Everest: To the Top of the World
A Look Back on 50 Years of Triumph and Tragedy
April 25, 2003 -- 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.
"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."
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."
"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."
"Surviving Everest," the two-hour documentary of Peter Hillary and Jamling Norgay's climb, airs Sunday, April 27, 2003 at 8 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel.
Listen to Alex Chadwick's 1999 interview with Sir Edmund Hillary.
Hillary reflects on his adventures at a Smithsonian awards ceremony in 1998.
Listen to a 2002 Fresh Air interview with Jamling Norgay.
In a May 2001 Radio Expedition, filmmaker and mountaineer David Breashears reflects on the May 1996 climbing disaster on Everest.
A cybercafe on Everest? Listen to a 2003 Lynn Neary interview with Tsering Gyaltsen.
A 1997 edition of Science Friday talks about the dangers of climbing at high altitudes
Hear more about other legendary explorers through Radio Expeditions' Geographic Century.
Get photos, video, Everest stories and more at NationalGeographic.com
Himalayan Trust, founded by Sir Edmund Hillary for the Sherpas
PBS's NOVA Web site on Everest
Hall of Science and Exploration interview with Sir Edmund Hillary
Scholastic's Web site on Hillary
Find more photos and history in the new exhibit, "Sir Edmund Hillary: Everest and Beyond," on display at National Geographic's Explorers Hall in Washington, D.C., from April 15 through Sept. 1, 2003.
(* Archive audio of Sir Edmund Hillary's 1954 press conference, copyright The National Geographic Society. Video excerpts from "Surviving Everest," Copyright 2003 National Geographic Channel.)