39, a professional mountain-porter and a member of the Sherpa tribe of Nepalese hillmen. Their feat was a magnificent one, and the world has paid them fitting honors. But it would be a great mistake to imagine that the ascent of Everest was simply a two-man enterprise. Neither Hillary nor Tensing, nor any two men living, could have reached that ultimate height without the work of the whole expedition of which they were members; nor could that expedition have accomplished what it did, had it not been for the work of the ten expeditions that preceded it. The conquest of earth's summit was no stunt, no quick and showy plurge of derring-do, but the culmination of years of aspiration and struggle.

It was as long ago as 1852 that Everest was recognized as the tallest mountain. But both Tibet and Nepal, on whose frontiers it rises, were traditionally sealed off from the outside world, and long years passed before Westerners so much as neared its base. Then at last, in 1921, 1922, and 1924, the British, with the consent of the Tibetan government, launched three major expeditions to the peak. The first was merely for exploration and reconnaissance, but the latter two were all-out climbing attempts, and the 1924 party got to within a scant thousand feet of the top. This was the famous expedition on which George Leigh-Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared into the summit mists and were never seen again. It is possible that they reached the goal before disaster overtook them, but the weight of evidence is against it. Hillary and Tensing found no hint of their fate when, twenty-nine years later, they stood on Everest's crest.

Four more expeditions followed, during the 1930's, but none went higher than that of 1924. Then World War II intervened, and when Himalayan climbing could again be resumed, the Everest picture had undergone a drastic change. Tibet, the route of approach for all the earlier expeditions, was now sealed off again — this time by the Chinese Communists; but Nepal, responding to political pressures, at last partially opened its doors, and it is through this country, by a new southern route, that the mountain has recently been approached, and finally conquered. The first reconnaissance on this side was accomplished in 1950 by an Englishman, H. W. Tilman, and an American, Dr. Charles S. Houston, but they did not actually make an attempt on the peak. The following year, a British party, under Eric Shipton, reconnoitered still farther, and in 1952, in the spring and fall, two Swiss expeditions mounted full-scale attacks. This marked the first time that any but British climbers had tried for the top of the highest mountain, and the Swiss came extremely close to winning the prize. In the spring attempt, one of their climbers, Raymond Lambert, (accompanied by Tensing) climbed to within 800 feet of the top before being turned back by wind, cold, and exhaustion.

Then, in 1953, the British returned to the wars — and this time to triumph. Shipton, veteran of five Everest expeditions, was originally to have led the expedition, but he resigned over differences in policy with the organizing committee, and his place was taken by an army officer, Col. John Hunt. With him were ten of the best available English climbers, Hillary and one other New Zealander, and a corps of experienced Sherpas, including Tensing Bhotia. Because of his superlative work with the Swiss, however, Tensing was no longer ranked as a porter but as a full-fledged member of the climbing-party.

Approaching the mountain in April, the expedition followed the route pioneered by its predecessors: along the Khumbu Glacier, up the steep, tortuous labyrinth of the upper glacier (known as the icefall), and into the so-called Western Cwm, a deep snow-filled ravine flanking Everest's southwestern slopes. Here they made their advance base, at a height of some 22,000 feet, and set their sights for the next main objective, the South Col, a high windswept saddle that connects Everest to its southern satellite-peak, called Lhotse. Still following the Swiss, the British worked their way up the glaciers and steep snow-slopes of Lhotse's western face — hacking endless steps, installing fixed ropes, leading up the porters with their vital loads. And at last, on May 21, Camp 8 was established on the col, at 25,850 feet.

From this point, according to Hunt's carefully laid plan, two sorties, each of two men, were to be made toward the summit, which still loomed some 3300 feet above them. The first, by two Englishmen, Tom Bourdillon and Dr. Charles Evans, was called a "reconnaissance-assault," because the distance between col and summit was considered probably too great to be covered in one day. They would reconnoiter the route and go as high as they could, and if they could make the top, good and well. In the more likely event that they could not, they would return to the col, and the second — actually the main — assault team of Hillary and Tensing would take over. For them a ninth camp would be pitched, as high as was humanly possible, and from there, well above the col, they would make the all-out attempt. The expedition had two types of oxygen equipment, and success or failure would depend largely upon how they worked. Bourdillon and Evans were to carry the "closed-circuit" sets, with which the user breathed pure oxygen; Hillary and Tensing the "open-circuit," in which oxygen was mixed with the outer air.

