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By Peter Miller

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first two. Since them, 1,200 men and women from 63 nations have reached the summit. What does it take to stand on top of the world?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

A few days after his triumphant ascent of Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay, Ed Hillary received word that Queen Elizabeth planned to make him Sir Edmund. He was taken aback. "Oh, I found it difficult," he recalls now. "I didn't feel I was the ideal sort of person who should have a title." For one thing, he couldn't see strolling around his hometown of Papakura, New Zealand, in his old work clothes, a knight commander of the Order of the British Empire. "My God," he remembers saying to himself, "I'll have to buy a new pair of overalls."

Here was a new kind of hero, a tall, rangy beekeeper from the fringes of the empire. One of only two Kiwis on the 1953 Everest expedition—his pal George Lowe was the other—he may have lacked the social graces of his eight English climbing partners. But he more than made up for it with strength and tenacity. Having learned to climb in New Zealand's Southern Alps in the winter (the off-season for bees), Hillary was as bold on ice and snow as anyone on the team. And he and Tenzing had made it to the top.

Ed's younger brother, Rex, with whom he shared the beekeeping business, met him in London for the July ceremony at which Ed, Tenzing, and Col. John Hunt, the expedition leader, were to be honored. It followed a garden party at Buckingham Palace, where 7,500 guests in summer frocks and morning coats huddled under umbrellas in the rain. "We were ushered into this room by the staff," Rex remembers. "They were probably lords and ladies and God-knows-what. Then the Queen came in. She was very young and pretty in those days." Ed kneeled on a stool, Elizabeth touched him lightly on both shoulders with a small sword and said, "Arise, Sir Edmund." Staying in Britain for weeks of champagne toasts, Hillary was introduced to his first hangover.

Flush with the glow of celebrity, the newly knighted climber stopped off in Sydney on his way back to Auckland to court his future wife, Louise Rose, who was studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He balked at asking for her hand, however. "I was certainly not a ladies' man," he admits. "I was just terrified at the thought of proposing. Fortunately, my future mother-in-law was a very strong lady, and she didn't have any qualms about bringing it up with Louise." So the conqueror of Everest took a backseat while Louise's mother popped the question to her over the telephone from their home in Auckland.

In the years that followed, Hillary led expeditions on first ascents of several Himalayan peaks, including Baruntse (23,517 feet/7,168 meters), Chago (22,615 feet/6,893 feet), and Pethangtse (22,106 feet/6,738 meters), drove modified farm tractors to the South Pole in support of a British scientific party crossing Antarctica, went in search of the mythical yeti in Nepal, and wrote books about his adventures. Having given up beekeeping, he signed on as a camping consultant to Sears in 1963, testing new tent designs on vacations with Louise and their three kids, Peter, Sarah, and the youngest, Belinda.

Catastrophe struck in 1975, when a small plane carrying Louise and Belinda crashed and burned shortly after takeoff from Kathmandu. The two were on their way to join Sir Edmund in the village of Phaphlu, where he and Rex were building a hospital with local Sherpas and volunteers. "Ed was thunderstruck," says Rex. "It was so damn sad." It took many years for Sir Edmund to recover, but he took some comfort in the physical labor of his aid projects in the Everest region.

Those projects—to build schools, hospitals, bridges, and other improvements in Sherpa villages—grew out of Hillary's affection for the mountain people. "Ed's the sort of person who, if he's asked to do something and he can't think of a reason not to, he'll go ahead and do it," says Jim Wilson, a longtime friend from New Zealand. To help fund this private aid program, Hillary and several buddies created the Himalayan Trust, which continues to this day.

In 1989, at the age of 70, Sir Edmund married June Mulgrew. Today many Sherpas in the Everest region consider them both to be part of their families. A few years ago at a banquet in the village of Khumjung, Sir Edmund told his Sherpa friends that for June and him, coming back was like coming home. "When he said that, all the old people had tears in their eyes," says lifelong resident Doma Chamji, in part because they knew Hillary was increasingly sensitive to altitude. Each visit to the village at 12,300 feet (3,700 meters) might be his last.

Even now, at 83, with his trademark bushy eyebrows, white sideburns, and longish flyaway hair, Sir Edmund is still frequently called upon to be the hero of Everest—whether he's cutting an Everest-shaped cake at the Auckland Museum or giving a pep talk to New Zealand's national rugby team, the All Blacks. "The thing that amazes me, in a way, is that it all keeps going," he says. "But I think I have a clear idea why. I think a lot of people rather like the fact that I haven't just climbed mountains but also built schools, hospitals, and all the rest of it. So in a way I've given back to the people all the help they gave me on the mountain."

