Everest is seventy years old. On 29 May 1953, two human beings stood for the first time on the Roof of the World, the highest mountain of all. History is not made up of dates, but of men and women who, like you and me, have a very specific relationship with time. Our own memory, but also the one we know from our parents or grandparents. My father was eight years old when Everest was finally climbed. That same year, 1953, the world looked very different from today. In March, the death of Stalin meant a new era, at least for the Russians, while the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb was tested in August. Marilyn Monroe was on the front page of Playboy, and Ray Bradbury was on the front page of bookshops with his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.
The world was decidedly different: France was led by a socialist, while communists were being hunted in Hollywood. France was still mired in the end of its colonial empire and the Indochina war: the Annapurna of 1950, the first 8000m, allowed them to raise their head. The United Kingdom could not have dreamt of anything better than to conclude the exploration of the last of the three poles, more than three decades after the first British attempts, in 1921.
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
Everest 1953 was not the achievement of two men, not even British men, Tenzing and Hillary, but of a whole team. It took the experience of previous British attempts, including the dramatic loss of Mallory and Irvine in 1924, to achieve this goal.
In 1953 the IBM computer was one year old and weighed nine tonnes, but the North and South Poles had been conquered for four decades! This means that the first ascent of Everest was a feat that owed nothing to chance, but everything to meticulous preparation and exceptional rope parties.
In 1953 the north and south poles had been conquered for four decades
It was not a military expedition either: the choice of Colonel John Hunt, the expedition leader, was made by default, which did not prevent him from giving his all all the way to the South Col, at almost 8000 metres. As for the team, it was made of very good climbers.
Two formed the historic rope party: the New Zealander Edmund Hillary, who had explored the Nepalese route, i.e. the West Combe of Everest, two years earlier, in 1951, and the Sherpa Tenzing, of Tibetan origin and living in Darjeeling, India, the only man to have attempted Everest seven times. The British Everest was made possible by the incredible Swiss expedition of 1952, when the tenacious Raymond Lambert and Tenzing reached 8,600 metres, almost exactly one year before the first.
This 1953 Everest did not experience the previous Himalayan tragedies (Everest 1921, 7 dead, Nanga Parbat 1937, 16 dead). Was it an uneventful expedition? Not at all! They had to cross the glacier’s icefall, the already abominable Ice Fall, and higher up, a huge crevasse that blocked the western cwm. They had to deal with two types of complex and heavy oxygen equipment and the non-existence of accurate weather reports. It took Hillary and Tenzing the energy to climb the delicate and steep summit ridge.
Scientific work on acclimatisation at high altitude was just beginning. Scientist Griffith Pugh’s advice on hydration, among other things, helped the team to climb to over 8,000 metres. Pugh is one of the forgotten heroes of the 1953 expedition. Times correspondent James Morris did his best to get the news of the climb to the coronation of Elizabeth II in London three days later.
Hillary and Tenzing could not have imagined that one man, Kami Rita Sherpa, would reach the summit twenty-seven times 70 years after them
The great Walter Bonatti, who only experienced bitterness on K2 the following year, wrote: “High mountains are only as good as the men who climb them, otherwise they are just piles of rocks.” The seventieth anniversary of Everest reminds us that men have been writing great stories there since Hillary and Tenzing. They were of different nationalities and cultures but always remained friends despite nationalistic provocations.
So yes, Everest has become a business. Helicopter rotations feed the current camp 2 at more than 6400 meters. Rubbish is piled up everywhere. Thousands of people have walked on the Roof of the World, most of them enjoying comfortable living conditions at Base Camp – double beds, 4G and cappuccino – before following in the footsteps of Hillary and Tenzing. They didn’t even have folding chairs at base camp! This year, a record number of climbing permits – 478! – were granted by Nepal. Hillary and Tenzing could not have imagined that one man, Kami Rita Sherpa, would reach the summit twenty-seven times – another new record this year. Nor could they have imagined that a very small number of climbers, the first being Messner and Habeler, would reach the summit without using oxygen bottles, as some of the English precursors had predicted.
Everest and its 8850 metres will continue to fascinate men and women for a long time. Some have flown from its summit, others have traced routes that have never been repeated. French mountaineers have written some beautiful and innovative pages of adventure. There is only one Roof of the World, the ultimate point around which passions converge. This is why we wanted, dear reader, to let you smell the rare oxygen with this dossier devoted to the history of Everest, from the ascent in 1953 to today. Happy birthday to the Big E, and happy reading.