There was only one possible route from the South Col to the summit — up the steep, twisting spine of Everest's southeast ridge — and Bourdillon and Evans set out on it on the morning of May 26. The going underfoot was a mixture of rock and frozen snow, and technically not too difficult; but at such an altitude every movement, even with oxygen, was an enormous exertion, and their progress was slow. Presently they passed the tattered remains of the highest Swiss camp, and a few hours later the topmost point reached by Lambert and Tensing. Plugging on, they came out at last on Everest's so-called south summit, a rise in the ridge some 400 feet below the final peak. But here time and strength ran out on them, and they were forced to turn back. They had pioneered the last lap and climbed higher than men had ever gone before. As had been anticipated, however, they could not quite grasp the ultimate prize.

The following day fierce winds pinned everyone in the tents on the col, but early on the 28th Hillary and Tensing started up the ridge, accompanied by two other climbers and one porter. A single tent — Camp 9 — was pitched at the record height of 27,900 feet, the support party descended, and the pair who were to try for the top spent the night there alone. By a great stroke of good fortune, the next morning dawned clear and windless, and at 6:30 they roped up and were on their way. Though they followed the same route as Bourdillon and Evans, the earlier tracks had been obliterated, and they had to hack their way up the long slopes of ice. By 9 o'clock, however, they were on the south summit and ready for the last virgin stretch beyond.

This was a continuation of the same southeast ridge, but far steeper and more precarious that it had been below. On their left, black precipices fell sheer to the Western Cwm, and on the right, projecting out over 12,000 feet of space, were wind-carved cornices of ice and snow that might crumble and fall at the slightest pressure. Luckily, however, there was a middle route that proved feasible: a narrow catwalk between precipice and cornice that was composed of firm, hard snow. Along this they moved one at a time, Hillary going first and cutting perhaps forty steps, and then stopping to belay the rope while Tensing came up after him. Again and again this routine was repeated. Sometimes great shoulders of the cornices blocked their way, and they had to slant off to the left — so close to the western precipices that their feet rested on the topmost rocks. But always they were able, in the end, to work back to the sound snow.

After an hour of continuous step-cutting they came to the most formidable obstacle on the ridge: a vertical cliff of rock, forty feet high. They had seen this cliff, through binoculars, all the way from the base of the mountain, and there had been much speculation even then as to whether it might prove impassable. Now, seen from close up, it was a thing to chill the blood. The wall of rock itself was smooth and holdless. To the left was space. To the right a cornice — and space. But to the right, too, was the one possible route of ascent: a narrow crack running up the full height of the cliff between the cornice and the rock. For a long time Hillary studied it grimly from below. Then he made the effort of a lifetime. Wedging himself as far into the crack as he could, he strained and clawed upward for the tiniest holds, meanwhile kicking backwards with his cramponed boots against the wall of the cornice behind him. At any moment he expected the wall to give, the hard-packed snow to crumble and fall from the mountainside — and himself with it. But the wall held. His boots grated upward. Foot by foot, he pulled and pushed and levered himself on, until at last he was able to get a hand over the rim of the cliff and wriggle up to its level summit. For a few minutes he lay where he was, too done in to move. Then, his strength returning, he held the rope while Tensing came up after him.

From the top of the cliff the ridge curved off to the right, rising in a series of white hummocks that blocked off the view ahead. Again their axes rose and fell; but they were tiring fast now and moved very slowly. "As I chipped steps around still another corner," Hillary recounted later, "I wondered rather dully just how long we could keep it up. Then I realized that the ridge ahead, instead of still rising, now dropped sharply away. I looked upwards, to see a narrow snow ridge running up to a sharp summit. . . ." And a few minutes later, at 11:30 on the morning of May 29, two men stood at last on the earth's ultimate height.

