That One Time Two Men Walked To The Top Of Everest

By the time the two climbers in Colonel Hunt’s team reached the last unknown outpost of Earth, ten other teams had attempted to summit the 29,002-foot beast. After three attempts by their own team, it was the 29th of May, 1953, when they made it.

It took them so long to send word down the hill, per the dangerous descent, the news of their success would not reach the Queen of England until June 2. It was the day of her coronation, a gift from the expedition, claiming the conquest of Everest for the United Kingdom and for Queen Elizabeth.

The story of Edmund Hillary is a patient climb, one that starts in New Zealand just after the Great War, and ends on the 29th of May, only 64 years ago.

Edmund Hillary

If you know the name, you know him as Sir Edmund Hillary. Queen Elizabeth knighted he and his expedition leader, Colonel Hunt. Hillary was not British, but New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy under the same Queen as England, so British by proxy.

Hillary was born in New Zealand in 1919, only three years before the first expedition to climb Everest. As young Edmund grew up, many would attempt to summit Everest, but it was his destiny.

Some say it was the two hour train ride to school that first inspired the young adventurer. When Hillary was a teenager, he used to fill his time on the train with reading, learning about the great world outside of New Zealand.

Hillary took an interest in climbing on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, when he was 16. At six-foot-five, Hillary was a giant, strong, and capable.

In 1939, he completed his first climb, tackling Mount Ollivier in the Southern Alps. He took up beekeeping, so he could make money during the summer, but have the freedom to climb in the winter.

Then, in 1948, he and a small crew of friends summited Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. It was this training that would one day carve a path for him to the peak of Everest.

Previous Attempts

1922 Expedition |

The first attempt to summit Everest was in 1922, but by then an exploratory expedition had already gone up in 1921.

George Leigh Mallory led the 1922 attempt, which was from the north side of the mountain. Back then, accessing from the south side meant entering via Nepal, forbidden territory for westerners at the time. The north route started in Tibet, which was not yet ruled by China.

The northern route is more difficult, thus why hardly anybody bothers with it anymore. Still, back in the 20s, this was the only option. The 1922 attempt lost many of their team, seven during an avalanche on the third attempt. They left beaten by Everest.

The next expedition by Mallory, in 1924, would end in a mystery. He, along with his partner Andrew Irvine attempted three times again to summit the beast. On that third attempt, they did not return.

In 1999, climbers would find Mallory’s remains at 26,762 feet, dead from a fall. History would record the belief that they did not summit, that they died on the way up, leaving the title open for the taking.

There were 12 more expeditions, large and small, between 1924 and 1953.


In 1950, Tibet opened its borders to Westerners, in the nick of time too. The Chinese had taken control of Tibet that same year, closing it off to Westerners. It was a blessing to mountaineering, as they would soon discover the Nepalese side was an easier ascent.

Edmund Hillary first met Everest in 1951, three years after summiting the Mount Cook in New Zealand. He went with an exploration crew, led by Eric Shipton.

Since 1933, Shipton had his sights on Everest, a prize he would forfeit to his young assistant. Originally, Shipton was to lead the 1953 expedition, but after he expressed a distaste for the large size of their party, the financiers replaced him with Hunt.

Colonel Hunt would lead a team of over 400 people, including a disgruntled Hillary, with their bags up Everest. Hillary wasn’t a fan of the change, but Hunt and Shipton convinced him to stick it out.


The last bit of the climb on Everest we now call Hillary Step, as it was he who devised a way to ascend that part of the climb. According to the story, Hillary went first, then Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa.

The pair reached the summit, 29,028 feet at 11:30 am on the 29th of May. They hung out for about fifteen minutes, snapped a picture, then descended the mountain.

Climbing back down Everest is where many mountaineers lose their lives, unaware of how exhausted they are. Hillary and Norgay quickly learned how the mountain might still take their lives. Their tracks were already covered by fresh snow, but taking their time, they made it back to camp alive.

Since 1977, not one year has passed without a death on Everest. That we know of, 280 people have died there. Most of their bodies remain frozen on the hill, many in plain sight of climbers. They use them as markers.

Hillary went on to climb more peaks, have more adventures, and lived a long life. He married shortly after returning from Everest, and the pair had three children. Hillary lived until 2008, passing from heart failure at age 88.