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Hillary and Tenzing climb Mt. Everest

This Day in World History

May 29, 1953

Hillary and Tenzing climb Mt. Everest


On May 29, 1953, at about 11:30 a.m., New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tibetan Tenzing Norgay stood on top of the world. They had spent more than two hours straining every muscle against ice, snow, rock, and low oxygen to reach this point. But they were atop Mount Everest, more than 29,000 feet above sea level, the highest peak in the world.

Relieved that the climbing was over, Hillary looked at his partner. As he later wrote, “In spite of the balaclava, goggles and oxygen mask all encrusted with long icicles that concealed his face, there was no disguising his infectious grin of pure delight.” The two men embraced.

Hillary took some photographs of the view and of Tenzing waving small flags representing New Zealand, Nepal, Britain, and the United Nations. Hillary left a small crucifix while Tenzing deposited some food as a Buddhist offering. After 15 minutes, the two decided that, with oxygen running low, they should descend.

View of the majestic Mount Everest from the Rongbuk valley, close to base camp and the terminus of the Rongbuk glacier at 5,200m. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Mt. Everest had long loomed as perhaps the most daunting physical challenge on Earth. Two climbers — George Mallory and Andrew Irvine — had died in a 1924 attempt. Many others had simply failed. Hillary, a skilled mountain climber, was determined to conquer the mountain. He took part in a 1951 British expedition that found a promising southern route up the slope. The 1953 trip followed that route.

That expedition reached its highest camp by the middle of May. Preparations began for the final ascent. One pair made an attempt on May 27, but failed. Two days later, Hillary and Tenzing succeeded in their joint attempt — and captured the world’s attention.

Hillary was soon knighted by Britain’s newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II. Tenzing was given medals by Britain and Nepal. While others have followed their path to the top, no one can diminish their achievement. They were the first.

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