Written by Jo Woolf, the RSGS Writer-in-Residence and author of The Great Horizon.

65 years since Everest was first climbed, we look back on the visit of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir John Hunt…

On 12th September 1953, The Scotsman carried an advertisement for the RSGS’ forthcoming programme of lectures at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Opening the season, on 5th October, were two names that, for the last three months, had enthralled the world: Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir John Hunt. Their lecture would be accompanied by colour slides, and both men would be presented with the Society’s Livingstone medal. It would be a very big occasion indeed.

On 29th May of that year, New Zealand-born Hillary and his Nepalese climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, had become the first humans to stand on the summit of Everest. As members of the 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition, their success was the happy result of a long, complex and highly co-ordinated campaign spearheaded by John Hunt, a British army colonel. The delight of Hillary and Tenzing is captured in photographs taken by team members shortly after their descent; at that point, neither of them fully realised that their lives were about to change forever.

After a cramped and uncomfortable night in small tents on the South Col, in the company of Wilfrid Noyce, George Lowe and Pasang Phutar, Hillary and Tenzing trudged down to Advance Base Camp where they were reunited with their leader. Hunt, who had maintained a clear and calm head throughout, was overwhelmed with relief to see both climbers safe and well, and shed tears of joy at their news. The euphoria was intense but short-lived, because everyone was physically and mentally exhausted. For hours, they just slept.

When Hillary finally awoke, he set about penning some letters. “Dear Mother,” he wrote, “…I may not have produced much joy and happiness in the world but at least I’ve helped to make the Hillary name a bit more famous…” To Jim Rose, his future father-in-law, he wrote: “Well, all the flurry and bustle is over, all the hard work is finished and at long last we’ve climbed the jolly mountain.” Meanwhile, Hunt’s duties were by no means over; he had to supervise the safe withdrawal of all the expedition members from various camps pitched along the route of ascent.

Although he had joked about fame to his mother, Hillary did not expect their feat of climbing the ‘jolly mountain’ to be celebrated worldwide. He was surprised to be told by Hunt that they would be expected to meet the Queen and “heaps of important people.” He had been isolated for weeks with just his fellow climbers for company, and the significance of their achievement was still only sinking in. Then, as he was descending to Kathmandu, a letter was put into his hands and he saw that it was addressed to Sir Edmund Hillary. With disbelief, Hillary learned that both he and Hunt would receive knighthoods. He struggled with his conscience for a while:

I had never approved of titles and couldnt imagine myself possessing one. I had a vivid picture of walking down the main street of Papakura dressed in my torn and dirty overalls and thought I’d have to get a new pair. (New Zealand Herald)

In Kathmandu, the climbers were welcomed with hot baths, good food and beds that they found too soft to sleep in. They learned that their news had reached Britain just in time to make the headlines on the morning of the Queen’s coronation; Sir Winston Churchill and the Queen sent their congratulations. In Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay, tumultuous crowds awaited the arrival of their plane, and they were introduced to the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. From all over the world, invitations and awards started to pour in. Hillary would be needing more than just a new pair of overalls.

Arriving in London in August, the entire team, together with some family members, were invited to Buckingham Palace where Hillary and Hunt were knighted, and Tenzing received the George Medal.  They stayed to give a few press conferences, and then Hillary and George Lowe returned to their native New Zealand where they were greeted with pride and excitement, speaking in packed lecture theatres and opening a flood of congratulatory letters.

In the midst of all the celebration, there was one issue that occupied Hillary’s mind above all else. He was in love with Louise Rose, a young woman whom he had known for years, but he was too shy to ask her to marry him. Louise was a capable climber in her own right, and her parents were old friends of Hillary’s family. In the end, it was Louise’s mother who passed on the proposal; to Hillary’s great relief, Louise accepted. They were married on 3rd September 1953, and next day they flew out of Auckland to begin a five-month lecture tour of Europe and America.

Sir John Hunt, whose family home was at Knighton in Powys, was perhaps more used to the limelight than Hillary. Educated at Marlborough College and Sandhurst, he had climbed his first Alpine peak at the age of 15 and had managed to combine his passion for the mountains with an illustrious army career. Unfailingly modest, Hunt attributed the success of the expedition to the courage and skill of his fellow climbers:

The story of the ascent of Everest is one of teamwork.  If there is a deeper and more lasting message behind our venture than the mere ephemeral sensation of a physical feat, I believe this to be the value of comradeship and the many virtues which combine to create it.” The Ascent of Everest

Meanwhile, Hillary’s mother was worrying about how her son would cope in the whirlwind of grand dinners and ceremonies that would engulf him, and wrote to offer some advice. He replied that he had read her comments “with some despair… not only do I realise that I’m far from perfect in the social graces but as long as I’m being rushed about madly as at present I’m not likely to remember people’s names.” (‘An Extraordinary Life’)

At the same time, secretly, he was probably worrying about his bees. Before he had even thought about Everest, he and his younger brother, Rex, had helped their father with his business of bee-keeping, and now they had over 30 apiaries dotted around dairy farms back in New Zealand. Hillary was devoted to his bees, and whenever he had to leave them he suffered pangs of guilt.

In lecture theatres throughout Britain, the eager anticipation of Hillary and Hunt’s arrival continued unabated. A Glasgow Herald reporter wrote that Hillary would be a guaranteed box-office draw, and speculated that he looked like a Scotsman or an Irishman with his “long bony face, lean jaw and wide grin,” adding that “Sir Edmund never succeeds in merely smiling.” He was right about the smile, at least: in the photograph taken at the Usher Hall, Hillary is beaming delightedly as he receives the Livingstone Medal from RSGS President, John ‘Ian’ Bartholomew. By contrast, Sir John Hunt appears to be listening attentively to something that his host is saying.

Hillary and Hunt receiving their awards, from Scottish Geographical Magazine (1953)

The lecture was delivered in two parts: Hunt told the story of the ascent as far as the South Col, and then Hillary described his epic climb with Tenzing to the summit. In front of a large and enthusiastic audience, they accepted their medals with typical modesty and grace. Hunt was the first to respond:

I must try to find words to express my personal gratitude and to tell you how extremely touched and humble I feel at this very wonderful award which you have just been good enough to bestow upon me. I accept it with great humility, and I do so on behalf not only of myself but of every one of my comrades on that mountain. Allow me to tell you how enormously moved we of the Everest team were when we got to the top, when we found how thrilled everybody was everywhere. We thought what a wonderful thing it was that so many people all over the world loved and appreciated such an adventure. If we brought back any message, it is a message for many others to set out now to seek their own Everests in whatever capacity they may be. There are great possibilities of doing so if people look around them.” (SGM, 69:3)

Hillary added his own note of warmth: “After all, it has not been two men who have climbed Everest, and if any of the others had done anything less than they did, we would never have got there.” (SGM, 69:3)

The RSGS Visitors’ Book was signed by Sir John and Lady Hunt and Sir Edmund and Lady Hillary during their visit. Together with team members Charles Wylie and George Band, they also signed a copy of The Times Everest Colour Supplement, which is one of the treasures of the RSGS Collection. 

Sources and reference: An Extraordinary Life’ by Alexa Johnston; ‘View from the Summit’ by Sir Edmund Hillary; ‘The Ascent of Everest’ by Sir John Hunt; New Zealand Herald; Scottish Geographical Magazine (1953) Presentation of the Livingstone Gold Medal, 69:3.