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Climbing Mt. Everest: 50 years Since Sir Edmund Hillary’s Summit

May 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, hiking to Mt. Everest, the top of the world, 50 years after it was first accomplished. Kwame Holman begins with some background.

KWAME HOLMAN: Towering 29,035 feet, it is the top of the world. And it was on this day at 11:30 a.m. In 1953 that Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, made history, becoming the first climbers to conquer Mount Everest, as seen in the “National Geographic” documentary “Surviving Everest.” It took 16 days via the southeast ridge route.

After raising his ice axe on top of the mountain the Nepalese call Sagarmatha, or goddess of the universe, Tenzing was elevated to godlike status among the Sherpa people. And Hillary, a beekeeper from New Zealand, became a mountaineering icon.

Since that day 50 years ago, 10,000 climbers have tried to summit the mountain many call “The Big E,” but only about 1,200 men and women have succeeded. The mountain was named in 1859 after Sir George Everest, the British surveyor general of India who originally called it “Peak XV” when he recorded its location.

In 1924, George Mallory and a British team set out to be the first to reach the highest point on earth, but he and another climber vanished near the summit. Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999 on a rock ledge 2,000 feet from the summit.

More than 175 mountaineers have died trying make the treacherous trek to the top. The worst single loss came in May 1996 when a storm on the mountain claimed a dozen lives. 83-year-old Sir Edmund Hillary, knighted by queen Elizabeth in 1953, was in Nepal for the 50th anniversary celebrations this week.

SIR EDMUND HILLARY: Well, what can I say? It’s been a wonderful morning, and we say our thanks to you, and our thanks to Nepal.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hillary’s affection for the Sherpa people led him to help build hospitals and schools, and bring other improvements to the isolated villages of the Solo Khumbu region of Nepal. While the 27,000 tourists who visit the base of Everest every year provide a source of revenue for the region, concerns have been raised about their environmental impact. At a press conference this week, Hillary suggested the mountain be closed to new expeditions.

SIR EDMUND HILLARY: Just sitting around in a big base camp and knocking back cans of beer, I don’t particularly regard as mountaineering.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hillary also said he hoped he could one day again climb the mountain he conquered five decades ago.

SIR EDMUND HILLARY: I’m hoping in years to come, despite my advanced years, that with the use of a bit of oxygen and a good helicopter pilot — and we do have a good helicopter pilot– that we will return back up to the Kumu [ph] area.

KWAME HOLMAN: Two U.S. expeditions were expected to try for the summit today.

JIM LEHRER: Now, some 50th anniversary perspective from Stacy Allison, the first American woman to reach the top of Mount Everest. She did so in 1988. And Bill Allen, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine, which has just published a special issue on Sir Hillary’s achievement. Bill Allen, why was what Edmund Hillary did considered so extraordinary?

BILL ALLEN: One thing that really stands out is that it was the magic of Everest. It was the failures to conquer Everest, as it were, that really gave it its mystique. Human beings are always associated with looking at the highest, the deepest, the widest, the longest; and this was one of those things. You can’t go any higher on this planet. You know, it’s the highest stage in the world and the dramas are always bigger if they’re on Everest.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what did Hillary bring to it that nobody else did? What was special about him?

BILL ALLEN: He was extraordinarily conditioned. He made a wonderful selection of grandparents to give him the genetics that he could possibly stand that. He was determined, and he had a wonderful — the ideal — climbing partner in Tenzing Norgay. Tenzing was the most experienced climber that they had on the entire expedition. And Hillary was an ox of a man, so strong that he could just by his own strength of will and his muscular strength force his way up.

JIM LEHRER: In looking back on it, does it seem like a natural thing that Edmund Hillary would have been the first one now? When you look at all the people who tried before he did and then he did it?

BILL ALLEN: Well, it’s very difficult to say because here’s someone who is so self-effacing, that it really doesn’t seem in character with a swashbuckler who would work their way to the top of the world’s tallest mountain. Here is someone who measures his own life as much by who he has helped as how high he has climbed.

JIM LEHRER: Stacy Allison, you did your number in 1988. Why? Why did you want to go to the top of Mount Everest?

STACY ALLISON: For me, there were a couple of reasons. First of all I wanted to know if I was mentally and physically tough enough to make it to the top. I wanted to know what it would be like to stand on top of the world. Of course….

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. You were already a climber? I mean you already did this kind of thing.

STACY ALLISON: Yes, I had climbed for 12 years all over the world. I was a very experienced, very technical climber. And we had been trying to get the first American woman to the top for about nine years, I think, before I attempted the mountain. It got to the point where I thought also, well, why not me? I mean, you know, we better get somebody to the top. Why not me?

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Now, you got to the top. What was it like? Describe it.

STACY ALLISON: Standing on the top is very exhilarating. It’s purely emotional. You worked so hard, so long….

JIM LEHRER: We’re showing a picture of you by the way that was taken at the top while you’re talking. Keep talking, okay. The audience is seeing you stand there.

