Wednesday, May 29, 2013

TFH 5/29: Hillary and Norgay

On April 10, 1802, the British began the Great Trigonometric Survey as part of the larger Survey of India. The surveyors thought it would take five years to complete their work. It wound up taking over sixty.

During 1847, Kangchenjunga was considered the highest peak in the world (now known to be the third highest). In November of that year, Andrew Waugh, British Surveyor General of India, and one of his colleagues, John Armstrong, viewed another peak over 140 miles past Kangchenjunga between Nepal and Tibet, both of which was closed to foreigners at the time. The two used theodolites to determine trigonometrically the height of the "new" peak. They were pretty sure that they had found the world's highest mountain, but needed closer observations to verify.

Two years later, Waugh dispatched surveyor James Nicolson to get closer. He took thirty measurements and sightings on the peak from distances ranging from 108 to 120 miles away. The mountain was then designated simply as "Peak XV".

Finally in 1856, after further measurements and mathematical corrections to account for Earth curvature, atmospheric distortion, and the like - much by an Indian surveyor named Radhanath Sikdar - Waugh announced that the world's tallest mountain had been identified with an altitude of 29,002 feet (8,840 meters).

The British tried to name peaks preserving their local, native names, but as Nepal and Tibet were closed to them, the peak's traditional name of Chomolungma remained unknown for years. Waugh chose to name the peak for his predecessor as Surveyor General: George Everest.

Today, we now know through improved surveying that Mount Everest stands 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) above sea level. Since the mountain was identified, the real question was who would be the first to climb it, and when would the successful summiting happen?

Many expeditions tried, and all failed. The extreme weather conditions, low temperatures, and horrifically thin air at Himalayan altitudes all presented seemingly insurmountable hurdles to the men and expeditions who attempted the mountain. One of the most famous of these, the 1924 British Expedition, saw mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine get high on the mountain's Northeast Ridge using very rudimentary gear to supply them with supplemental oxygen. It's unknown if the pair ever reached the summit (probably not) but what is known is they didn't come down alive. Most mountaineers will tell you that it isn't a successful climb until you get back down.

Tradition has it that before dying on Everest Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb, replied simply "Because it is there!"

Twenty-eight years later in 1952, with Nepal now open to climbing expeditions, a Swiss group managed to reach 28,199 feet (8,595 meters) on the Southeast Ridge above Everest's South Col. Accompanying this expedition was a then 37 year-old Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay, a citizen of India. Norgay was one of the two climbers who reached 28,199 feet, and joined the 1953 British Expedition the following year.

Norgay's experience high on Everest was invaluable to the British expedition led by Colonel John Hunt. By May 21, 1953, the expedition had established all of their subsidiary camps on the flanks of the mountain up to the South Col at about 26,000 feet.

Hunt dispatched his first climbing team, consisting of mountaineers Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, up from the South Col on May 26. Bourdillon and Evans climbed higher on the mountain than any other before, becoming the first climbers to reach Everest's South Summit at 28,700 feet; just 329 feet below the true summit. The pair had to turn back for the South Col there due to problems with their oxygen gear and fatigue. However, the trail they broke and the gear they left higher on the mountain would serve the next pair who'd reach for the summit starting just two days later: Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary.

Edmund Hillary, 33 years old at the time, became interested in mountaineering during the 1930s while a student and had served as a navigator in the Royal New Zealand Air Force during World War II. He previously had been part of the 1951 British Expedition who reconnoitered the Southeast Ridge route and an unsuccessful 1952 expedition to the Himalayan peak Cho Oyu.

Hillary and Norgay set out from the South Col high camp on the night of May 28, 1953. Following the trail and climbing works left behind by their compatriots Bourdillon and Evans, they reached the South Summit around dawn on May 29. The two had perfect weather, and thanks to gear and oxygen left behind in the previous attempt, plenty of supplies. They started off to climb the last 329 vertical feet between man and the highest point on Earth.

The two climbers first had to traverse a dangerously snow covered, corniced ridge with 8,000-10,000 foot falls risked on either side. Then, upon reaching 28,740 feet, they were faced with a 40-foot vertical wall of rock and ice in their path. After a technical snow and ice climb, Hillary and Norgay reached the summit ridge. The final rock wall on the route is today known as the "Hillary Step".

At about 11:30 AM local time on May 29, 1953 - sixty years ago today - Edmund Hillary became the first human to stand at the top of his native world, followed seconds later by Tenzing Norgay.

Tenzing Norgay on Everest's summit as photographed by Edmund Hillary
The two stayed for just a few minutes at the top of the world before beginning their treacherous descent. They descended safely, and returned to Kathmandu in Nepal.

News of the expedition's success reached Britain on June 2, 1953, the day of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. Both John Hunt and Edmund Hillary were appointed as knights in the Order of the British Empire for the achievement, and Tenzing Norgay received the George Medal.

Since Hillary and Norgay's first climb, the summit has been reached upwards of 5,500 times (many by individuals with multiple summits), and over 200 climbers have died trying.

I hold high-altitude mountaineers in particularly high regard. Yeah, I'm probably crazy enough that if the circumstances presented themselves, I'd try to climb Everest myself. If this is a topic that interests you as much as I, I recommend the following works:

First, if you can find it playing at an IMAX theater, do not miss the 1998 film Everest. If you can only see it in small format (it's on Netflix), do so, but the film is absolutely stunning in large form factor. It follows the climb in 1996 of Ed Viesturs, Araceli Segarra, and Jamling Norgay (Tenzing's son). Here's a clip:

David Breashears led the IMAX expedition; his book High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places is excellent.

The aforementioned Ed Viesturs (link to his personal site) became the first American to summit all fourteen of the world's 8,000+ meter altitude peaks without using supplemental oxygen in 2005. He is the author of No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks.

Another can't miss book is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer witnessed the 1996 "Everest Disaster" first hand as a climber. He summited Everest on May 10, 1996. Unforeseen sudden harsh weather and delays on the mountain left eight climbers dead that day and several others maimed by frostbite.

Finally, the series Everest: Beyond the Limit is available for streaming via Netflix. Enjoy!

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