Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay: Who Dares to Follow Their Icy Steps?

The Summit of Mount Everest | Courtesy of iExplore

It was the year 1953, in the month of May. Two men stared at the perilous journey ahead that few men dared to travel. They were willing to rest the fate of their lives in the frozen hands of Mother Earth. Would you have the nerves of steel that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had as they faced the spine-chilling Mount Everest?

These two men, however, were not the first to attempt the climb. The first attempt to summit Mount Everest was in 1921 by George Leigh Mallory and his team of climbers.1 They had not been able to complete their ascent due to an unforgiving storm. With the determination to reach the summit, where no man had ever stood before, Mallory made a second attempt a year later in 1922. This time, Mallory and his team were able to trek more than 27,000 feet up the behemoth of a mountain! On this climb, several of the Sherpa, people who live on the borders of Nepal and Tibet that are well known for their astounding capabilities in mountaineering, on his team were killed by an avalanche. This was still not enough to satisfy Mallory’s thirst for adventure! Third times the charm, right? Maybe? No? Mallory made his third and final attempt to conquer one of the seven natural wonders of the world in 1924. Except, this time he and his partner, Andrew Irvine, threw all caution out the window and set their minds to reach the top no matter what troubles they faced. To this day, no one knows if they reached the top. After they departed on their trek… they were never seen again.2

Mallory and Irvine’s final attempt | Courtesy of Sujoy Das

Now let’s shift the focus to New Zealand… Auckland, New Zealand to be exact. This is where the soon famous Edmund Hillary resided, passing through life as a beekeeper by day and a mountain climber by night. By the time he attempted the climb of Mount Everest in 1953, he was at the age of thirty-four years, and luckily he had the assistance and camaraderie of a skilled Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who was thirty-nine years old.3 Thanks to the thirty years that had passed since Mallory’s attempt, Hillary and Norgay had more advanced climbing equipment than Mallory had, such as more advanced oxygen equipment, a form of portable communication through radio, and clothing that would better suit the environment.4 Although this equipment was not the only things they had that Mallory didn’t. The two had something that is the difference between life and death… a greater sense of caution.

Edmund Hillary (left) and Tenzing Norgay (right) | Courtesy of National Geographic

The two departed to accomplish their goal on the 28th of May and managed to climb an astonishing 27,900 feet. Now you’re probably thinking, “Oh, 27,900 feet? Yeah, that’s a little challenging, but I could probably do that.” Sorry to break it to you, but these were no ordinary 27,900 feet. Along the way, Hillary and Norgay faced blinding blizzards, the risk of avalanches, or the risk of falling into an icy abyss, as well as running out of oxygen.5 Another risk that is faced when mountain climbing is altitude sickness. This is what happens when one ascends or descends in altitude too quickly without allowing one’s body to adjust to the different pressures and altitude. It can be life threatening if it is not treated or prevented.

After a long, freezing, and brutal night, the two were able to reach the top of the world at 11:30 a.m on May 29, 1953. This also happened to be the birthday of Tenzing Norgay! Prior to reaching the summit, Hillary climbed his way up a forty-foot rocky ledge and pulled Norgay up by rope. This ledge came to be known as the Hillary Step.

Word spread that the two accomplished the unimaginable! News of this accomplishment even got to Queen Elizabeth II just two days later on June 1.6 In commemoration of this accomplishment, Hillary was knighted by the Queen, but since Norgay was not a citizen of London he received a British Empire Medal. This concludes the immense journey that was traveled by our two unwavering men.

  1. C. G. Bruce, “Mount Everest,” The Geographical Journal 57, no. 1 (January 1921): 5-7.
  2. Vanessa Bush, “The Wildest Dream: The Biography of George Mallory,” Booklist, Literature Resource Center (Aug. 2000): 2097.
  3. Peter H. Hansen, “Tenzing’s Two Wrist-Watches: The Conquest of Everest and Late Imperial Culture in Britain 1921-1953,” Past & Present, no. 157 (1997): 168-171.
  4. L. G. C. E. Pugh, “Scientific Aspects of the Expedition to Mount Everest, 1953,” The Geographical Journal 120, no. 2 (June 1954): 184.
  5. Walther Kirchner, “Mind, Mountain, and History Revisited,” Journal of the History of Ideas 55, no. 2 (1994): 303-5.
  6. “The Society’s News,” The Geographical Journal 120, no. 2 (June 1954): 246-248.
Written By
More from Joshua Castro

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.