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Everest Day: Three iconic Everest climbs

On 29 May 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first men to climb Everest. This is the story of their climb as well as two other amazing ascents

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary at the Everest Base Camp after summiting Everest in 1953.
Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary at the Everest Base Camp after summiting Everest in 1953. (Getty Images)

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FIRST ASCENT, 1953: Since 2008, Nepal has been celebrating 29 May as Everest Day. It is on this day, in 1953, that Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary reached the summit. For members of the 1953 British expedition, this climb marked the success of British attempts to conquer the peak. It also inaugurated a new era, for once the highest mountain on the planet had been climbed, mountaineers began exploring other ways to reach the summit.

Over the next three decades, Everest would see many firsts: solo ascents, winter ascents, ascents without oxygen, and much more. And while some of those other climbs have become a celebrated part of Himalayan mountaineering history, none excites the public imagination more than that first ascent, even now.

Also Read: Why do people still climb Mount Everest?

Like other previous attempts, it was a massive undertaking, with 350 porters assisting the climbers in laying siege on Everest. After setting up camps progressively on the mountain over April and May, the first summit attempt by climbers Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans got under way on 26 May. However, they had to turn back from the South Summit. It was the turn of Norgay and Hillary on 27 May, and they finally succeeded on the 29th, reaching the summit at 11.30am. “Well George, we knocked the bastard off,” was Hillary’s taciturn remark to expedition-mate George Lowe.

FIRST SOLO ASCENT, 1980: Italian mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner is as much a climbing artist as he is a tough guy. His solo ascent of Everest, without supplemental oxygen, combined the best of both. He had summited Everest before, in 1978, with climbing partner Peter Habeler. But Messner wanted a greater challenge and decided to climb in the monsoon, on the northern, Tibetan side of the mountain.

Also Read: How Mount Everest was mapped in 1921

The plain facts of his climb are these: He set off from Advanced Base Camp (ABC) on the Rongbuk Glacier on 18 August and reached the summit on the 20th. His three days of climbing were actually intensely dramatic: He survived a fall into a crevasse, climbed the North Ridge, and traversed the Great Couloir (which had defeated many mountaineers before him). “I was in continual agony; I have never in my whole life been so tired as on the summit of Everest that day. I just sat and sat there, oblivious to everything.… I knew I was physically at the end of my tether,” Messner said later. He returned to his final camp at 8,200m, and, jettisoning all his survival equipment, descended all the way to ABC in a single climb. To this day, it remains a legendary example of what the human body and mind is capable of.

The Polish team of climbers that climbed Everest in winter in 1980.
The Polish team of climbers that climbed Everest in winter in 1980. (Wikimedia Commons)

FIRST WINTER ASCENT, 1980: Well, 1980 was clearly a landmark year in Everest’s history. From 1980-88, Polish mountaineers, including such legendary climbers as Andrzej Zawada, Krzysztof Wielicki, Maciej Berbeka, Maciej Pawlikowski, Zygmunt Heinrich and Jerzy Kukuczka, did something unique—they climbed some of the world’s highest and toughest mountains in the dead of winter, earning the epithet “Ice Warriors”.

They started this sequence by climbing Everest in February 1980, with Wielicki and Leszek Cichy reaching the summit on 17 February. Braving bitterly cold winds, the Polish team of 16 made its way up the South Col route from Nepal. With its climbing permit about to expire on 15 February, the team had to cajole its Nepalese liaison officer to grant it two extra days. It made the most of that extension.

Also Read: The men who 'discovered' Mount Everest

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