Documentary

Climbing Everest, 1950s Style

Tenzing Norgay (left) and Edmund Hillary on Mt Everest. Image: Alex Grant
Tenzing Norgay (left) and Edmund Hillary on Mt Everest. Image: Alex Grant

Climbing Mt Everest is a remarkable, albeit insane, accomplishment.

Look at this from the British Mountaineering Council: “As of February 2014, there had been 6,871 ascents of Everest by 4,042 different climbers, meaning some climbers, most of them Sherpas, have reached the top multiple times.”

Multiple times?!

Summiting Everest is more common than it used to be, and advances in climbing technology have certainly helped. However, that’s not to say people who climb Everest today are not a hardy bunch.

However, you should see the folks who first summited Everest in 1953. This was the expedition that included Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and was recorded in the 1953 film The Conquest of Everest.

This is a remarkable documentary, filmed while the team was preparing for, and climbing, the world’s tallest mountain. (The team, incidentally, was composed of 14 climbers and 35 Sherpas.)

Prior to this expedition, there were 11 summit attempts over 30 years, one of which was the grim Mallory and Irvine expedition of 1924.

The team that first reached the summit of Everest. Image: Grey Fox
The first team to reach the summit of Everest. Image: Grey Fox

The Conquest of Everest gives you an appreciation of what it takes to summit Everest, especially in 1953 when most Himalayan peaks had not yet been explored.

(Fun Fact: In 1852, surveyors confirmed “Peak 15” in the Himalayan range as the tallest in the world, measuring 29,029 feet or 5.49 miles high. It is named after Surveyor General George Everest.)

In October, 1952, Colonel John Hunt begins organizing the Everest expedition by selecting the world’s best climbers. Scientists then begin developing equipment that can withstand Everest’s extreme weather. They also study the climbers themselves for physical reactions to reduced oxygen levels.

The team assembles in Kathmandu, Nepal, and here we are formally introduced to individual team members. “Tenzing is wearing his lucky Swiss hat,” says narrator Meredith Edwards. “And here is Hillary with his homemade skiing cap.”

The men begin hiking the Himalayan foothills while wearing oxygen masks. “No need for oxygen yet,” notes narrator Edwards, “but masks must be worn for practice.”

At last the men reach Everest. It looks miserable.

“The scale of Everest is so huge, you could almost think of it as three mountains,” says expedition leader Hunt. “The first mountain starts at the base camp, at the height of 18,000 feet… At 21,200 feet, the second mountain begins… At 26,000 feet is the third and onto the summit.”

First is the ice fall, which has spikes of ice and “is always on the move, crackling, roaring, rumbling.” The ice movement sounds like thunder, only more ominous.

But this is not the worst of it.

Are we having fun yet? Image: History Extra
Trudging up Everest. Image: History Extra

Besides the wind, the cold and the oxygen supply, the team must continually monitor avalanches and crevasses. Climbers repeatedly probe fresh snow with ice axes, ensuring something solid lies underneath.

Each man carries 40 lbs of supplies, which will be used to build Camp 4, the site from which summit attempts will be made.  At this altitude, low oxygen levels make each step an effort.

The team is now six days behind schedule, thanks to the weather. The first assault team is able to climb within 500 feet of the summit – but no further. This outing takes them eleven hours; they must stop to rest every 100 feet.

The weather kicks up again, forcing the men to delay the next summit attempt. But on May 29, Hillary and Tenzing set out to conquer the summit, and they do. “Two very small men, cutting steps in the roof of the world,” says narrator Edwards with no small amount of awe.

The Conquest of Everest is an incredible film with stunning images. If you haven’t yet seen this documentary, we encourage you to do so. Even if you only have access to a lesser-quality print, the impressiveness of this Everest expedition won’t be diminished.

Edmund Hillary on the summit of Mt Everest. Image: SB Nation
Edmund Hillary on the summit of Everest, 1953. Image: SB Nation

The Conquest of Everest: with Meredith Edwards (narrator), Edmund Hillary, Tensing Norkay Sherpa. Directed by George Lowe. Written by Louis MacNeice. Countryman Films 1953, Colour, 78 mins.

This post is part of the Nature’s Fury Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis. Click HERE to see the fab entries.

