Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On top of Mount Everest

Sixty years ago today, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, made the first acknowledged ascent to the peak of Mount Everest. Although they were part of a large British expedition led by John Hunt, it is the New Zealander Hillary who became most famous and is most remembered. Thereafter, he devoted much of his energy and time to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal. He left his literary estate - including diaries - to an Auckland museum, but then his surviving children fought a fierce battle over the rights to use his written and photographic material. The dispute was resolved, thanks to the intervention of the country’s prime minister, in good time for the museum to celebrate the anniversary of Sir Ed’s ascent of Everest with an exhibition and an online blog featuring his expedition diary.

Hillary was born in 1919 in Auckland, New Zealand, his grandparents having emigrated from Yorkshire, England, in the mid-19th century. An interest in climbing was sparked when he was around 16 during a school trip to Mount Ruapehu. He studied mathematics and science at the University of Auckland; and in 1939 completed his first major climb, reaching the summit of Mount Ollivier, in the NZ Southern Alps. With his brother he became a beekeeper, a seasonal occupation that allowed him to pursue climbing in the winter months. He claimed his ‘religious conscience’ kept him from joining the air force at the start of the Second World War, but he did join the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a navigator in 1943. He was repatriated from the Solomon Islands in 1945 after being burnt in a boat accident. In 1948, he climbed New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt Cook, and in 1951 joined a British reconnaissance expedition to Everest.

Two years later, in 1953, Hillary was part of a ninth British assault on Everest, organised by the Joint Himalayan Committee. This was led by John Hunt and involved of hundreds of people, mostly porters, climbing a route from Nepal via the South Col. Most of the climbers were forced back, but Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay managed to reach the summit at 11:30 a.m. on 29 May 1953. Hillary was thus the first non-Sherpa to reach the summit, and this led him to immediate fame around the world, especially in his native New Zealand, and in Britain, where the news was announced on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation - he was knighted within a couple of months. Later the same year, Hillary married Louise Rose, and they had three children. However, Louise and one of their children died in a tragic aeroplane accident in 1975.

After Everest, Hillary wrote several books about his expeditions, most notably High Adventure, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1955, about the Everest ascent. He took part in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, for which he led the New Zealand section, and reached the South Pole in January 1958, the first party to do so overland since Amundsen and Scott, nearly half a century earlier. He also continued to climb, taking part in several other Himalayan expeditions.


From the 1960s, Hillary became heavily involved in humanitarian work in the Nepal region, setting up the Himalayan Trust which, for decades, has helped build infrastructure and provide other support for Sherpa communities. In 1985, he accepted a posting as Ambassador to India, until his retirement in 1989. That year, he also remarried, June, the widow of his close friend, Peter Mulgrew, who had died, like his first wife, in an air accident. In 1987, Hillary was inducted into the Order of New Zealand; and in 1995 he received the British Commonwealth’s highest honour in becoming a Knight of the Garter. He died in 2008. Further biographical information is readily available from Wikipedia, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, or New Zealand History Online.

Hillary left most of his literary and photographic archive, including some diaries, to Auckland War Memorial Museum. In May 2009, the New Zealand Herald reported that Hillary’s two surviving children were intending to sue the museum for usurping their rights: Hillary having stipulated in his will that his children should ‘have ready access to and the right to publish such material if they think fit’ for a period of 20 years. The dispute, between the family and the museum, which had become quite acrimonious, was only kept out of court through mediation by Prime Minister John Key, and the signing of a special decree - again see the New Zealand Herald.

Four years later - just a few weeks ago - the museum announced it was opening an exhibition in celebration of the coming ‘60 year anniversary of Sir Ed’s Mt Everest climb and a lifetime of work in Nepal’. A car-sized replica of Mt Everest is at the centre of the exhibition; layers of video, graphics and audio combine to help visitors track the path of the climb. The museum said it would also be ‘sharing extracts from the diary that Sir Ed kept during the climb’, and was at pains to stress that ‘Sir Ed’s children Sarah and Peter Hillary have both contributed to the development of the exhibition and say they are pleased the museum is able to share the different elements of their father’s story and his work in Nepal’.

Extracts from Hillary’s diary and images of the hand written pages are now available on the museum’s blog. The extracts start with a short one dated 19 May 1953 and continue through to 29 May 1953, the day Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit. Here is part of Hillary’s diary for 28 May.

28 May 1953
‘[. . .] Position getting a bit desperate when Tenzing did a lead out over deep unstable snow to the left and finally to a somewhat more flattish spot beneath a rock bluff. We decided to camp here at approx. 27,900ft. gave others some oxygen and sent them down. It was 2.30pm. T & I took off O2 and set to work making campsite - a frightful job. Chopped out frozen rubble with iceaxes and tried to level area. By 5pm had cleared a site large enough for tent but on two levels. Decided it would have to do so pitched tent on it. Had no effective means of tying tent down so hitched some ropes and O2 bottles sunk in snow and hoped for the best.

At 6pm moved into the tent. Tenzing had his lilo along bottom level overhanging slope. I sat on top level with my feet on bottom and was able to brace the whole tent against the quarter hourly huge gusts of wind. The primus worked like a charm and we consumed large amounts of very sweet lemon water, soup and coffee and ate with relish sardines on biscuits, a tin of apricots, dates, biscuits on jam.

I had made an inventory of our oxygen supplies necessarily low due to the reduced lift and found that we only had 1 3/4 LAs (2000 litres) left for the assault. By relying on the two 1/3 full bottles left by Tom and Charles about 500 ft below South Summit I thought we could make an attack using about 3 litres a minute (I had adjustments for this and fortunately Tenzing’s set on 4 litres was really only a true 3 litres).

We also had a little excess O2 in three nearly empty bottles and this would give us about 4 hours sleeping O2. Although the thermometer registered -27 °C it was not unpleasantly cold as the wind was confined to casual strong gusts.

I spread the oxygen into two t hour periods and although I was sitting up I dozed reasonably well. Between O2 sessions we brewed up and had lemon juice and lemon juice and biscuits.

It was very noticeable that though we had no O2 from 2.30 until about 9pm that we were only slightly breathless and could work quite hard.’

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