It was 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest. It was a monumental and historic event that stunned the world, a feat that had never been accomplished prior to that day.
“Beyond the Edge” is a re-creation of that event using actors personifying the main characters who were involved in the expedition, but it also contains actual footage of interviews with Edmund Hillary and Colonel John Hunt, the British expedition leader at the time. There was heavy pressure on John Hunt to succeed as it was Britain’s last chance to grab the prize.
Edmund Hillary was a 33-year-old beekeeper from New Zealand who had previously done expeditions in the Himalayas. He was a country boy who was brought up in the depression.
Sir Edmund Hillary - Wikimedia
The Feat Had Never Been Accomplished
There had been at least ten tries to reach Mt. Everest previously; all had failed. It was unknown if one could survive at 29,000 feet above sea level. There is a physiological limit to what a human being can endure.
There were 13 members of the expedition and they met with John Hunt early in 1953 in Kathmandu. Some had already climbed Mount Cook, a magnificent mountain, 12,000 feet high. Two New Zealanders were in the group, George Lowe and Edmund Hillary. John Hunt was a dominating character, a tower of strength. The team got to know each other through 17 days of marches, crossing high ridges and deep valleys in preparation for their final quest. Six hundred Nepalese joined them to carry their supplies.
The Sherpas are Necessary
Without the Sherpas, one cannot climb Everest. Tenzing Norgay was experienced and highly respected. It was impossible not to like him. He had a huge ingratiating smile. Tenzing was from Tibet and was very, very poor. He had always wanted to climb Mount Everest; he understood what it could mean for him. His drive was to go to the top, like Hillary.
Sherpa Tenzing Norgay Wikimedia
A Difficult and Dangerous Experience
Climbing Mount Everest was like sending somebody into space. Blood vessels would dilate; there could be brain hemorrhages. So far, there had been thirteen deaths and no successful summits. The icefall was their first obstacle. It was similar to a waterfall that has come off and is frozen. An icefall could collapse without warning. It is dangerous because it is always on the move and it is 2,500 feet high. There was a risk of falling into a crevasse. The men crossed over the crevasses with ladders. It was the only way to climb Everest. At the top of the icefall is the cwm, which is a rounded, glaciated valley. The goal was to get into the cwm.
Who Would Make it to the Summit?
Which of the team would make it all the way to the top? John Hunt would make the evaluation. Both Hillary and George Lowe, the New Zealanders, wanted to go to the summit. It was necessary to impress John Hunt with their expertise. Hillary and Tenzing, especially, volunteered in different situations; they were home in that environment. They were hungry; they wanted to reach the summit.
It was April 1953. They headed back down to Base Camp. When they came to a crevasse, Hillary fell into it. Tenzing saved his life. Hillary was always out in front, although he was quiet, and more reserved. He was a perfectionist with a complicated family background.
Mount Everest - Wikimedia
Hillary and Tenzing Make the Second Team
Who would be chosen for the final push? Hunt’s word was absolute. He would make the decision. At Base Camp, he revealed his plans. All were chosen to go to the top, but certain men would have specific duties. Hillary and Tenzing were chosen for a second attempt if the first attempt did not succeed. They would love to have been on the first team.
Threat of the Monsoon
George Lowe was assigned to make a route so they would be in position to climb Everest on May 15th, before the monsoon came. It was difficult for George Lowe, without oxygen at 24,500. He routed them through what is called the south col. He underestimated the distance. No one feels well at high altitude. The higher the altitude, the less oxygen. You need more breaths to take in enough oxygen. They were ten days on the Lhotse Face and had still not broken through to the south col. The monsoon was building up in the Bay of Bengal. They were in danger of losing their chance. You get huge dumps of snow with the monsoon. There was a lot of pressure. John Hunt sent a team of 40 Sherpas to carry in the supplies that were needed. It was the 21st day of May. Thirteen Sherpas worked 10 ½ hours a day, and were able to set up tents and have food and supplies in readiness.
John Hunt Wikimedia
The First Team Fails
The south col is a dangerous place. It had the smell of death. They returned to the western cwm. The weather caused everyone to be stuck for two days. Tom Bourdillom and Charles Evans, the first team, were making their summit bid. They had time to get to the top. However, they came back down, very tired. Hillary walked out to meet them. He needed to know “Where did you get to?” They had neither the oxygen nor the energy to go any further. Emotionally and physically, they were in a bad state. They were very experienced climbers. They said “We should have gone on.” Bourdillom said to Hillary “That last ridge looks really hard. I don’t know if you can do it.” Above 26,000 feet is the death zone; you are slowly dying. If you are too high for too long, you become exhausted. John Hunt told the second party, Hillery and Tenzing, not to give in. Hillary remarked “Never at any moment have I respected John Hunt more.”
Hillary and Tenzing Make Their Bid
Hillary and Tenzing had to start from higher up and go for the summit. They prepared their oxygen and gear. They used oxygen at night. The nights were tough; listening to the mountain, listening to the avalanches. Al Gregory and three Sherpas were supposed to lead them. One of the Sherpas was in very bad condition. The others had to share his load. Hillary and Tenzing left the south col an hour behind Gregory. The wind was strong on the col. At 12,790 feet, they were at the highest point ever to camp on Everest.
Hillary and Tenzing, 1953 - Wikimedia
Hillary and Tenzing are Left Alone
Hillary and Tenzing were completely alone. George Lowe and Gregory and the Sherpas left them. It was very scary and very lonely. The winds were precarious. You could be blown off the mountain. It was the coldest night of the expedition. Dehydration was possible. They made water from melted snow and ate canned food. They were both good on day-to-day survival. There was always the fear of having to use tomorrow’s oxygen. At this point, it is all about the oxygen. It is now -25 degrees. Progress at first was steady, but you have an addled oxygen-deprived mind at 28,300 feet.
Fear Sets In
There was fear of an avalanche. “Do you think we should go on?” They went on. The temptation to turn around and go down is always there. Your survival is not guaranteed. They reached the south summit at 9 a.m. Bourdillom and Evans had reservations about the south summit. At Camp Four, they were all waiting for them down there. They would not know if Hillary and Tenzing would be successful until they came down and told them.
Tenzing’s Oxygen Equipment Fails
Failure of oxygen equipment is always a worry. Tenzing was in some distress. His oxygen set was blocked up with ice. Hillary fixed it for him. You have to watch yourself and watch each other very closely. They took photographs, and thought that maybe they couldn’t go any further. They were at 29,000 feet. Hillary said “Let’s go for it.”
Hillary and Tenzing, 1971 - Wikimedia
It was nearly a vertical step which they had to take. They hoped the snow would not give way. Little slabs were breaking off. They both got to the top of the rock. Finally, they reached the summit! It was 11:30 a.m. on May 29,1953. They spent just 15 minutes on the summit. Their oxygen was short and they needed it to get down. Tenzing left a gift to the gods there. Hillary took photos of the other mountains as proof that they were on top. Their mission was accomplished.
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