This article needs a little introduction. It was written to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen’s Coronation for the Magazine of the half a million strong Camping and Caravanning Club. Peter was Director of Communications at the Club until his retirement. Edmund Hillary was Vice President of the Club.
PETER FROST looks back on the conquest of the world’s highest mountain.
Crowning achievement on Coronation Day.
It is hard to imagine anything except the royal occasion making the headlines on Coronation Day in 1953. But something did – the news that the highest mountain on the face of the earth had been conquered. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had stood on the 29,000 feet (8,850 metres) summit of Everest. It was the crowning achievement on the crowning day.
Today it is difficult to take yourself back more than sixty years to those times not long after the end of the Second World War. Many servicemen, and not a few women, had tasted foreign travel, had been to exotic places they had only dreamed about before the war. Many of them had learnt how to look after themselves under canvas and learnt all the skills of camp life.
Camping for pleasure was becoming more popular than ever in those days of post-war austerity. Cheap ex-army tents and other equipment were available on every high street. Membership of, what was then, The Camping Club was rocketing. It went from less than 12,000 in 1951 to over 51,000 in just ten years. Camping holidays were a great way to get out and see the countryside and indeed the world.
Ruling over England and the Empire was King George VI, his dramatic and in some ways tragic story has been so well told in the recent blockbuster film The King’s Speech. The king had become Patron of our Club in 1940.
Then everything was to change. This old way of life was not to last long. In 1952, King George VI’s illness forced him to abandon his proposed visit to Africa, Australia and New Zealand. His daughter the young Princess Elizabeth, accompanied by her new husband Prince Philip, took his place on the tour.
On Wednesday, 6 February 1952, Princess Elizabeth on remote safari in Kenya received the news of her father’s death and her own accession to the throne. A new Elizabethan age had dawned.
The tour had to be abandoned, and the young Princess flew back to Britain as Queen. She was greeted by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other officials at the airport. The Coronation would take some time to organise. It actually took place in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953
Thousands of people viewed the procession all along the route, despite heavy rain. The ceremony was also broadcast on radio around the world and, at The Queen’s request, on television for the first time. It was the first time a royal event would have such publicity.
Despite the huge interest in the crowning amazingly another story jostled its way into the newspaper, radio and TV headlines. Two men had stood on the highest spot on earth – the summit of Mount Everest. In some ways it was the crowning event of the day of the crowning.
At the top of the World
Hillary and Tenzing’s try for the summit on the 28th May was the second attempt on the peak from the 25,900 ft (7.900 metres) South Col base camp. On their way they observed giant footprints in the snow. The two of them climbed all day and pitched their tiny tent for the night.
As dawn broke Hillary found his boots had frozen solid. It took two hours to thaw them out over the tiny stove before they could start the final climb. The two climbers reached the summit at 11.30 am on the 29th May 1953.
At the top Hillary photographed Tenzing but in what must be the world’s worst missed photo opportunity he had no pictures taken of himself at the summit. He modestly declared Tenzing had never used a camera and the summit of the world’s highest mountain wasn’t the place to teach anyone photography.
Norgay Tenzin left a package of food on the summit as a tribute to the spirit of the mountain – his beloved Qomolangma the Holy Mother to the Nepalese people. The two men remained on the summit for just fifteen minutes before starting the just as hazardous return journey.
The descent was very difficult as fresh snow had covered their tracks. Above the base camp a fellow expedition member George Lowe came out to greet them with hot soup.
In typical down to earth style Edmund Hillary took the soup and declared “Well George, we finally knocked the Bastard off.”
Everest – a timeline
60 Million years ago The Himalaya’s and the world’s highest peak emerge.
1856 General Trigometric Survey of British India establishes height of ‘Peak XV’ at 29,002ft – the highest yet known. (The height is not quite correct just 30 or so feet short of today’s constantly more accurate figures.)
1865 Peak XV renamed after British Surveyor General for India Sir George Everest. Tibetans and Nepalese have long called the peak Chomolungma or Qomolangma – Holy Mother.
1901 The Camping Club is founded.
1911 Roald Amundsen is first man to reach South Pole.
1911 Captain Falcon Scott, President of The Camping Club reaches the South Pole but dies in the Antarctic wastes
1911 Sherpa Tenzing Norgay born – place of birth uncertain.>
1914 – 1918 The First World War.
