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Hillary and Norgay first to climb Mount Everest

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Hillary and Norgay first to climb Mount Everest

An ice axe, a diary, a journalist's writing, and a small piece of Mount Everest in a locket, all help us to understand the remarkable feat that led to an enduring relationship between Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa people of Nepal.

A revered mountain

The Nepalese call it Sagarmāthā. The local Sherpa people call it Chomolungma (Goddess Mother of the World). British surveyors officially calculated it to be the world's tallest mountain in 1856 and named it Mt Everest (after surveyor general of India George Everest).

Reaching the top

For the next 100 years European climbers dreamed of being the first to reach its summit. In 1953 a British team succeeded. The story of their climb is projected on the model of Mount Everest in the Auckland Museum. It shows how planning, team work and individual effort enabled New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to reach the top of the world on 29 May 1953.

Enduring relationships

That climb created a bond of friendship between Hillary and the Sherpa people, and between New Zealand and Nepal. For more than 50 years Sir Edmund Hillary worked alongside his Sherpa friends to help them improve their lives and the lives of their children, and this commitment - as well as the historic climb - is Hillary’s enduring legacy.

Ice axe

Ice axe purchased by Edmund Hillary in 1951 European Ash handle, with forged steel head and spike

Ice axe purchased by Edmund Hillary in 1951 European Ash handle, with forged steel head and spike

Lady June Hillary donated the ice axe to Auckland War Memorial MuseumClaudius Simond, France

On the 1953 Everest expedition Edmund Hillary's energy in using the ice axe pictured here was legendary. When a few more steps needed cutting in a nasty bit of a crevasse below camp, Hillary persuaded James Morris, the expedition's special correspondent for The Times, to crawl out into stinging, driving snow on a horrid moonless night and provide a belay as Hillary, huge and cheerful, worked on the icy face.

Morris wrote:

I first detected this strain of greatness in him that evening below Camp III as the ice chips flew through the darkness, his striped hat bobbed in the chasm. And I stood shivering and grumbling, all messed up in ropes, crampons and ice axes at the top.

Hillary's expedition diary

Expedition Diary

Edmund Hillary's diary contains his detailed observations on the progress of the expedition and on his climbing companions.

Here is an excerpt:

Tenzing is an absolutely first class companion for a climber such as myself who likes a lion's share of the leading. His great strength and endurance enable him to maintain almost any pace without complaint. He is always watchful and efficient in his technique and over dangerous ground the rope is kept tight with a comforting assurance of readiness to meet any emergency.
When two climbers are making a route across ice, the front climber cuts steps in the ice with his axe, while the other holds the rope and waits, feet freezing in his boots. Then they swap places. Ed Hillary's energy on the mountain was prodigious; he was known to enjoy cutting steps and his diary comment that he liked the lion's share of the leading meant the climber with him needed to have considerable fortitude too. Tenzing and Hillary were a perfect climbing partnership, because when the moment came Tenzing would spring to the lead and meet all the difficulties ahead with confidence and determination.

Silver locket

Gertrude Hillary's silver locket

Gertrude Hillary's silver locket contains a piece of rock from the summit.

Hillary and Tenzing spent 15 minutes on the summit, taking photos and depositing precious tokens. As they began their descent, Hillary stooped and picked up a few small pieces of rock. He kept one for his mother, Gertrude Hillary. Two days later, recovering from the climb in a tent at Base Camp, he wrote a letter to her:

June 1st 1953
Dear Mother
Well I may not have produced much joy and happiness in the world, but at least I've helped make the Hillary name a bit famous. It was a tremendous thrill to me to reach the summit of Everest, especially as I was going particularly well ... The most interesting news is that John Hunt wants me and Tenzing to fly to England with him and meet our patron the Duke of Edinburgh and attend all the public functions. (I must have known something when I got that Dinner Jacket.)

Cite this article

Meylan, Greg. Hillary and Norgay first to climb Mount Everest. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 4 June 2015. Updated: 11 June 2015.

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