Letter: Everest in perspective

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The Independent Online
From Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine

Sir: I was interested to read in recent correspondence (letters, 25 and 29 August) about whether Tenzing Norgay or Edmund Hillary first set foot on the summit of Everest. It may be helpful if I refer any readers interested in this question to Hillary's own account in my book The Ascent of Everest, which was written within three months of that event on 29 May 1953. Hillary made it quite clear in his chapter "The Summit" that it was he who led the whole way from their top camp to the summit; he described the final moments as follows:

A few more whacks of the ice axes in the firm snow and we stood at the top.

Both he and Tenzing told us their story in just these terms after their return to our camp in the Western Cwm two days after the climb, and Hillary has told the same story countless times over the past 40 years or so.

My point is that it mattered not at all which one of them first set foot on the top of the world. The question is totally irrelevant to mountaineers and it did not occur to any one of us, their companions in the team, to ask for it. Indeed, that question is alien to the spirit of mountaineering. Two climbers are partners on a rope; they are interdependent, each playing a part, whether in support or in the lead.

When we reached the road head in the main Kathmandu valley, however, that question was asked persistently by eager press reporters, some of them wishing to make a political point. Tenzing took the brunt of this grilling and he did it very well.

Many years later, I described in my book Life is Meeting (1978) some of our experiences, not all of them good, during our return. I wrote:

Poor Tenzing! It was his first taste of a different, more cynical and sensation-hungry world of which he, until that moment, had no experience. He weathered it well, and perhaps that special relationship which had been created by those other experiences we had shared together helped him, as it helped us all. To stay together when the meaner-minded press hounds seemed intent on tearing us apart ... All that mattered was that man had climbed the highest mountain.

I hope this places the question of who got there first in a truer perspective.

Yours sincerely,

John Hunt

Aston, Oxfordshire

2 September