Mount Everest Discovery and the First Ascent 64 Years Ago

everest summet from bellsouth side The Everest Summit from Bellsouth Side (Rick & Susie Graetz photo)

This week we make another departure from our columns that portray Montana. We give a nod to another mountainous landscape, where climbers are taking advantage of a roughly two-month window of favorable weather to stake their claim on the world’s highest peak.

“As we carried on cutting steps along the left hand side of the ridge it seemed to go on and on forever and we were really getting quite tired. But then I noticed that the ridge ahead suddenly dropped quite steeply away and way out in the distance I could see the high plateau of Tibet. I looked up to the right and there I guess about 40 feet above me was a rounded snow slope. Then it was only a matter of a few more whacks with the ice axe going straight up this snow slope and Tenzing and I stood on top of Everest.” – Sir Edmund Hillary

At 11:30 in the morning of May 29, 1953, New Zealand’s Ed Hillary and Darjeeling’s Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first known human beings to stand on the highest point on this Earth.

Straddling the rim of Tibet and Nepal, the world’s highest mountain had remained unknown to western humankind until 1852, when surveyors discovered it during the ongoing British government’s charting of India. (India was part of the British Empire at the time.) To the Nepalese this mountain was known as Sagarmatha and to the Tibetans Chomolungma. The mountain people often referred to it as “Mother of the Universe.” But ignoring the local importance of the massif, the Brits named the world’s apex in honor of Surveyor General of India Sir George Everest, granting to that man an immortality he could hardly have envisioned.

The daunting task of mapping the whole of the Indian subcontinent began in 1808. One of the goals was to ascertain if the Himalayas were indeed the highest mountains in the world. At the time the project commenced, Nepal and Tibet, wary of foreign intervention, were closed to outsiders, presenting an added complexity to an already difficult undertaking.

By 1830, the survey reached the frontier between Nepal and India. According to one historian, “Conditions were terrible: Malaria was rife, and monsoon rains eroded the observation towers each year.” Unable to enter Nepal, the surveyors resolved to continue the project from the lowlands. A baseline – the length of the range – was denoted and in 1847, measuring the peaks of the Great Himalayan chain began by using trigonometrical calculations based on the heights and distances of known places. Until this time, the 28,156-foot Kanchenjunga in Sikkim was believed to be the highest peak of the range.

Then calculations tabulated in 1856 revealed that a mountain initially designated only as “Peak XV” (Everest) was listed as 29,002 feet. A 1950s assessment showed the height of Everest to be 26 feet more than originally thought ... 29,028 feet to be exact.

Considering the mountains were measured from points up to 150 miles away, the accuracy of the 1856 survey is amazing. In their computations, surveyors had to consider the Earth’s curvature and the fact that light bends with the varying air density of changing altitudes. It’s a sad situation that a survey made from the same positions today would not be possible. Dust and air pollution are now so formidable that it’s rare to be able to make out even the second foothills of the Himalayas from the plains of India and Nepal.

After the discovery of Everest, it would be almost 70 years before the first exploration was made. In 1921, a British reconnaissance expedition set out. Trekking into the unknown, George Leigh Mallory, whose name would become intrinsically linked to that of Everest, stated, “We are walking off the edge of the map … first we have to find this mountain.” Since Nepal was yet sealed, this exploration and all future expedition attempts until 1950 were forced to make a long approach across the Tibetan Plateau and climb the mountain from the north side.

The following year, 1922, a serious and formal attempt to climb Everest was made, and for the first time, the mountain’s terrifying defenses became known. The highest point reached by the men was 27,297 feet before an avalanche below the North Col killed seven Sherpas.

In 1924, another team of British gentlemen set off in their tweed suits to conquer the massif. These hearty adventurers equipped with no crampons had “a furious argument about whether the use of oxygen was sporting.” On this expedition, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, possibly reached the mountaintop; but, they never returned. Mallory’s body was found in 1999, and the camera that may have been able to prove they were the first to scale Everest hasn’t yet been located. Next to the Hillary/Norgay successful climb, this is perhaps the most famous of all the endeavors, especially because of the controversy.

The massive 1953 British expedition that placed Norgay and Hillary on the top, was led by Sir John Hunt and had 320 porters supporting 10 climbers. On May 26, two climbers from the party pushed to the South Summit before low oxygen and fatigue forced them to turn back. At 28,700 feet, they were only 328 feet from the top. The window of good climbing weather was readying to close with the onset of the monsoons and their heavy snows only about a week away, which would effectively end any chance of achieving the peak. Just on time, on May 29, 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmond Hillary gazed out over Tibet from the apex of the world.

From 1921 to 1953, “the Mother of the Universe” had defeated 10 major expeditions. The Swiss nearly beat the British the year before, and Tenzing Norgay was part of the attempt. He and a Swiss climber made it to 28,210 before retreating.

A 1963 American team lead by Norman Dyhrenfurth was successful and placed six people on the summit. Seattle resident Jim Whittaker was first. Two of the six arrived via the previously unclimbed West Ridge.

Everest’s biggest challenge was overcome in 1978 when Austrians Rheinhold Messner and Peter Habler made the first ascent of the mountain without using oxygen. In 1980, Messner did it solo and again without bottled air.

May 1996 witnessed a debacle that killed eight climbers above the South Col route.

By the close of the apring 2002 climbing season, and since 1953, 1,200 climbers had stood on the world’s loftiest landmark. Some have been literally dragged up (such as the infamous Sandy Pitman), and others have succeeded on difficult routes. Sherpas hold two impressive records. It takes most climbers weeks to climb from the Everest Base Camp to the summit. Babu Chiri ascended in less than 17 hours, and Apu Sherpa has stood on top 12 times!

The Norgay-Hillary feat of 64 years ago will forever stand as an incredible achievement never to be eclipsed. They were the first, and they did it in era of less-sophisticated equipment.

Sir Edmund (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth after the climb – yup the same one still on the throne), died in 2008 at 88 years of age. The man had done much for the Sherpa people, including building 27 schools and spearheading numerous other projects that help the indigenous folks who live just under the roof of the world. He truly gave back to a land that gifted him with so much. On May 25, 2002, his son Peter stood where his father did 49 years before.

Tenzing died at his home in Darjeeling, India, in 1986 of a severe coughing spell. He was 71. These writers, along with several other friends from Helena, had the great privilege of spending time in his home, now the abode of his son Jamling Norgay, who, on May 23, 1996, followed his father’s footsteps to the top of the earth.

Rick and Susie Graetz | University of Montana | Department of Geography