Colonial British paranoia that the Czar of Russia was settings his eyes on the jewel in its crown, India. This resulted in the shameful British invasion of Tibet, the reason for which was similar to the American invasion of Iraq because it supposedly had weapons of mass destruction. The British, too, only found a few old Russian hunting rifles in Tibet.
Captain C G Rawling of the Younghusband expedition viewed the North Ridge of Everest from 100km away, and felt it might provide a feasible route to the summit. Plans were made, but World War I stopped play. In 1921 the Tibetans granted permission for the British to climb the mountain. They attempted numerous times, until Tibet closed its borders, a decision based on a horoscope reading warning the Dalai Lama of tourists seeking gold in the Home of the Gods.
Luckily for mountaineers, in 1949/50 Nepal removed its restrictions, and the British quickly fielded two reconnaissance expeditions. However, it was the Swiss who made the first serious attempt in 1952. Their Sherpa team of 12 was led by Tenzing who had added Norgay to his name. They ascended the Khumbu Ice Fall, entered the elusive Western Cwm, climbed the Lhotse Glacier and traversed to the South Col just under 8400m.
The last of the first, Sharad Ojha
Lambert and Tenzing spent a hard night (melting ice over a candle) and next day were only able to gain a further 250m before descending. The Swiss returned later that year, but again were sadly unsuccessful.
Both the North and the South Poles had been reached, the French had climbed Annapurna, and the Swiss had nearly succeeded on Everest. The race had become political and nationalistic, and the British were desperate, considering Everest ‘their mountain’.
12 February 1953, Colonel Hunt and his party set sail from Britain for India, from where they flew to Nepal. They recruited 350 porters to carry their equipment to Tengboche Monastery (3,950m). Here they spent 2 weeks acclimatising and preparing – then to establish a string of camps up the route the Swiss had opened the year before.
They crawled out of the tent, connected up the oxygen apparatus and set off in the early morning light. Hillary’s feet ice-cold, Tenzing led, they then changed places. The snow suddenly gave way without warning, very unnerving. They reached the South Summit at 09.00. Before them lay the virgin ridge that led to the summit, a daunting sight: huge overhanging masses of snow and ice, with giant drops on each side.
They had four and a half hours of oxygen left, with deep breaths they stepped into the void. Here one slip could see them spinning 3000m into space. Hillary noted, ‘I jammed my way into this crack, then kicking backwards with my crampons, I sank their spikes deep into the frozen snow and levered myself off the ground. …with a fervent prayer that the cornice would remain attached to the rock.’
It held. They past the now disappeared Hillary Step, then plodded up the less steep ridge to reach the summit at 11.30. Tenzing recalls, ‘…my mountain did not seem to me to be a lifeless thing of rock and ice, but warm, friendly and living.’
The British Mount Everest Expedition was a success, with Hillary and Tenzing reaching the summit on 29 May, 1953.