1919 Edmund Hillary is born in Auckland New Zealand
1921 George Mallory is first European to climb on the mountain.
1924 George Mallory and Sandy Irving die near the summit of Everest.
1937 Hillary starts climbing, tramping (the New Zealand word for hiking) and camping while still at school.
1937 University for two years, but left to join his father and brother in the family bee-keeping business. “I work in summer and it leaves the winters for climbing.”
1939 Climbs his first major mountain, Mount Olivier in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
1940 Club membership 8,770. Club President Lord Baden-Powell dies.
1943 Hillary joins the wartime Royal New Zealand Air Force as a navigator. Spends spare time climbing in the Southern Alps of New Zealand
1945 War is over – Hillary leaves the RNZAF.
1947 Camping Club Membership 11,000.
1949 Hillary climbs in the Austrian and Swiss Alps.
1950 Petrol rationing ends in Britain.
Camping Club membership 13,783.
1951 Festival of Britain.
Camping Club celebrates its Golden Jubilee.
Club organises its first charter plane camping trip – to Lapland.
Hillary joins New Zealand expedition to Himalayas.
Transfers to British team exploring the south-western side of Mount Everest and looking for a possible route to the summit.
1952 King George VI dies, Queen Elizabeth II comes to the throne.
1953 500 die in disaster of East Coast floods
29 May 1953 Hillary and the Sherpa climber, Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest at about 11.30 am
2 June 1953 Queen is crowned in Westminster Abbey.
After the Everest expedition Hillary was knighted by the new Queen. Sir Edmund married Louise Rose. He was so shy he asks his future mother-in-law to propose for him. Becomes Vice President of our Club.
1955 Hillary drives a Ferguson tractor to the South Pole. This was the first overland expedition to reach the Pole since Captain Falcon Scott – at the time President of our Club reached the Pole in 1912.
1959 First Mini takes to the roads of Britain
1960 Hillary leads expedition to Himalayas to hunt for the Yeti – the Abominable Snowman of many legends – he and Tenzing had seen huge footprints high on Everest. Hillary was also researching effects of high altitude on climbers. He failed to find live Yeti but did return with hair samples that could not be identified as belonging to any known species.
In another curious incident that year Hillary was late for a New York aircraft and missed his flight. The plane collided with another aircraft and 134 people died.
1964 Hillary sets up a trust to build schools and hospitals for the Sherpa people in Nepal. Helping these people will become a lifetime’s work.
1975 Wife Louise and daughter Belinda killed in plane crash in Nepal.
1978 Leads expedition to follow the Ganges River to its source
1984 Appointed NZ High Commissioner to India.
1985 Develops his own range of tents for sale mainly in USA.
1995 Awarded the Order of the Garter by Queen Elizabeth II
2003 In Nepal for the festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest.
2008 Camping Club (now known as the Camping and Caravanning Club) mourns losing Vice-President Edmund Hillary aged 88
2012 Queen Elizabeth celebrates her Diamond Jubilee.
The Future Today there are complaints that Everest is a total mess, littered with abandoned expedition equipment, rubbish and unrecovered dead climbers. In the season guided groups have to queue for particular sections of the route to the summit. On a single day in 2012, no fewer than 234 climbers reached the peak. Three and a half thousand people reach the summit each year and about the same number fail in the attempt. Some suggest that the mountain should be closed or very strictly rationed to climbers.
Was Hillary really the first?
Did a British climber called George Leigh Mallory actually reach the summit of Everest as early as 1924 nearly three decades before Hillary and Tenzing? Interestingly there is also an important connection with the Camping Club in this story too.
On June 6th 1924 George Mallory and his companion Andrew Sandy Irvine left their tented base camp to make an attempt on the Everest summit. They were never seen alive again.
In 1960 a Chinese expedition found the body of Sandy Irvine at a much higher elevation than anyone had expected. It wasn’t until 1999 that an American group found the body of Mallory, just 600 metres from the summit with a broken rope fixed to his harness. But was he going up or coming down?
It is hard to imagine mountaineering in the 1920’s. Little special equipment existed. Mallory wore silk underwear and woollen tweeds from Burberrys. His boots were leather with iron nails for grip.
He did have the first primitive oxygen equipment and he borrowed a Kodak camera just before setting out for the summit.
The Camping Club, through its camping equipment co-operative Camptors – perhaps the biggest, and certainly the best, supplier of outdoor equipment at the time supported the Mallory Expedition. The Club provided cotton canvas tents and other equipment for the attempt on the world’s highest mountain.
Today the search goes on for that borrowed Kodak camera. Even after more that ninety years the freezing conditions at the top of Everest would mean the film would still be able to give up its secret. Is there a picture of Mallory on the highest spot on Earth?