Their emotions, as they described them, were compounded of relief, joy, and gratitude. Removing his oxygen equipment, Hillary set about taking photographs: first of Tensing triumphantly holding his flag-draped ice ax; then of the view out and down from all sides of the summit. Meanwhile the Sherpa scraped a hollow in the snow and laid in it a few small items of food, as an offering to the gods of the Buddhist faith. After fifteen minutes they turned and began the descent, and by late afternoon they were being welcomed exultantly by their companions on the South Col.

Later, when news of the victory had been announced to the world, there was a brief, ugly interlude in which small-minded men tried to make political grist of it — to split white man and brown man in a mean wrangle over honors. But the conquerors of Everest would have none of it, and soon the machinations of the troublemakers were forgotten. With happy timing, word of the conquest reached England on the eve of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. Hillary and Hunt were knighted, and Tensing received the highest award that could be given a non-British national. It had been a magnificent achievement, and not the least of it was that it had been done, in co-operation and brotherhood, by men of different nations and different races.

Nanga Parbat.

As with many of the world's great peaks, there is still some question as to the exact height of Everest, but the most generally accepted figure is 29,141 feet. Next in rank come a group of thirteen mountains — all in the Himalayas — which, along with it, are known by Europeans as "Eightthousanders": summits which rise to an altitude of more than 8000 meters (roughly 26,200 feet) above sea level. Most have been attempted, some many times; but, before Everest, the only one to have been climbed to the top was Annapurna (26,493 feet), which yielded in 1950 to a subsequently famous French assault. In 1953, however, only a few weeks after the Everest ascent, still another of the giants was scaled. This was Nanga Parbat, the 26,658 foot monarch of Kashmir.

Like Everest, Nanga Parbat had been often challenged: and, with a record of thirty-two lives lost on seven previous attempts, it was without a rival as the most murderous peak in the Himalayas. Almost all the unsuccessful tries were by Germans and Austrians, and so was the one that finally carried to the top. The actual attainment of the summit occurred in an unusual — in fact unprecedented — way, for it was achieved by a solitary climber: an Austrian mountaineer named Herman Buhl. Possessed of almost fabulous daring and endurance, Buhl. set out at 2:30 one morning from the expedition's advance camp (apparently without authorization from the leader) and at seven in the evening reached the ice-sheathed pinnacle of the mountain. He had no oxygen, no tent or sleeping bag, and scarcely any food. Darkness overtook him soon after he began the descent, and he spent the night on the ledge of a precipice, on which there was not even room enough to sit down. But in the morning, miraculously, he was still alive, and at the end of this second day rejoined his astounded companions at the advance camp — after forty hours alone on the heights. Subsequently there was much controversy over the propriety and rationality of Buhl's performance; but, for better or worse, it was unquestionably one of the most sensational exploits in climbing history.

Other Expeditions.

There were also attempts, in 1953, on several other "Eightthousanders," but none was successful. Among them was the third American expedition to K2, the highest peak of the great Himalayan sub-range called the Karakorum, and the second highest summit in the world. The party was led by Dr. Charles Houston, of Exeter, N.H. (who had led the first attempt in 1938) and reached a height of some 25,600 feet, when it was overtaken by a violent nine-day storm. While they were pinned down in their highest camp one of the climbers, Arthur Gilkey, developed a blood clot in his leg, and it soon became apparent that he would have to be gotten down off the mountain if he were to have a chance to survive. In spite of the continuing storm, the climbers began the descent, only to suffer a slip which almost plummeted all of them to destruction. Luckily no one was killed, but there were several minor injuries; and while the others struggled to reorganize themselves the helpless Gilkey was secured by ice axes to a nearby snow slope. It had seemed a safe position, but when his companions returned for him he was gone — presumably swept away in an avalanche.

Two other 1953 attempts were on Dhaulagiri and Manaslu, both in central Nepal, the former by a Swiss party and the latter by Japanese. Neither party was successful, but both have declared their intentions of trying again in 1954. Other Himalayan ventures planned for 1954 include an Italian expedition to K2 and a British one to Makalu, the world's fifth highest summit — the latter to be led by Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Everest. Several American expeditions are also in the formative stage. Though details are lacking, it is now known that the Russians launched an unsuccessful attack on Everest, from the north, in the late fall of 1952; and it seems likely that they will be increasingly active in the region, operating from the Tibetan side of the Iron Curtain

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