STACY ALLISON: I felt a swell of emotion rise from my feet all the way up to my head, and I wanted to hug somebody. This is an experience that you want to turn around and you want to share it with someone. Unfortunately when I turned around, there was no one there for me to share it with. I initially stood on top by myself — 15 minutes later, a Sherpa stood on top with me. His joy was a joy for me to watch.

JIM LEHRER: Who was he? He was your guide, somebody who was with you?

STACY ALLISON: He wasn’t a guide. He was a Sherpa. This was his first time on the top of Everest. Our expedition was a group of climbers. We hired 26 Sherpas, some of them were base camp cooks. Some of them helped us carry loads of food and equipment on the mountain. Now back in 1988 the climbers actually set the route themselves. We set all the ropes and ladders on the mountain. We set up all of our camps and from what I understand, of course, that has changed today where the Sherpas do the majority of the work and the climbers come to base camp with all the route primarily fixed, all the camps set up for you.

JIM LEHRER: Was it a… was it a fearful excursion up the mountain? I mean, were you afraid? We know… you’ve told us what it was like at the top. What was it like getting there?

STACY ALLISON: The Khumbu Ice Fall the first 2,000 feet out of base camp is… climbers refer to it as the mouth of death. It’s a glacier that flows down the mountain. It drops over a cliff, a 2,000-foot cliff. It flows like a waterfall about three or four feet down the mountain a day. Huge ice towers can tumble down without warning, huge crevasses or slots in the ground. You have to get over the crevasses; you have to get up and around the huge towers.

That was the most dangerous, frightening part for me. I felt like a deer during hunting season with my ears alert and constantly looking around. The rest of the climb is fairly easy. I’m talking about technically easy. Again, one of the most difficult parts is just human physiology — what your individual physiology is like when you go higher on the mountain.

JIM LEHRER: You mean your ability to breathe at high altitudes, that sort of thing.

STACY ALLISON: Your ability to function and function well. Certainly there’s high altitude sicknesses, edema, cerebral edema, pulmonary edema where your lung and brain fills with excess liquid. It’s debilitating and deadly if you don’t get off the mountain. Your heart rate… I don’t think my heart rate was under 90 when I was on the mountain and certainly when I was exerting myself it was well over 100, and then the daily stress, day after day after day of stressful situations.

JIM LEHRER: How many days were you… did it take you to get up there?

STACY ALLISON: Twenty-nine days. It took us 29 days before I stood on top.

JIM LEHRER: How many days did it take you to get down?

STACY ALLISON: I went from 26,000 feet to the summit and all the way back down to 21,000 feet in one day.

JIM LEHRER: Oh wow! Go ahead and finish.

STACY ALLISON: Go ahead.

JIM LEHRER: I was just going to ask Bill Allen, Stacy Allison did in 1988, there have been 12 — Kwame said in the set-up piece — there was been 1,200 people or more who have done it total since Edmund Hillary and his guide did it. Why do people still want to do it now?

BILL ALLEN: It’s a way to test yourself, to test whether you are tough enough, whether your mind is tough enough, whether you’re physically fit enough to do this. There’s also something that when people look at you from then on, it’s always, “this is Stacy Allison, comma, the woman who was the first to climb Everest, period.” It’s like winning a Nobel Prize. You’re forever afterwards known as a Nobel Laureate. You’re forever afterwards known as someone who climbed Everest.

JIM LEHRER: Is that true with you, Stacy Allison? Has it changed your life since you did that?

STACY ALLISON: It certainly has opened up doors for me, yes. I mean, I’ve done a lot of things that I would not have done if I had not climbed Everest. You bet.

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel that’s your identity now?

STACY ALLISON: (Laughing).

JIM LEHRER: I’m not… that’s not a facetious question.

STACY ALLISON: It’s a very good question. To my immediate friends and my family absolutely not. It’s not my identity. However, I’m a motivational business speaker. When I go out and I’m presenting in front of an audience, in front of a corporation, that’s my identity. That is who I am, and why I’m in front of these people.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think people, Bill Allen, will continue to do this forever as long as Mount Everest is there and it will be there forever, there will always be people who want to go to the top?

BILL ALLEN: Absolutely. I don’t think that there’s any question about that. There are only a few challenges that are left on this planet. That is one. It is always going to be there. Going to the deepest part of the ocean is another. It’s just something that human beings are looking for challenges, and there are some people who are able to rise to the occasion and meet it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you share Hillary’s concern that too many people means a despoiled environment there on the mountain and around the mountain.

BILL ALLEN: I think there’s a chance of always doing that in the same way that the national parks in this country are being loved to death. But I think there are also efforts through the sons of Hillary and Barry Bishop on our staff, who is on our staff, they’re going up to clean up that. I think there are a lot of efforts to clean up the detritus from the previous expeditions on Everest.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Allen and Stacy Allison, thank you both very much.

STACY ALLISON: Thank you.

BILL ALLEN: Thank you.