At 6:30 a.m. on May 28, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set out from a camp high above the South Col on the Southwest Face of Mount Everest and began the ascent for which both would become famous. Fighting through snow, winding along an exposed ridgeline with drops of over 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) on either side, scrambling up steep, rocky steps, and finally climbing a sloping snowfield, the pair reached the summit at 11:30 a.m. It was the first known climb of the world’s tallest mountain.
This image, captured by GeoEye’s Ikonos satellite on November 29, 2001, shows an approximation of the route Hillary and Norgay followed, and some of the challenges Hillary and Norgay (and hundreds of later climbers) faced as they summited Mount Everest. The two climbers, Hillary from New Zealand and Norgay from Nepal, were part of a British climbing team. The team made their first camp below the Khumbu Ice Fall, a steep, rugged, and fast-moving section of the Khumbu Glacier. The dark lines that cut across the icefall resemble waves, hinting at the constant movement that opens deep crevasses and sends large chunks of ice tumbling freely down the mountain. After successfully crossing the Khumbu Icefall, the team walked up the Western Cwm. The glacial valley is smooth in this image, lacking the relief shown by the steep ridges around it. The Western Cwm leads to the south face of Lhotse and the South Col, a saddle between the pyramid-like peaks of Everest and Lhotse. At 7,920 m (26,000 ft), the South Col is typically the last camp on an Everest ascent, but Hillary and Norgay made their final camp an additional 610 meters (2,000 feet) above this point. A five-hour climb brought Hillary and Norgay to the top of the world.
Knighted by the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth before he even left the mountain, Hillary used his subsequent fame to improve the lives of the Nepalese people he had come to admire. He founded the Himalayan Trust to build clinics, hospitals, and schools in Nepal. He also continued mountaineering in the Himalayas and led expeditions to the South Pole. Sir Edmund Hillary died on January 11, 2008, at the age of 88. Quoted in BBC News, Hillary said “I’ve had a full and rewarding life. Life’s a bit like mountaineering—never look down.”
- BBC News. (2008, January 11). Obituary: Sir Edmund Hillary. Accessed January 11, 2008.
- Everest Map. National Geographic. Accessed January 11, 2008.
- Mount Everest. Wikipedia. Accessed January 11, 2008.
- Salked, A. (2000, November). First to Summit. NOVA. Accessed January 11, 2008.
Image by Robert Simmon, based on data © 2003 Geoeye. Caption by Holli Riebeek.