Nature's Fury_The Wizard of Oz

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25 thoughts on “Climbing Everest, 1950s Style

  1. A great account of a movie that until now I’d forgotten about — many thanks!

    I’m not quite old enough to remember the event itself, but all through my childhood my mum would tell me with pride that Hillary, confronted by Western media that tended to write Tenzing Norgay out of the story as just some spear-carrier, always firmly reminded them that it was two men who’d reached the summit, not just himself. It’s a joy that he succeeded finally in getting the message through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad Hillary was determined to give Tenzing Norgay credit for summiting Everest. After all, Tenzing climbed the same mountain in the same difficult conditions and deserved recognition.

      I thought the documentary was exceptional. I love, LOVE, the way the narration is written.

      Like

  2. By the oddest coincidence, I just watched the 1924 Epic of Everest last night and was wondering about the expedition that was finally successful. This sounds like the perfect follow-up and I will definitely have to look for it!

    Even though it’s being done relatively frequently now (I hadn’t realized it had been climbed quite so often!), it’s impossible not to feel a deep sense of awe at the accomplishment of these people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think this film is on YouTube, and it’s worth it if you have the chance to see it. When you think about the gear we have access to now (not to mention established climbing routes), it’s a wonder they made it.

      Now I have to see the film of the 1924 Everest expedition you mentioned! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s good to know about youtube (youtube is such a wonderful thing!) – thanks! I was just looking for a copy on DVD and coming up empty.

        The 1924 documentary was pretty amazing, though also rather poignant since Mallory and Irvine died at the end of it. It’s rather solemn and reverential, but the images are stunning.

        Like

  3. Very interesting point of view! I enjoy a lot documentaries.
    And concerning Mount Everest, I often say that hight mountains should be left for climbers or mountain passionate; these days almost “everyone” can go there or “be taken to the top” just to show off, and that’s dangerous for real climbers…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice review on a fascinating subject. I can honestly say that I’d much rather experience Everest from the comfort of a theater chair or my living room, rather than attempt to scale it myself. How fortunate we are to have a documentary that captures this particular moment in time.

    Thanks so much for participating in the Nature’s Fury Blogathon! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Before reading your post I wasn’t even aware of “The Conquest of Everest” but it sounds amazing!
    One of the delivery routes where I work has an estate with streets named after, Hillary, Tenzing, Mallory, Hunt and Everest. as a result their deeds are never far from my mind.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Another Brilliant post!! I should check out “The Conquest of Everest”!!
    When I was in school (in Grade-8), I did a project/report on Edmund Hillary & Tenzing Norgay’s famed conquest. True, today, with all the technological advancements; the climb must be so much more easier. And nothing greatly unique about it anymore. Back then, it was still non-ventured territory. There is something special about trying to go to a place, nobody has ever been before!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you definitely should check out “The Conquest of Everest” if you’re able. It’s a fascinating look at the first successful expedition.

      I liked what you said about exploring a place no one’s been to before. Even though there were other expeditions before this one, “Conquest” gives you the sense this is still unexplored territory in the way the team approached the mountain.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes; I’d really love to!! I tried the link you’d posted, but it’s been blocked. It states, that “Studiocanal, has blocked it in this country on copyright grounds”!! Yup! That happens a lot her 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  7. My first thought before I tackle my fear of heights… Tenzing Norgay is really handsome!!! Okay, that said, this looks like a fascinating documentary, and while I first thought HEIGHTS to myself, the idea of ice crackling like knives coming down on your head, and avalanches and lack of oxygen and the sheer cold, and gosh, it boggles the mind how humans can be so bold, strong and conquer the elements and nature when I can’t handle a few steep steps without a nose bleed nor take a really boisterous thunderstorm without wanting to pull the blankets over my head and hide til nature shuts up! Sorry nature, I truly am in awe of you! Great piece for #NaturesFuryBlogathon!!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. This was such an interesting post, Ruth! I felt myself getting a little tense and holding my breath just reading about it. I cannot even imagine doing it! I had no idea this was filmed and also wonder how they were able to do it. I think my husband would enjoy watching this one, too. He used to go snow camping every year with friends so can relate in a very small way. Thanks so much for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

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