An Elegy Atop Everest

Feats of exploration and daring high above the world can lead to moments of pure reflection.

Mount Everest. Photo by Wang Lama Humla, via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped.

What did the first few summiteers utter when they reached the top of Mount Everest?

We barely know, for the first three successful attempts between 1953 and 1963 were more focused on getting the climbers up there and back, alive, than fussing with what to say for posterity. The Brits were first, in 1953, followed by the Swiss in 1956, and the Americans in 1963. The Brits and the Americans received the bulk of the press coverage back then, and here’s what they said and did at the top of the world.

The 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition

There is no record of what Edmund Hillary, the tall New Zealander, spoke aloud while standing atop Mount Everest, though we do have a few words by his short companion, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa. Sir Edmund later described how surprised, and satisfied he was when they reached the top at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, May 29. Breathing bottled oxygen from bulky cylinders did not inspire much conversation, but from what they each later wrote, we know some of what occurred up there.

In his 1999 memoir, View from the Summit, Hillary describes how cold and tired they were while moving slowly upward, seeking “rather anxiously for signs of the summit.” They knew they were on top when they could see north out over the barren plateau of Tibet.

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