Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa of Nepal made history and forever changed mountaineering seven decades ago when they summited Everest, the world’s highest mountain, on May 29, 1953.
They were the first climbers to reach that peak, but they were accompanied by an expedition of no less than 20 men, including the Nepalese Kanchha Sherpa, the last survivor of this group.
At 90 years old, this man says that his destiny could have been different and he remembers with joy how when he left his native village, Namche Bazaar, at present the main tourist center on the route to Everest Base Camp, at the age of 19, towards the Indian mountains of Darjeeling. It was there, where the Himalayan expeditions left at the time, that he met Tenzing Norgay, who hired him to work with him.
A few months later Kanchha Sherpa returned to his home region, hired for a paltry sum of Nepali rupees (US cents) to help Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa climb Mount Everest.
The team initially met in Kathmandu, trekking for days to base camp carrying tents, food and equipment.
Today’s climbers follow a path blazed by experienced Nepali guides, but Sherpa recalls that that team navigated the pristine mountains on their own.
Dressed in oversized clothing brought by the British, the Nepali guides sang as they carried the load to ever higher camps.
Although she had no mountain training, Sherpa climbed more than 8,000 meters on Everest.
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The 90-year-old said he was tired and unavailable to speak before the anniversary of the anniversary last Monday, but his grandson quoted him as saying: “The happiest part was when Tenzing and Hillary reached the summit.”
Seven decades later, hundreds of people each year follow in the duo’s footsteps to the summit of Everest, in a multibillion-dollar mountaineering industry.
Thousands more come to Nepal to see the stunning Himalayas.
Over the decades, the word “sherpa” became synonymous with the high-altitude mountain guide, the backbone of mountaineering, who faces great risks carrying gear and food, laying ropes and repairing ladders.
Sherpa worked in the mountains for two decades, until his wife asked him to stop the dangerous journeys.
But in a 2019 interview with local Yoho TV, he stated: “Tenzing and Hillary opened our eyes and made development here possible. Life was very difficult before, there was no way to earn a living.”
Sherpa witnessed firsthand the transformation of the Everest region.
“After reaching the summit of Everest, tourism here grew exponentially. With that, our lifestyle and income changed,” he said a few days ago, as quoted by his grandson Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa.
The most important change has been the education of the Sherpa children, said the former climber.
“Now they have the option to study and as a result they can be whatever they want, like a doctor or an engineer or a scientist, like my grandson,” he said.
“I would never have imagined that it was possible in my time. That is the benefit of the increasing tourism and mountaineering,” he added.
He currently runs a foundation named after him to support families who cannot send their children to school.
But he clarifies: “I fear the Sherpa youth are being heavily influenced by Western culture and could slowly forget Sherpa culture and language.”
Although the conquest of the roof of the world was on May 29, the news broke four days later as it was necessary for members of the expedition to walk to a telegraph station in the village of Namche Bazaar and send a cable to the British embassy in Kathmandu with the good news.
Decades later (2011), thanks to technology, British mountaineer Kenton Cool sent a tweet from the summit using a 3G network when he crested the summit for the ninth time.
In the celebrations on Monday of the 70th anniversary of this mountaineering feat, the protagonists were the children of Hillary and Norgay Sherpa. “For many reasons it’s not just Ed and Tenzing who reached the summit of Everest, but all of humanity,” Peter Hillary said at a school founded by his father Edmund in the isolated 12,000-foot town of Khumjung.
“Suddenly, each one of us could leave,” he added.
Members of the respective families joined the villagers and officials on Monday morning to inaugurate the Sir Edmund Hillary Tourist Office, housed in the same building as the school that opened in 1961.
A renovated museum was also opened in the name of Tenzing Norgay at Namche Bazar, the biggest tourist hub on the Everest Base Camp road.
In Kathmandu, officials and hundreds of mountaineers participated in emotional events. Nepal’s top mountaineers, including Kami Rita Sherpa, nicknamed “the man from Everest”, who reached the summit for the 28th time last week, were honored at a ceremony.
Sanu Sherpa, the only one to have climbed the world’s 14 highest peaks twice, called on the government to support Nepali guides, who take enormous risks to accompany foreign climbers during their ascents.
In the past seven decades, more than 6,000 climbers have climbed the world’s highest peak, according to the Himalayan Database site, and more than 300 climbers have lost their lives in the same period of time, including 12 this year.
Changes in ascensions
Decades after this conquest, hundreds of people climb this 8,849-meter peak every year, raising fears of crowds and that too much pollution accumulates.
The Everest formation was initially defined by British cartographers as Peak XV and was identified as the world’s highest peak in 1850..
In 1865 it was renamed after Sir George Everest, who served as Surveyor General of India for the British.
The mountain is on the border between Nepal and China. Sherpas and Tibetans call it Chomolungma or Qomolangma, which means “Mother Goddess of the World” and in Nepali it is called Sagarmatha, “Peak of Heaven”.
The 1953 expedition that reached the summit was preceded by nine attempts and after this feat in the next 20 years 600 people reached the summit.
Currently, in a single season, similar numbers of climbers reach Everest, where climbers, experienced guides and companies that organize commercial expeditions mix.
The journey that lasted months until the base camp was reduced to eight days with the construction of an airstrip in the town of Lukla in 1964, which is now the gateway to Everest.
Today’s equipment is lighter, oxygen is easier to get, and location devices make expeditions safer.
In an emergency, climbers can even be rescued by helicopter.
Billi Bierling, who manages the Himalayan Database, said things have stayed the same.
“They went to the mountains in a way that is not very different from how we do now. The Sherpas carried everything. The style of the expeditions has not changed,” he said.
Everest Base Camp, where the ascent begins, was once a set of tents at 5,364 meters where climbers set up shop with canned food.
Now, mountaineers can enjoy trendy salads, baked goods and coffees. Broken conversations using bulky satellite phones were replaced by the internet and Instagram posts.
The composition and ‘strength’ of Everest has also changed. Warming temperatures have slowly widened the cracks in the mountain, there is now water on previously snow-covered slopes, and the temperature of the thinnest ice is close to melting point.