The highest mountain in the world, climbing Mount Everest is a difficult and dangerous feat. Who was the first to complete it?
New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Tenzing Norgay were the first people recorded to have climbed Mount Everest, in that order, reaching the summit in 1953. However, people may have reached the summit earlier who were not recorded, such as during the Mallory and Irvine mission of 1924.
To find out more about the expeditions to reach the summit and climbing Mount Everest, read on.
A Successful 1924 Expedition?
As the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, or Chomolungma as it is known in Tibetan, has long appealed to mountain climbers, with improvements in mountain climbing technology helping to fuel demand to climb the mountain in the early 20th century.
Up until the late 19th century, climbing the mountain had been generally thought impossible but the 1920s saw the start of expeditions to try and find a route to the summit of the mountain. In 1921, a British reconnaissance expedition in the area featuring George Mallory found what they thought was a possible route, but they turned back due to the likely risk of the climb and not being sufficiently prepared.
In 1922, a British expedition returned to the area equipped with oxygen for the first time to make an attempt to reach the summit, with George Finch being the first person to climb higher than 8,000 meters. They turned back after problems with supplies and worsening weather conditions.
Just a month later, another expedition was launched, once again featuring Mallory, with this ending in tragedy and the deaths of seven porters due to an avalanche. Mallory survived and tried to reach the summit again in 1924, with the British making three further attempts that year.
Mallory’s first attempt in 1924 failed due to poor weather conditions and morale problems. A second attempt was made, which again failed before Mallory tried again with Andrew Irvine as his partner.
Mallory and Irvine never returned, and Mallory’s body was found on the North Face of Mount Everest in 1999. Whether or not Mallory and Irvine reached the summit is an ongoing source of debate.
The Confirmed 1953 Expedition
Following the 1924 Mallory and Irvine expedition, several other attempts were made, including Hugh Ruttledge’s expeditions in 1933 and 1936. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the 1951 annexation of Tibet, climbing from the Chinese side of the border became more problematic for foreign expeditions.
A 1952 Swiss expedition tried to reach the summit from the Nepalese side of the border, featuring Tenzing Norgay who set a record of climbing about 8,600 meters along with Raymond Lambert, less than 300 meters from the summit.
In 1953, the British launched their ninth expedition, led by John Hunt, to reach the summit from Nepal. The first attempt, made by Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, failed 300 feet short of the summit due to weather conditions and oxygen issues.
On the second attempt by this expedition, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 29, and successfully descended from the mountain.
For years, Hillary and Norgay refused to say who was the first to reach the summit, maintaining that it was a team effort. However, it was eventually revealed that Hillary had been the first to reach the summit.
The 1953 expedition was a colossal effort featuring 350 porters carrying several tons of supplies, 20 Sherpas (members of the Tibetan ethnic group in Nepal renowned for their mountaineering skills), and 11 climbers, not to mention filmmaker Tom Stobart and writer James Morris (later Jan Morris) who joined to record the climb.
Dangers of Mount Everest
Since the 1953 expedition, many others have successfully made the ascent, with climbing Mount Everest becoming more commercialized following the 1990s and more than 900 people making the ascent in 2019 alone.
Still, climbing Mount Everest is incredibly dangerous and can pose many hazards to climbers, which has been presumably part of its attraction. To climb Mount Everest, climbers need a permit granted to them by the Nepalese government, with tour guides being incredibly expensive.
Excessive numbers of climbers have led to conflicts in the area, such as the 2014 Sherpa strike over the perceived unreasonable demands of tourists.
Mount Everest is dangerous for several reasons, including freezing temperatures, altitude sickness, and hypoxia, not to mention the dangers of falling off the mountain or not bringing enough supplies.
For these reasons, climbing Mount Everest is an impressive feat and one first recorded as being completed by Hillary and Norgay in 1953. However, whether they were the very first remains a matter of debate.