In 1953, a British led expedition to Mount Everest included a New Zealand bee-keeper and a Sherpa who had settled in Darjeeling. There was rather a lot at stake. Ever since the discovery and the naming of the mountain, it had been identified with the British. Or so the British themselves liked to think. They had made several trips to the mountain, both to reconnoitre as well as to actually try and climb to the summit. Their repeated failures, were, so they believed, making them look ridiculous in the eyes of the public.
Worst of all, 1952 had seen the Swiss – a toughened mountaineering race if there ever was one – gain access to the peak. Two of their members – Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay – had climbed to an unprecedented 8600 metres. The British watched, pokerfaced. Had the Swiss been successful in their very first attempt, it would have made the British look like bumbling fools.
Which was why, in 1953, national pride was up for grabs. The date for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth had been fixed and a successful ascent of Everest around the same time would have been most propitious. In the tightly controlled expedition, like tended to pair off with like, and that is how the bee-keeper and the hugely motivated Sherpa became climbing partners, though they could hardly speak the same language: they were both tireless climbers. Their successful summit bid on 29th May, 1953 is now a standard part of children’s text books the world over.
A lot has changed in these last fifty years: over a thousand people (1,114 actually) have successfully summitted Mt. Everest, sherpas have gone on to take their place in the international climbing arena, national expeditions from the unlikeliest countries – Taiwan and Korea for example – have set forth for the summit. The main difference is that the innocence has gone. When Hillary and Tenzing set forth from the western cwm up the Lhotse face to the south col, up the south-east ridge to the south summit and then on to the summit, they did much of the ‘work’ themselves from fixing line to establishing camp.
Recognizing how great a media event it would be if successful, a long, painstaking chain of runners, telegrams and secret codes was put in place. It ran from base camp on the mountain all the way to London. Because of the rigorous planning, it took a ‘mere’ three days. Today, as many hours would be unacceptable.
Fifty years from the date of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent is, properly speaking 2003. However, celebrations are starting from this year itself, for reasons that have everything to do with media, sponsorship and publicity. There are two expeditions to the mountain that pertain to the 50th anniversary celebrations. The first of these is being led by Peter Athans, six times summiteer and includes Peter Hillary son of Sir Edmund Hillary as well as Brent Bishop, son of Barry Bishop, the 12th person to have summitted Everest. This one is being sponsored by National Geographic and is rumoured to premiere as a film on 29th May, 2003, in time for the 50th anniversary, hence the haste. The route will be the classic one up the south col route, up the Hillary step, named for Sir Edmund Hillary: at 29,000 feet above sea level, he overcame a rock climbing problem successfully and had the gratification of seeing the rock named after him.
The other, quite separate, expedition commemorates the Swiss climb of 1952 in which Tenzing Norgay and Raymond Lambert reached tantalizingly close to the summit. This one has Tashi Tenzing, grandson of Tenzing Norgay as well as Yves Lambert, Raymond Lambert’s son. The oldest member will be Jean Jacques Asper, now 72, who was the youngest member on the 1952 expedition. Their route too is the standard route.
So, will Peter Hillary and Tashi Tenzing actually meet on the summit after climbing in their separate teams? Yes, says a leading news agency. No, says highly respected website www.everestnews.com, quoting Tashi Tenzing himself, who has been at pains to point out that his illustrious grandfather reposed more faith in the Swiss team as climbing partners.
The mountaineering world has been rife with speculation for some time now that all is not well between the Hillarys and Tenzing Norgay’s family, suggesting that the latter felt somehow aggrieved by what they perceived as more prominence being accorded to Sir Edmund Hillary. If this is so, it’s all of a piece with the egos of the climbing world. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if the mountains are as high as the egos of those who climb them.
Another school of thought is sure that the secrecy only serves to build up the sponsor’s case for a television film and very possibly, a book. One thing’s certain: if National Geographic or anybody else wants secrecy, the last place to look for it is the slopes of Everest. With the mountain having become something of a multi-media hub in recent years, climbers report the bizarre but common experience of getting news about co-climbers from the outside world! The discovery of Mallory’s body on the north face in 1998 leaked out from the camp of the hush-hush expedition that went to look for it, to the world at large, from where other climbers picked it up and came calling on the Mallory expedition at 28,500 feet.
Peter Athans and Brent Bishop are reportedly going to try the west ridge after seeing off Peter Hillary on his summit bid, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, may be spending some time at base camp (he’s already summitted once in 1996). Tashi Tenzing and Yves Lambert may summit at the same time as Peter Hillary. What all of them will discover is a lot of fixed rope hanging uselessly to the mountain, pitons and ice screws jammed into the rock and the scream of laptops running in the rarified air. What may have worn thin after fifty years is the most famous partnership in the annals of climbing.