Tuesday 29 May 2012

Step by Step to the Summit

Photo of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay courtesy http://nepaleseingoettingen.blogspot.com.

Sixteen years before Neil Armstrong left his boot imprint in the dust of moon's surface, Edmund Hillary left his boot imprint in the ice of Mount Everest's peak, the world's highest mountain.  Bundled in layers of clothing, goggles over their eyes, backpacks over their shoulders, they were no longer thinking about their uncomfortable gear.  Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, Hillary's climbing companion, stood with an ice axe as Hillary snapped a picture.  Then the Sherpa offered to take Hillary's photo, but he declined.  With their oxygen supply slowly depleting, Hillary buried a cross and Tenzing left a Buddhist offering of chocolate, and then they got ready to retrace their steps down the icy slope of the mountain. 

Edmund Hillary, the son of a schoolteacher mother and newspaper editor father, was born and raised in New Zealand.  He was a bright student, skipping two grades in elementary school.  In high school, which he took a two hour train ride to reach, he was an average student.  He studied math and science at the University of Auckland.  However, he decided to take up beekeeping instead.  On a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, an active volcano, the 6 foot 5 inch New Zealander was bitten by the mountain climbing bug. 

In 1939, he climbed Mount Ollivier in the Southern Alps.  However, he was sidetracked when he was conscripted for the war effort in 1943, joining the Royal New Zealand Air Force and operating Catalina flying boats in the Pacific.  On the Solomon Islands, he was badly burned in a boat accident and had to return home. 

After World War II, Hillary resumed his life as a mountaineer.  In 1948, he climbed Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak.  In 1951, he participated in a reconnaissance expedition on Mount Everest in the Himalayas.  In 1952, he joined an expedition to the peak of Mount Cho Oyu, also in the Himalayas, which failed. 

Then in 1953, he was invited to join a British expedition to the summit of Mount Everest.  From 1921 to 1953, there had been 8 expeditions to the famous mountain, mainly from the Tibet side, resulting in 16 deaths and no successes.  In 1949, China took control of Tibet, forcing mountaineers to climb the peak from the Nepal side. 

The 1953 attempt to reach the peak would include a party of 400 people:  362 porters, 20 Sherpas, a cameraman, a doctor and a reporter, etc.  Their gear would weigh 10,000 pounds.  The group set up base camp in March of that year.  Hillary and Norgay were accompanied by Hunt and Bourdillon.  With several pounds of gear on their back, they headed up the mountain face, step by step, to the summit.  Hunt and Bourdillon were the first to attempt to summit, but ran out of oxygen and were forced to turn back within 300 feet of the peak.  Hillary and Norgay's attempt was postponed for two days due to blowing snow.  Finally, their chance presented itself.  That morning Hillary went to grab his mountain boots only to find they were frozen solid in the ice outside the tent.  Finally, the pushed on to the peak.  Hillary figured out a strategy to climb the 40-foot rock face (later called the Hillary Step) which was the key to a successful summit.  By 11:30 am, they were "on top of the world" at 29,928 feet above sea level. 

Back in New Zealand, a small country of less than 2 million at the time, Hillary was considered a hero.  In Britain, Queen Elizabeth received the news on the day of her Coronation.  She knighted Hillary and Hunt for their exploits.  Sir Edmund Hillary graced the cover of Life magazine, among others.  Nepal became a country near and dear to his heart; he financed the building of several schools and hospitals there as well as the restoration of monasteries.  He would go on to explore the South Pole and the North Pole, as well as other adventures, but he be remembered first for as the conqueror of Mount Everest.

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