Mt Everest and Sir Ed: a 60-year legacy

  • Breaking
  • 28/05/2013

When Sir Edmund Hillary reached the top of Mt Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, at 11:30am on May 29, 1953, he became someone whose name would be synonymous with the mountain forever. The 33-year-old became a legend and established New Zealand as a nation known for its adventurous nature.

Now, 60 years later and five years after his death, Sir Ed's legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of adventurers in New Zealand and around the world.

  • VIDEO: Sir Ed's victory celebrated with scones
  • A dangerous pursuit

    There were numerous unsuccessful attempts at reaching the 8,848m summit before Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay got there, and many people died trying.

    One of the most well-known attempts was that of British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who may have got very close to the summit in 1924, but never returned. Mallory's body was not found until 1999.

    Sir Ed was aware of the risks, and he and Tenzing did not know whether they would make it.

    "We didn't know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt Everest," Sir Ed said after the climb. "And even using oxygen as we were, if we did get to the top, we weren't at all sure whether we wouldn't drop dead or something of that nature."

    Beginning the climb

    Sir Ed and Tenzing were part of a British expedition of 400 people, including about 15 climbers, any of whom could have been the first to get to the top. On May 26, 1953 two British men got within 100m of the summit, but one of their oxygen tanks failed and they returned to the camp where Sir Ed, Tenzing and numerous others were staying.

    The next day the leader of the expedition decided Sir Ed and Tenzing should have a go. They set out on May 28 and at 8,500m pitched a tent to spend the night.

    The pair got up at 4am, had some breakfast, thawed their frozen-solid boots, and set off at 6:30am.

    "The weather looked perfect and the view superb," Sir Ed wrote in his diary that morning.

    The last 348m to the summit was not easy, but they pushed on.

    "It was altogether most unsatisfactory and whenever I felt feelings of fear regarding it, I'd say to myself, forget it. This is Everest and you've got to take a few risks."

    After successfully cutting steps into solid snow, they had to work themselves up a 12m vertical rock step, now known as the Hillary Step.

    "I was rather surprised and pleased that I was capable of effort at this height," Sir Ed wrote.

    "I really felt now that we were going to get to the top and that nothing could stop us."

    Reaching the top

    They reached the highest point on earth at 11:30am.

    "We were on top of Everest!" Sir Ed wrote. "Tenzing and I shook hands and he so far forgot himself as to embrace me. It was quite a moment!"

    They looked at the amazing view, took some photos to prove they had got there, and had some food. They left a crucifix and some "lollies and biscuits and chocolate" and after 15 minutes began to descend again. A few hours later they met Sir Ed's lifelong friend and fellow climber George Lowe and Sir Ed uttered those famous words:

    "Well we knocked the bastard off."

    Sir Ed's mark

    Sir Ed didn't just leave his mark on the tallest mountain in the world; he also left a mark on the people of Nepal, the mountaineering community and the world.

    Sir Ed was knighted by the Queen just a week after reaching the top of the mountain.

    In 1992 his picture appeared on the New Zealand $5 note, the first time a living person had appeared on a banknote.

    In the years after reaching the summit, Sir Ed built a school for the Sherpa people and set up the Himalayan Trust to help the people of the region with medicine, education and conservation.

    He also wanted to encourage young New Zealanders to enjoy the outdoors, and set up the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre.

    Farewell Sir Ed

    When he died in January 2008 at age 88, there were farewells for him around the world. Thousands turned out in Auckland to farewell the mountaineer, applauding as they lined the route the hearse took with a 10-vehicle procession from St Mary's church in Parnell, through Auckland Domain to Purewa Cemetery.

    A Buddhist service was held in Kathmandu, Nepal, with hundreds of sherpas, musicians and a government minister paying tribute to Sir Ed.

    Former Himalayan doctor Penny Dawson was at the Nepalese service and said the local people loved him.

    "They really loved him, they respected him."

    Nepalese cultural minister Prithivi Subba Gurung paid tribute to Sir Ed at the service.

    "We have lost a good friend of Nepal and Nepali people."

    Nepal's Lukla Airport was renamed following his death to Tenzing-Hillary Airport.

    The Queen also paid tribute to Sir Ed at a service of thanksgiving at Windsor Castle, attended by the royal family and well-known Brits such as Sir David Attenborough and Sir Ian McKellen.

    "He was as unpretentious as he was noble and he really was noble," Sir David said after the service.

    Mt Everest today

    Since Sir Ed made it to the top, expeditions to Everest have become increasingly popular, whether to reach the top or just do a trek.

    There have now been 6,206 successful ascents to the summit by almost 4000 individuals, with 19,121 reaching further than Base Camp, according to National Geographic statistics.

    And the number of successful ascents per year is increasing. In 1960 there were three, in 1965 there were nine, in 1978 there were 25, in 1990 there were 72, in 2000 there were 145 and in 2012 there were 547. There was a record number of 633 ascents in 2007.

    Although the success rate is increasing, it is still a dangerous pursuit, and people regularly die trying to get to the top. In 2007 there were seven deaths and in 2012 there were 10.

    The youngest person to reach the top was 13, in 2010, and the oldest person was 80, in 2013.

    To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first climb, an exhibition featuring Sir Ed's diaries is currently on at Auckland Museum with excerpts from the diary available to read on Auckland Museum's blog.

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