Archive: Eisenhower Meets with Hillary
By Mark C. Jenkins, National Geographic Archives
This archive article is an entry in National Geographic's in-house encyclopedia, and recounts Sir Edmund Hillary and Col. John Hunt's visit to Washington, D.C. on Feb. 11, 1954, to receive the Hubbard Medal from President Eisenhower:
Mt. Everest was recognized as Earth's highest mountain in 1852, and ever since it has challenged the imagination of mapmakers and mountaineers alike. Soaring over 29,000 feet, it was for many years virtually inaccessible, guarded by two closed kingdoms, Nepal and Tibet. It was also practically insurmountable, its untrodden snows awaiting the development of modern climbing gear and techniques.
Starting in the 1920s, though, a handful of expeditions win permission to attempt ascents. Some only glimpse the mountain towering in the distance; others struggle to within a thousand feet of the summit before being beaten back by bad weather and worse luck. In 1953, a British expedition, led by Colonel John Hunt and supported by the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club, makes a fresh assault. On May 29, two of its members, New Zealand's Edmund Hillary and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, finally crest the peak, becoming the first men ever to stand there and gaze, transfixed, at the sublime panorama below.
The conquest of Mt. Everest is a geographical achievement of the first order. It makes world headlines, and the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II knights both Hunt and Hillary. The trustees of the National Geographic Society also join in the chorus of praise, but appreciating the group effort involved, they decide to confer the Society's most distinguished award, the Hubbard Medal, on the entire British Mt. Everest Expedition* -- the first time a group has been so recognized. Only one gold medal will be struck; but Sir John Hunt, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay each will receive bronze replicas, as will the expedition's chief sponsors, the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club.
Ceremony in Washington
During the winter of 1953-54, Hillary and other expedition members make a lecture tour in the United States. Hoping to catch them while they are in this country, the Society plans a presentation ceremony for February 11, 1954. Sir John Hunt and Sir Edmund Hillary agree to accept the medal on behalf of the entire expedition, and as marks of the esteem in which the nation now holds them, President Dwight D. Eisenhower consents to make the presentation at the White House, and the CBS network will film the ceremony for the television news. (A separate presentation will be made to Tenzing Norgay in Darjeeling, India: see below.)
On the day appointed for the Washington presentation, the official party gathers in the late morning chill at the northwest gate of the White House. Joining Hunt and Hillary are the British and New Zealand ambassadors and such Society luminaries as Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, Dr. Thomas W. McKnew, Melville Bell Grosvenor, and various others. Not having stepped off the train in Union Station until after 2:00 a.m. that morning, the celebrated climbers are tired, but also excited, for they have been eagerly anticipating the noon ceremony. President Eisenhower has let it be known that he takes particular pride and pleasure in presenting this medal, and Sir John and Lady Hunt have flown over from England especially for the occasion. In the months since the conquest of Everest, both press and public have lionized the dashing Hillary -- much to his own discomfiture -- while neglecting the capable Hunt, the leader and guiding spirit of the expedition. In accepting the Hubbard Medal today, Hunt will be getting the credit and exposure he deserves.
As soon as they are ushered into the Oval Office, however, things begin to go wrong. President Eisenhower enters -- and quite clearly has no idea who these visitors may be. Once reminded by an aide, though, he welcomes them warmly. Everyone then steps into the White House Conference Room -- crowded with newsreel, television, and newspaper photographers -- for the ceremony. The President stands between the two explorers as Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor makes some introductory remarks; then, taking the gold medal, he turns to Sir John Hunt, extends his hand, and begins, "Sir Edmund..." Standing there, Hillary is mortified, and quickly leans over and whispers into the presidential ear: "Sir John Hunt."
Eisenhower just as quickly recovers: "Er, Sir John, may I tell you that it is a very great privilege...." Sir John Hunt, a respected military man and war hero, can only reply, quite truthfully, that he accepts the medal "with great humility."
