Summiting Everest: Nothing Like the First Time
It’s been well over half-a-century since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to summit the world’s tallest mountain, and even six long decades later their feat resonates as one of the 20th century’s enduring, signature moments. On the anniversary of the pair’s triumph, LIFE.com looks back at that remarkable time with some rare photos from the celebrations afterwards, as well as page spreads from the cover story that ran in LIFE a few months later chronicling the accomplishment — and the bitter controversy that swirled around the entire event.
As LIFE noted in its July 13, 1953, issue, the historic ascent was hardly greeted with unalloyed goodwill and enthusiasm from all corners of the globe. In fact, international politics and racial pride were quickly thrust into the conversation about Hillary’s and Tenzing’s astonishing feat.
“Everest’s Conqueror’s Come Back,” LIFE roared in one headline in that special issue, then immediately blunted the celebratory tone with a caveat: “They bring thrilling stories of a great deed, but little men besmirch their riotous welcome.”
Thus — in a sad foreshadowing of the often contentious debate that had dogged so many attempts on Everest throughout the years (Is it worth the risk of life and limb? What does the local community get out of it? Etc.) — the very first successful climb to the top of the world’s highest peak sparked some often quite ugly jockeying for credit and supremacy. Jockeying, it should be noted, that both Hillary and Tenzing, who were fast friends, had absolutely nothing to do with, and readily denounced. (Also, while LIFE makes more than one mention of “British climbers” in its reporting, it’s worth recalling, and indeed emphasizing, that Edmund Hillary was a proud, born-and-raised New Zealander. He died in 2008, at the age of 88, in Auckland. Tenzing died two years before Hillary, at age 71, in India.)
“The climbers who conquered Everest,” LIFE wrote, “came down to a world eager to see them, honor them and hear their full story…. They came down to such a welcome — such surging excitement and hero worship — as had never before stirred the steamy lowlands of Nepal.”
The first official welcomers met the mountaineers outside of Banepa [the article continues], 20 miles from Nepal’s capital Katmandu. In the lead was British embassy party, bearing beer and sandwiches; then came the Nepalese to garland the heroes with flowers and sprinkle them with kumkum, a vermilion powder of rejoicing. Devil dancers met that at Bhadgaon, still 15 miles out. The wife of Sir John Hunt, the expedition’s leader, came out to meet him. Tenzing’s wife and their two teenage daughters flew from Darjeeling, India. Word came that an Indian newspaper had raided 12,000 rupees ($2,520) to buy Tenzing a house. Gifts of perfume labeled “Bouquet Mount Everest” were pressed on Hillary and Hunt. At Katmandu the state coach of King Tribhuvan and king himself awaited the climbers, and from far beyond Nepal, from Calcutta and New Delhi and London came news that honors and celebrations were waiting.
To the distress and the half-resentful bewilderment of Colonel Hunt and his British climbers, however, these first wild welcomings carried a clear implication that, in Asia, the real hero of Everest was Tenzing alone. The conquest of Everest, a product of selfless teamwork between Asian and European, was being twisted into an ugly tool of Asian nationalism, inflamed further by the normal British habit of treating the hired Tenzing like a hired man. For a time it seemed the feat might be irreparably besmirched until Tenzing himself, a simple man who called Hillary his “lifelong friend,” restored balance and good humor y agreeing to accompany the British to share the accolades of England.
Today, as men and women continue to test their own mettle on the peaks of the Himalayas and on the heights of other, equally lethal mountain ranges around the globe — and, oftener than is right, losing their lives in the process — the pictures in this gallery are a reminder that for some people, the risks have always, unquestionably, been worth it.