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Online Extra

Read National Geographic explorer Barry Bishop's account of the first American summit.  Then see President Kennedy congratulate the team.

Online Extra

Listen to premier climber Ed Viesturs discuss the effects of high-altitude ascents on the body, traffic jams at Everest, and why we climb. Then get a 360-degree view from the peak.

Sights & Sounds

Explore the top of the world, meet the people who live there, and learn about Sir Edmund Hillary's lifelong passion for the region.

NG Channel

Follow routes to the top in this animation from "Surviving Everest," on the National Geographic Channel, premiering on April 27.
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For more on the Channel special, click here.


Get a look at all sides by manipulating a 3-D model of Mount Everest.
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Browse the Everest supersite for more from the National Geographic Society, including news, games, and TV previews.


Some 1,200 people have summited Everest and nearly 200 others have died trying. What is it about the mountain that calls adventurers to climb? Share your ideas.


Bring towering Everest to your desktop.


E-greet a friend with the snowy serenity of Everest.

Explorers Hall

Sir Edmund Hillary: Everest and Beyond. Visit Society headquarters through September 1, 2003, and see the ice axe that carved the first steps to the summit. Learn what motivated this famous mountaineer before and after he reached the top of the world.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
When you hear that someone has reached the top of Mount Everest, you may assume that he or she climbed the southern route used by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. After all, this route—which begins with the Khumbu Icefall, and then proceeds through the Western Cwm, up the Lhotse Face, and to the summit via the South Col and the Hillary Step—is used by more climbers than any other path. There are, however, 14 other routes (see the map on pages 14-15 of our May issue), and most of them are more difficult than the most popular way.

Take, for example, the North Ridge route, which begins in Tibet. This route has become almost as popular as the South Col route, but is somewhat more challenging. As Eric Simonson of International Mountain Guides explains, not only is the North Ridge technically difficult because of its terrain, but it also requires some particularly careful, even counterintuitive, planning. First of all, Simonson points out, on the North Ridge climbers spend a lot of time on steeply sloping shale and ice, and "it's tough to get your crampons into that stuff!" To make matters more difficult, the geography of the North Ridge requires the final camp to be at a much higher elevation than the final camp on the South Col. The result, says Simonson, is that "North Ridge climbers are forced to spend a lot more time at higher altitudes, and this in and of itself makes the route more demanding."

Another challenge posed by this route is the long traverse along the North Ridge on summit day. The guide explains that this "means you are covering a lot of lateral distance, which really comes into play on the descent." Here's where careful planning becomes so important. Because so much of a climber's time on the North Ridge is spent negotiating sloping rock and ice at the highest altitudes, he must make sure to have plenty of oxygen and energy for use on the difficult descent—at least as much as he needed to ascend to the summit. Basically, says Simonson, "you have to have enough gas left in your tank (both literally and figuratively) to make the descent. You can't afford to burn more than 50 percent of your reserves going up, because you'll definitely need the other half to get down." The most common problem he's seen with climbers on the north side is that they underestimate how long it will take them to make the technically difficult, traversing descent to camp from the summit, and they run out of oxygen before they reach the camp. Overall, he explains, "the prolonged time spent at higher altitudes and the time it takes to do that traverse in both directions catch a lot of people off guard on the North Ridge." Sometimes, it seems, knowing that "it's all downhill from here" isn't much of a comfort.

—Robin A. Palmer

Did You Know?

Related Links

Everest News
This site offers up-to-date information about what's going on at Everest and on other mountains around the world. Learn about current and past expeditions, read about the history of exploration on Everest, and chat with other readers in the "forum" section.

Everest on PBS
A few years ago, PBS produced some television specials about Mount Everest, including one about the discovery of George Mallory's body and another about effects of altitude on the human body. This comprehensive website is a companion to the television coverage. Among other fascinating information, it offers 360° views of climbers' camps on the north and south sides of the mountain.

Alpine Club Library: Himalayan Index
This index gives the altitude, latitude and longitude, and climbing history for Himalayan peaks over 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). It is searchable by mountain name, latitude and longitude, or mountain group.

Himalayan Trust
Founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, the Himalayan Trust assists the Sherpa people with building projects and reforestation efforts. Read about the trust's work and find out how to make a donation at this site.

