When a Mountaintop Might as Well Have Been the Moon

Article published on Google News about the first person to ever reach the Summit of Mt. Everest. Just thought it was interesting since I’m slowly making my way to that particular moutain.

EDMUND HILLARY, short of breath in the freezing wind, took “a few more whacks of the ice ax” and surmounted the top of the world, Mount Everest, as high as anyone can aspire and still be rooted on terra firma. At the time, May 29, 1953, it was a magnificent achievement of human daring and endurance culminating an era of crossing oceans, penetrating continental interiors and reaching the ends of the earth.

Keren Su/Corbis
Dreams Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay stood atop Mount Everest in 1953, 16 years before men walked on the Moon. Hillary died last week.

In retrospect, when Hillary, who died last week at 88, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, stood on the summit of Everest, it seems as if they were making the last “giant leap for mankind” of pre-space age generations.

The world’s tallest peak, which had defeated all previous climbers, killing several, had seemed not much less forbidding and unattainable than the Moon. But who was seriously thinking then about flying to the Moon? That was the stuff of science fiction, and the drawing-board dreams of rocket scientists who were hard pressed to come up with intercontinental missiles. Sputnik, the first man-made Earth satellite, was four years away. Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn were still flying airplanes. Youngsters in those days feasted more often at the tables of Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingstone, Amundsen, Peary, Byrd and Lindbergh.

It is tempting to think of the conquest of Everest by Hillary and Norgay as the moment we reached the crest of a divide in exploration. In the spirit of the lone pilot and hardy band of yore, this was an undertaking by two heroic individuals. But the successful Everest climb, with its team of a dozen climbers, 35 Sherpa guides and 350 porters, anticipated Mission Control at Houston and the mobilization of aerospace contractors on this side of the divide.

Echoes of Hillary can be heard in the astronauts who followed. They are kindred spirits speaking the same language of awe. Hillary, describing the view from the summit: “The whole world around us lay spread out like a giant relief map.” Glenn, as he approached the end of his orbital flight in 1962: “I can see the whole state of Florida just laid out like on a map.”

There is also a shared fluency in the matter-of-fact tongue of those who accept the risks of their calling. Hillary, encountering a widening split in the ice underfoot: “It was a nasty shock. I could look down 10,000 feet between my legs.” An Apollo 13 astronaut after an explosion in the rear of their spacecraft: “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

A difference comes to mind, and it is troubling when seen from both sides of the divide. Sir Edmund lamented the hordes scaling Everest; once 118 people were reported to make the climb in a single day. Space enthusiasts have an opposite complaint: no one has landed or walked on the Moon since 1972. But spaceflight in the shuttle, though risky, has become almost commonplace, enough for senators and other non-astronauts to take an occasional ride.

At least once the two who epitomized exploration before and after Sputnik held a summit meeting of sorts. In 1985, Sir Edmund and Neil A. Armstrong, the man of the “giant leap for mankind,” flew a twin-engine plane over the Arctic and touched down at the North Pole. Oh, to have listened in to the man on the Moon with the man atop Everest, together in a cockpit, again looking out on a stunning but forbidding landscape.

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