Over the Top

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest on this day in 1953. In his memoir High Adventure, Hillary says that the accomplishment of the historic feat — a dozen other climbs over the previous thirty years had failed — “seemed difficult at first to grasp”:

I was too tired and too conscious of the long way down to safety really to feel any great elation. But as the fact of our success thrust itself more clearly into my mind, I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction…. I turned and looked at Tenzing. Even beneath his oxygen mask and the icicles hanging from his hair, I could see his infectious grin of sheer delight. I held out my hand, and in silence we shook in good Anglo-Saxon fashion. But this was not enough for Tenzing, and impulsively he threw his arms around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back in mutual congratulations.

Expedition organizers orchestrated the media coverage so that the Everest news broke in England and around the world on June 2, the Coronation Day of young Queen Elizabeth II. As Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver emphasize in Fallen Giants, their recent history of mountaineering in the Himalaya, the early decades of Everest expeditions featured a combination of patriotism and panache:

The expeditionary culture of the age of empire, perhaps best exemplified by the Everest expeditions of [George] Mallory’s day and some years thereafter, was a paradoxical thing. It was bound up with visions of imperial destiny that assumed the rule of white Europeans over darker-skinned Asians and drew many of its conventions from the hierarchical order of the English public school and the British Army. At the same time, it harbored individual climbers who were often misfits in their own societies, romantic rebels who found a spiritual purpose and freedom in the mountains unavailable to them through conventional pursuits at home.

Isserman and Weaver contrast the early “age of empire” with the current “age of extremes,” which has replaced patriotism and all-for-one teamwork with “hypertrophied commercial individualism.” Many recent books on Everest have lamented this “tale of decline,” noting the  loss of ethics and style as the mountain has become “overcrowded and largely unregulated, a high-altitude playground where conga lines of novice clients [clog] the route, where deep-pocketed dilettantes of dubious ability [are] short-roped to well-compensated Sherpas and guides” (Nick Heil, Dark Summit).

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.