Physiology sites

International Society for Mountain Medicine (ISMM)
The ISMM's official site provides valuable information for both climbers and physicians. A tutorial written for laypeople outlines the effects of high altitude on the body. The site also includes information about children at altitude, dates for conferences on high-altitude medicine, and profiles of books on the subject. 

High Altitude Medicine Guide
This guide includes some of the information available on the ISMM site, but also features case reports of patients suffering from altitude sickness, pictures of Nepalese people and the Himalaya, and links to websites about topics such as Everest and travel medicine.

Hypoxia online
This site is mostly about the annual International Hypoxia Symposium, which in 2003 was held in Banff, Canada. Read abstracts of the papers that were presented and see the program for the conference.

High Exposure: Humans at Altitude (PBS)
In this section of the PBS website about Everest, you can read (or listen to) conversations with leading experts on high-altitude medicine, learn more about what it's like to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen, and see the kinds of puzzles and brainteasers that are given to climbers to test their impairment levels when they're at high altitude.

National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS): Altitude Illness
An excerpt from the NOLS publication Wilderness First Aid, this page provides a helpful overview of altitude illness.

Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA)
Founded in 1973, the HRA works to prevent sickness and death among visitors to the Himalaya. The organization's aid posts are run by volunteer doctors who offer medical assistance and advice to climbers and other tourists. On this website you'll find everything from guidelines on how to request a helicopter evacuation to an overview of what it's like to work as a volunteer at an HRA aid post.



Bruce, C. G. The Assault on Mount Everest, 1922. Longmans, Green and Company, 1923.

Gillman, Peter, ed. Everest: Eighty Years of Triumph and Tragedy. The Mountaineers, 2000.

Howard-Bury, C. K. Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance, 1921.  Longmans, Green and Company, 1922.

Hunt, John. The Ascent of Everest. Hodder and Stoughton, 1953.

Messner, Reinhold. Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate. Trans. Audrey Salkeld. The Mountaineers, June 1999.

Norgay, Jamling Tenzing, with Broughton Coburn. Touching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest. Harper San Francisco, 2001.

Norton, E. F. The Fight for Everest: 1924. Longmans, Green and Company, 1925.

Tenzing, Tashi, and Judy Tenzing. Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest. Ragged Mountain Press, 2001.

Unsworth, Walt. Everest: The Mountaineering History, 3rd ed. The Mountaineers, 2000.

Sir Edmund Hillary

Booth, Pat. Edmund Hillary: The Life of a Legend. Hodder Moa Beckett, 1993.

Hillary, Edmund. High Adventure. Hodder and Stoughton, 1955.

Hillary, Sir Edmund. Schoolhouse in the Clouds. Doubleday and Company, 1964.

Hillary, Sir Edmund. View From the Summit. Pocket Books, 1999.

Ramsay, Cynthia Russ, and Anne B. Keiser. Sir Edmund Hillary and the People of Everest. Andrews McMeel, 2002.


Bezruchka, Stephen. Altitude Illness: Prevention and Treatment. The Mountaineers, 1994.

Hornbein, Thomas F., and Robert B. Schoene, eds. High Altitude: An Explanation of Human Adaptation. Marcel Dekker, 2001.

Houston, Charles. Going Higher: Oxygen, Man, and Mountains, 4th ed. The Mountaineers, 1998.

Hultgren, Herb. High Altitude Medicine. Hultgren Publications, 1997.

Kamler, Kenneth. Doctor on Everest. Lyons Press, 2000.

Milledge, James S., John B. West, and Michael P. Ward. High Altitude Medicine and Physiolog,, 3rd ed. Edward Arnold, 2000.


NGS Resources
Hillary, Sir Edmund. "The Conquest of the Summit," National Geographic (July 1954), 45-62.

"Mount Everest." Supplement map, National Geographic (November 1988).

Coburn, Broughton. Everest: Mountain Without Mercy. National Geographic Books, 1997.

Anker, Conrad. "The Mystery of Everest," National Geographic (October 1999), 108-13.

Breashears, David, and Audrey Salkeld.  Last Climb: The Legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory.  National Geographic Books, 1999.

Crouch, Gregory. "Everest: Because It Is There," National Geographic Adventure, August 2002, 45-8.

Douglas, Ed. Tenzing: Hero of Everest. National Geographic Adventure Press, 2003.


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