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Recalling a truly towering achievement

Tomorrow marks the seventy-first anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay becoming the first climbers to be confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest.

Certainly, they were the first to safely return after achieving the feat – it remains a subject of controversy in mountaineering circles whether Brits George Mallory and Andrew Irvine actually reached the summit 29 years before this – on June 8, 1924 – given neither of them returned from the attempt [the body of Mallory was finally found on the mountain’s north face on May 1, 1999].

Hillary and Tenzing almost missed out on their place in the history books.

Initially, the leader of the British Everest expedition – Colonel John Hunt – directed Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon to attempt to reach the summit from the group’s final camp at 7890m. On May 26, the pair came within 91 vertical metres of their goal but had to turn back when Evans’ oxygen system failed, so Hunt fell back on his second-string summit team.

Delayed for two days by snow and wind, Hillary and Tenzing began their attempt on May 28, pitching a tent at 8500m. The next morning, Hillary discovered that his boots – which he’d left outside the tent overnight – were frozen solid and he had to spend two hours warning them over a stove before he and Tenzing attempted the final ascent wearing packs weighing 14kg.

The final obstacle between the duo and the summit was the 12m rock face that would later be called “Hillary Step”.

“I noticed a crack between the rock and the snow sticking to the East Face,” Hillary would later write.

“I crawled inside and wriggled and jammed my way to the top … Tenzing slowly joined me and we moved on. I chopped steps over bump after bump, wondering a little desperately where the top could be. Then I saw the ridge ahead dropped away to the north and above me on the right was a rounded snow dome. A few more whacks with my ice-axe and Tenzing and I stood on top of Everest.”

In what was a mark of the man’s modesty, it was not Hillary but Tenzing, in an autobiography published two years later, who confirmed the New Zealander was the first person to set foot on the summit – at 8848m, the highest point on earth – at 11.30am on May 29.

Hillary also eschewed having his photograph taken on the summit, where he and Tenzing spent 15 minutes before beginning their descent, so there’s only the photo he took of his Sherpa partner, along with several taken looking down the mountain, that record the achievement for posterity.

How things have changed during the intervening seven decades.

The extremely weather-dependent Everest climbing season is currently in full swing and there have been recent news reports of queues of hundreds of mountaineers forming what’s essentially a human traffic jam on the ascent to the summit.

The spirit of adventure, the desire to scale the world’s highest peak “because it is there” – as Mallory said before his ill-fated attempt – appears to have been supplanted by a hankering to get a spectacular Instagram photograph; what was once a literal pinnacle of human endurance and achievement has now devolved into what some refer to as “ego tourism” and “the worst kind of adventure capitalism”.

So be sure to spare a thought for Tenzing and Hillary tomorrow. It seems sadly unlikely that we shall ever see their like again.

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