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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Bitter Fight For The Top.

Everyone knows who Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay is. This story is not about them, or the Ninth British Expedition of 1953.

It is about the Swiss teams and how they nearly put the first men on the summit of Mount Everest in 1952. Instead they became the second best.

Not by lack of courage, effort or ingenuity, mind you.

From 1921 to 1952, Everest had been the sole preserve of the British. Eight expeditions were led up this unwelcoming behemoth, where the air is dangerously thin, the terrain painfully rugged and the weather wildy unpredictable.

Their height record then was 8573 metres set by Edward Norton in 1924, and despite the immense efforts of the British, this record would hold for 28 years until the arrival of the Swiss.

In 1952, the Nepalese government finally allowed the Swiss to launch an expedition into Everest. The first Swiss expedition, led by Edouard Wyss-Dunant was also the first to attempt the Western Cwn approach (identified by the British in 1951). They were confronted with a difficult terrain obstacle at Khumbu icefall, but were able to surmount it with effort and ingenuity.

Although not in their initial plan, embolded with their good progress the team decided to send a four man ascent party to climb the summit. This included Raymond Lambert, Tenzing Norgay, Rene Aubert and Leon Flory. Raymond Lambert was a veteran climber with far more mountaineering experience than Edmund Hillary. He was also a good friend of Tenzing Norgay.

By the time they set up camp at 8400 metres, difficulties started to stack up. Short of water, with no sleeping bags and using malfunctioning oxygen sets, Lambert and Norgay struggled up the mountain by sheer grit and reached the height of 8611 metres.

A new world record.

So determined to reach the summit was Lambert that he joined the second Swiss expedition in autumn 1952 for another try. Unfortunately by this time of the year the weather conditions on Everest was so bad that they couldn't even reach their own record height. Low temperatures and strong winds combine to become icy blades of air that forced them to turn back.

The Swiss were defeated and the British were relieved.

News of the Ninth British Expedition loomed large and a resigned Lambert met with British team leader John Hunt to share his experiences. He also encouraged his friend Norgay to join the British team as they had a good chance of reaching the summit.

Then on 29th May 1953, the summit was conquered.

The British team had become the best.

After a few years of intensive planning, the Swiss came back with the larger and better equipped Everest/Lhotse expedition in spring 1956.

This time the weather finally smiled on them.

On 23rd May 1956, Jurg Marmet and Ernst Schmied became the third and fourth men to stand on the summit of Everest.

The Swiss team had become second best.

Book Reference

Gillman, Peter, ed. Everest: Eighty years of triumph and tragedy. London: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

1 Comment:

Sivasothi said...

Nice story, thanks! Didn't know about the Swiss...