Hillary & Tenzing

6 minute read

JAN MORRISOn May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal became the first human beings to conquer Mount Everest–Chomolungma, to its people–at 29,028 ft. the highest place on earth. By any rational standards, this was no big deal. Aircraft had long before flown over the summit, and within a few decades literally hundreds of other people from many nations would climb Everest too. And what is particularly remarkable, anyway, about getting to the top of a mountain?

Geography was not furthered by the achievement, scientific progress was scarcely hastened, and nothing new was discovered. Yet the names of Hillary and Tenzing went instantly into all languages as the names of heroes, partly because they really were men of heroic mold but chiefly because they represented so compellingly the spirit of their time. The world of the early 1950s was still a little punch-drunk from World War II, which had ended less than a decade before. Everything was changing. Great old powers were falling, virile new ones were rising, and the huge, poor mass of Asia and Africa was stirring into self-awareness. Hillary and Tenzing went to the Himalayas under the auspices of the British Empire, then recognizably in terminal decline. The expedition was the British Everest Expedition, 1953, and it was led by Colonel John Hunt, the truest of true English gentlemen. It was proper to the historical moment that one of the two climbers immortalized by the event came from a remote former colony of the Crown and the other from a nation that had long served as a buffer state of the imperial Raj.

I am sure they felt no Zeitgeist in them when they labored up the last snow slope to the summit. They were both very straightforward men. Tenzing was a professional mountaineer from the Sherpa community of the Everest foothills. After several expeditions to the mountain, he certainly wanted to get to the top for vocational reasons, but he also planned to deposit in the highest of all snows some offerings to the divinities that had long made Chomolungma sacred to his people. Hillary was by profession a beekeeper, and he would have been less than human if he had not occasionally thought, buckling his crampons, that reaching the summit would make him famous.

They were not, though, heroes of the old epic kind, dedicated to colossal purposes, tight of jaw and stiff of upper lip. That was George Mallory, who said most famously in 1924 that he was climbing Mount Everest because it is there. But if he ever reached the summit, he never lived to tell the tale. Hillary and Tenzing were two cheerful and courageous fellows doing what they liked doing, and did, best, and they made an oddly assorted pair. Hillary was tall, lanky, big-boned and long-faced, and he moved with an incongruous grace, rather like a giraffe. He habitually wore on his head a homemade cap with a cotton flap behind, as seen in old movies of the French Foreign Legion. Tenzing was by comparison a Himalayan fashion model: small, neat, rather delicate, brown as a berry, with the confident movements of a cat. Hillary grinned; Tenzing smiled. Hillary guffawed; Tenzing chuckled. Neither of them seemed particularly perturbed by anything; on the other hand, neither went in for unnecessary bravado.

As it happened, their enterprise involved no great sacrifice. Nobody was killed, maimed or even frostbitten during the British Everest Expedition of 1953. They were not in the least aggressive, except in a technical sense. They were considerate members of a team, and it was true to the temper of their adventure that Hillary’s first words when he returned from the summit, to his fellow New Zealander George Lowe, were Well, George, we’ve knocked the bastard off!

The real point of mountain climbing, as of most hard sports, is that it voluntarily tests the human spirit against the fiercest odds, not that it achieves anything more substantial–or even wins the contest, for that matter. For the most part, its heroism is of a subjective kind. It was the fate of Hillary and Tenzing, though, to become very public heroes indeed, and it was a measure of the men that over the years they truly grew into the condition. Perhaps they thought that just being the first to climb a hill was hardly qualification for immortality; perhaps they instinctively realized destiny had another place for them. For they both became, in the course of time, representatives not merely of their particular nations but of half of humanity. Astronauts might justly claim that they were envoys of all humanity; Hillary and Tenzing, in a less spectacular kind, came to stand for the small nations of the world, the young ones, the tucked-away and the up-and-coming.

Both, of course, were showered with worldly honors, and accepted them with aplomb. Both became the most celebrated citizens of their respective countries and went around the world on their behalf. But both devoted much of their lives to the happiness of an archetypically unprivileged segment of mankind: the Sherpas, Tenzing’s people, true natives of the Everest region. Tenzing, who died in 1986, became their charismatic champion and a living model of their potential. Grand old Ed Hillary, who is still robustly with us, has spent years in their country supervising the building of airfields, schools and hospitals and making the Sherpas’ existence better known to the world. Thus the two of them rose above celebrity to stand up for the unluckier third of humanity, who generally cannot spare the time or energy, let alone the money, to mess around in mountains.

I liked these men very much when I first met them on the mountain nearly a half-century ago, but I came to admire them far more in the years that followed. I thought their brand of heroism–the heroism of example, the heroism of debts repaid and causes sustained–far more inspiring than the gung-ho kind. Did it really mean much to the human race when Everest was conquered for the first time? Only because there became attached to the memory of the exploit, in the years that followed, a reputation for decency, kindness and stylish simplicity. Hillary and Tenzing fixed it when they knocked the bastard off.

Jan Morris accompanied the 1953 British Everest Expedition. Her next book will be about Abraham Lincoln

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