The History of the First Conquest of Everest

There is a popular phrase used by alpinists when asked about why they have chosen to climb mountains: “Because they exist.” If you think this phrase over, you will discover an underlying layer of meanings and motives which perhaps cannot be explained better than in these three words; there is challenge, danger, pushing oneself to the limit, a desire of fame, an adrenaline rush, the testing and the exploring of an alpinist’s capabilities, the feeling of standing on the world’s rooftop…. The reasons are many, and there is probably no other mountain that would give alpinists all of them—and much more—than Everest. Since the day it was discovered, Everest (or Chomolungma, as it is called in the language of sherpas—people living in the Nepalese highlands) stimulated the minds of thousands of climbers all over the world. Being the highest mountain on the planet, Everest has been explored and climbed dozens of times, but history will always remember those who did it first: Andrew Irvine, George Mallory, Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay.

In fact, speaking of Irvine and Mallory, it is not entirely clear whether they managed to reach the top of Everest. The history of their climb remains a mystery even today, although many researchers believe, based on numerous interviews, archival materials, and meticulous data analysis, that Irvine and Mallory did climb to Everest’s summit. But, let us get things in order. George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were members of the British expedition to mount Everest that started in 1924. The goal of the expedition was to ascend the mountain, and it was the second expedition pursuing such a goal. During the expedition, there were two attempts to get to the top, but both of them failed. During the third attempt, both Irvine and Mallory disappeared. There were witnesses claiming to have had seen them ascending, not too far from the summit (the testimonies, provided by the geologist Noel O’dell, were confusing and controversial, and the mountaineer himself could not unequivocally explain what exactly he had seen), but neither Mallory, nor Irvine returned to the alpinists’ camp. And since 1924, there have been a lot of assumptions, versions, and debates about whether Mallory and Irvine managed to reach the top or not. If yes, it would have been the first successful ascendance on Everest, 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgey did so.

In 1999, a specially-commissioned expedition found George Mallory’s body. It was extremely well preserved, and was lying on the mountain’s northern slope at the height of 8,160 meters; Andrew Irvine’s body has not been found yet. The doubts surrounding the mountaineers success are fueled by the fact that the weather on the day when they set out to the summit was extremely bad—they were last seen vanishing into the clouds on Everest’s Northeast Ridge.
According to Professor Kent Moore of the physics department at the University of Toronto, “The disappearance of Mallory and Irvine is one of the most enduring mysteries of the 20th century, yet throughout the debates surrounding their disappearance, the issue of the weather has never really been addressed […] We analysed the barometric pressure measurements and found out that during the Mallory and Irvine summit attempt, there was a drop in barometric pressure at base camp of approximately 18mbar. This is quite a large drop, in comparison the deadly 1996 ‘Into Thin Air’ storm had a pressure drop at the summit of approximately 8 mbar.” Moore and his team believe that this means Mallory and Irvine must have had to fight a terrible storm on their way to the summit (Telegraph.co.uk), which casts doubt on whether they—unlike many people believe—climbed to the top of Everest.

After numerous attempts made throughout the following years, a team of two brave mountaineers—Edmund Hillary (New Zealand) and Tenzing Norgay (Nepal) did ascend the top of Chomolungma. It happened on May 29, 1953, just a couple of days before Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. The expedition they participated in was huge: with tons of supplies and 370 sherpas (sherpas always escort the mountaineers from other countries and do the most dangerous work all the way up to the summit of Everest), it was gathered with just one goal: to climb to the top, although the vanguard (pairs of mountaineers who would attempt to reach the top of the mountain) was just 10 people. According to George Band, 73, who was a member of the expedition, “The basic plan was for two summit attempts, each by a pair of climbers, with a possible third assault if necessary. On such expeditions, the leader tends to designate the summit pairs quite late during the expedition, when he sees how everybody is performing.” One of such pairs were Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay—a beekeeper, first time in the Himalayan mountains, and a 38-year-old lead sherpa, a veteran of Everest expeditions, who managed to do what seemed to be impossible. After reaching the South Summit—which is almost the top of the mountain—by 9 a.m. on May 29th, Hillary and Tenzing had to face one final obstacle: a rocky 12-meter spur, now known as the Hillary Step. These 12 meters were perhaps the longest distance in the mountaineers’ lives: it took them almost two and a half hours to bypass it; the pair reached the top at 11:30 a.m. They spent little time at the summit—approximately 15 minutes, and then descended back to the last camp. Later, Hillary wrote: “Inevitably my thoughts turned to Mallory and Irvine. With little hope I looked around for some sign that they had reached the summit, but could see nothing” (National Geographic).

Regardless of who was the first to reach the top of Everest and how many people did it afterwards, each ascendance to the world’s rooftop is a heroic deed. Such height is a death zone for people due to the lack of oxygen in the air, sudden storms, extreme subzero temperatures, and winds. People reaching such heights may experience hallucinations, severe fatigue, they may feel unbearable heat and take off their clothes (although it sounds odd, this is one of the common illusions mountaineers suffer on Everest), oxygen starvation, and other symptoms, many of which lead to death. Even nowadays, when expeditions have advanced alpinistic equipment and safety measures, there are years when Everest encounters many deaths—as it happened in 1996 during one of the most tragic expeditions in the history of alpinism; thinking of the conditions in which Mallory and Irvine, as well as Hillary and Tenzing, attempted their ascendance, it is difficult to not admire their courage and persistence.

Works Cited

Squires, Nick. “Mallory and Irvine’s Everest Death Explained.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 4 Aug. 2010, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/nepal/7925594/Mallory-and-Irvines-Everest-death-explained.html.

“Everest 1953: First Footsteps—Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.” National Geographic, 3 Mar. 2013, www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/features/everest/sir-edmund-hillary-tenzing-norgay-1953/.

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