First to Summit
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Snow conditions were not good and in places the southeast ridge narrowed to a
knife-edge, but they plodded on slowly and gained the South Summit by 9 a.m.
The looping ridge ahead was weighed down with heavy snow cornices overhanging
the frightfully steep East, or Kangshung Face. They took stock of how much
oxygen was remaining, and then Hillary led a tricky and difficult path,
avoiding the cornices on one side and steep slopes on the other. After an
hour's steady going they came to a steep rocky step, some forty feet high.
They had known of this in advance from aerial photographs, but did not know
whether it could be surmounted. Luckily, Hillary found a crack into which he
was able to partly jam his body and wriggle his way upwards. The obstacle is
still called the Hillary Step today.
Tenzing followed up behind, and the pair continued their switchback progress
along the summit ridge until finally they saw they had passed the last corner.
Ahead of them lay only a snowy dome and the vast plateau of Tibet. 'A few more
whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow, and we stood on top,' Hillary described
later. Hillary sought to shake hands with his partner, but a delighted Tenzing
would have nothing but to fling his arms around his friend's shoulders,
thumping him on the back. It was 11.30 a.m. and the highest point on earth had
at last been trodden by man.
As mentioned, news of the triumph broke around the world on Coronation Day.
The achievement was seen as a propitious omen for the forthcoming era of New
Elizabethans. Hillary, Tenzing, and Hunt became popular international figures,
and throughout the British Commonwealth housing estates and municipal buildings
were named after them. Hunt and Hillary received knighthoods from the young
queen. Tenzing, regrettably, was awarded the inferior British Empire Medal.
All those on the expedition found their lives and careers changed by Everest
success. We can be grateful that Hunt's carefully chosen team was universally
aware of its privilege and that all the members, in their own way, have sought
to use their prestige in public service. Hunt went on to become The Lord Hunt
of Llanvair Warterdine, known for conspicuous work with young people, for the
Pres and the Parole Board and as an international ambassador. Hillary, too,
has held ambassadorial positions but is best known for his work with the
Himalayan Trust, dedicated to improving the lot of the Sherpa community in
Nepal. Most notable is his help in establishing the Khumjung School that has
served for years in educating Sherpa children throughout the Khumbu. Tenzing
founded the Indian Mountaineering Federation with an injunction from President
Nehru to `train a thousand Tenzings'; throughout his life he remained a smiling
and approachable unofficial ambassador for the Sherpa people. Money earned by
the Everest film and the best-selling book of the expedition was put into the
Mount Everest Foundation to assist future mountaineering projects and has since
dispensed almost $750,000 in grants to over 900 expeditions.
As Lord Hunt has said, the success of his team on Everest was merely the
continuation of the effort of all those who had gone before. Yet we can feel
ourselves fortunate that in him and his team, the world was blessed with men to
match the mountains they climbed.
Audrey Salkeld of Clevedon, England is one of the world's premier
Everest historians and photo researchers. Her photo editing credits include
Everest: The Ultimate Book of the Ultimate Mountain and Everest: The
Best Writing and Pictures from Seventy Years of Human Endeavour.
Photos: (1) courtesy Ed Viesturs; (3) courtesy Robert Schauer.
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