Explorer Journal Series: Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest Summit

Well we knocked the bastard off.

If you’ve had a chance to pick up our Wilderness Issue, there’s a more than likely chance that you’ve come across a few badass individuals. Whether smoke jumpers or our good friend Forest Woodward, there are some legends past and present that have lent a hand to our notion that there were and always will be people doing great for the environment and for this world. One of those extraordinary humans is Sir Edmund Hillary, the first badass to summit Mount Everest, and pioneer (literally) of modern Alpine climbing. This post can go no further without giving a nod to Hillary’s legendary Sherpa —Tenzing Norgay—without whom, Hillary may not have stood a chance against the world’s tallest mountain. When tasked by Wilderness Issue guest editor Chris Burkard to develop a piece on handwritten journals from legendary explorers across time, the native New Zealander was top of mind and is the first featured in our Explorer Journal series.

Sir Edmund Hillary - May 29, 1953 - Page 97

Sir Edmund Hillary – May 29, 1953 – Page 97

We were lucky enough to stumble across his grandkids’ collection through the Auckland Museum, and our luck continued when they were in possession of Sir Edmund’s handwritten journal pages from May 29, 1953, the day he reached the summit of Mount Everest.

Sir Edmund Hillary - May 29, 1953 - Page 98

Sir Edmund Hillary – May 29, 1953 – Page 98

First attempted in 1921 by the British, the formidable mountain had turned away at least ten major expeditions (not to mention two solo attempts—not recommended apparently) before reaching the summit. But in 1950, the discovery of a southern approach to the mountain in newly opened Nepal, and the “yellow brick road” to the summit had been discovered.

Sir Edmund Hillary - May 29, 1953 - Page 99

Sir Edmund Hillary – May 29, 1953 – Page 99

In 1952, the Swiss almost became the first ascenders of the legendary mountain, also led by super-sherpa Tenzing Norgay, but were thwarted by weather and turned back less than 300 meters from the summit. The following year, the Brits led an expedition behind leader Sir John Hunt, with multiple teams capable of reaching the summit, in hopes to plant the British flag at the highest point on earth. Recruiting Norgay, it was originally planned for another Brit to be the first ascender, but due to oxygen tank issues and a slow pace, the expedition turned to the 33-year-old beekeeper, Sir Edmund Hillary, and his trusty partner Tenzing to be the first to summit. Having trained on the glaciated peaks of his native New Zealand, Hillary was perfectly primed for the challenge, and his attention to detail in his journal pages highlights just part of what it takes.

Tenzing and I shook hands and he so far forgot himself as to embrace me. It was quite a moment! We took off our O2 and for ten minutes I photographed T holding flags, the various ridges of Everest and the general view. I left a crucifix on top for John Hunt and T made a little hole in the snow and put in some food offerings, lollies and biscuits and chocolate. We ate a Kendal Mint Cake and then put back on our O2.

Sir Edmund Hillary - May 29, 1953 - Page 100

Sir Edmund Hillary – May 29, 1953 – Page 100

The last difficult section, about 20 minutes from the summit, was appropriately named The Hillary Step after Sir Edmund, who was the first to traverse it. After the major earthquakes that occurred Nepal in May of 2017, climbers reported that the Hillary Step is no more, the end of an era in modern alpine climbing, and a strong signal to the commercialization of the Earth’s wonders and its resulting impact.

All images courtesy of the Auckland Museum and the Hillary Family.