If both explorers are now acutely embarrassed, worse is yet to come. The President turns to Sir Edmund to present him a bronze replica -- and it is only now that the television lights come on and the cameras start rolling. This is injury enough, but insult is quick to follow as clamorous reporters induce Eisenhower to repeat this presentation to Hillary -- and Hillary alone -- to be sure they have a take. Crestfallen for the sake of his comrade and leader, Sir Edmund refuses to speak, hoping thereby to deflect the attention from himself. But newspaper accounts instead choose to dwell on his attractive bashfulness. As a result, Sir Edmund Hillary will always remember the occasion of his being awarded the Hubbard Medal as anticlimactic and disappointing.
After the ceremony, everyone is packed into Embassy limousines and taken to Society headquarters for a luncheon. This is followed by another press conference at 3:00 p.m., and topped by an evening reception at the New Zealand embassy. There is little rest for the weary: The following evening, Friday, February 12, Hunt and Hillary join other members of the expedition on the stage at Constitution Hall, the vast auditorium in Washington seating several thousand people, to present a Society-sponsored lecture -- or rather lectures, for such is the demand for tickets that two sessions must be held before a combined attendance of 7,200 people, a response that hasn't been seen at a Society function since the lectures and medal presentations to Robert E. Peary, Richard E. Byrd, and Charles Lindbergh. As he introduces his team, Sir John Hunt can only admit to "humble astonishment" at "what a vast gathering of this great people is here tonight." He proceeds to give due credit to all the Everest expeditions that had preceded his own before turning the rostrum over to Hillary and the others.
Over the next several weeks both Hunt and Hillary work with members of the editorial staff in preparing an ambitious article detailing the story of their climb. Published in the July 1954 issue of National Geographic Magazine, and spreading over 64 pages and featuring 46 color photographs, "Triumph on Everest" is composed of two parts: "Siege and Assault," by Sir John Hunt, and "The Conquest of the Summit," compiled by staff writer Beverley M. Bowie from conversations with Sir Edmund Hillary. President and Editor John Oliver La Gorce calls it "top hole," and everyone involved considers it a magnificent job, rather better than the version Life magazine had run.
Ceremony in Darjeeling
Meanwhile, half a globe away, the U.S. Ambassador to India and Nepal, George Allen, travels to the Indian city of Darjeeling, nestled at the foot of the Himalayas amid breathtaking scenery. There, on March 15, he presents the Hubbard Medal -- and 500 rupees -- to Tenzing Norgay. "President Eisenhower expressly asked that his personal congratulations be extended to you for your splendid part in the conquest of Everest," the ambassador tells the Sherpa, adding that the Hubbard Medal is possibly the world's greatest award for adventure.
The National Geographic Society is not finished with Mt. Everest -- or Sir Edmund Hillary -- yet. In less than a decade the Geographic itself will arrive at the foot of those formidable ramparts, in the person of staff member Barry Bishop, a climber with the 1963 American Mt. Everest Expedition. And Sir Edmund Hillary will be one of the recipients of the Society's Centennial Award in 1988.
*Hubbard Medallists of the expedition: The British members are Colonel -- later General -- Sir John Hunt (expedition leader), Dr. Charles Evans, Tom Bourdillon, Alfred Gregory, Charles Wylie, Michael Westmacott, George Band, Wilfrid Noyce, Michael Ward (doctor), Griffith Pugh, Tom Stobart, and James Morris (later to become Jan Morris), representing the London Times. The New Zealanders are Sir Edmund Hillary and George Lowe. The Sherpa guides, over a dozen of them, are led by Tenzing Norgay. There are also several hundred porters.
** The bronze replicas bear the following inscription: "Awarded to British Everest Expedition for extraordinary courage and skill and outstanding service to Geography in the triumphant conquest of the Earth's highest mountain, May 29, 1953." Underneath the inscription appear the names of Hunt, Hillary, and Tenzing.