Tale of the first ascent of the world’s highest peak

Kanchha Sherpa, the last surviving member of the 1953 British Everest Expedition shares his memories of the successful ascent.

By Rajiv Joshi @wandererrj


Well George, we knocked the bastard off!

Sir Edmund Hillary told his friend George Lowe while returning from the first ever ascent of the Mt Everest back in 1953. Though discovered as the highest peak on earth in the 1850s, Mt Everest was relatively unknown to many people. The successful summit, however, made Mt Everest popular all over the world.

Attempts to climb Mt Everest, however, had began in the 1920s.  Various expeditions were organized from the northern side as it was difficult to obtain permit for foreigners from the Nepali side. When Nepal opened its borders for foreigners in the 1950s, expedition teams started attempting the mountain from the southern side. In 1950, a small group led by a British, Bill Tilman, undertook a exploration trip to the Everest. The team developed a standard route to Everest via the south col. Next year, another British expedition led by Eric Shipton travelled Nepal to survey a new route via the south face. The exploration teams at that time identified various possible routes from the Nepali side. But the only one they considered feasible was taking the route via the Khumbu Icefall, Western Cwm (a broad, flat, gently heaving glacial valley basin at the base of the Lhotse Face of Mt. Everest),  traversing to the South Col.

In 1952, members of Swiss expedition team made two attempts on Everest in spring and autumn. Two members of the spring team — Robert Lambert and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa — reached the record altitude of 8,510 m. on the southeast ridge. They had to retreat because of the unsettled weather condition. A year later, Tenzing Norgay, now with British expedition, and Sir Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mt Everest.

Kanchha Sherpa. Photo @wandererrj

Ang Furba Sherpa, locally known as Kanchha Sherpa, the last surviving member of the 1953 British Everest Expedition, has vivid memories of the successful ascent. Kanchha, who ran off to Darjeeling in 1952 together with his friends at the age of 19 to search some works, returned to the Everest region a year later as part of the British Everest Expeditions. “We headed straight to Tenzing’s house. As Tenzing knew my father, he allowed me to stay with him,” Sherpa shared at his home in Namche Bazaar some months ago. “I helped Tenzing in household chores.”

Before meeting Tenzing, Kanchha had no idea that Mt Everest, which locals knew as Chomulungma, is the highest mountain in the world. “I was happy to know that the highest mountain in the world is in our backyard and that foreigners were planning to climb it,” he added.

Tenzing, a Sirdar of the British expedition, included Kanchha in the team. “I was both surprised and happy,” he added.

It was very difficult to travel to Kathmandu those days. Tenzing and Kanchha along with eight other Sherpas walked to Kathmandu all the way from Birgunj. They stayed in Kathmandu for two weeks. Kanchha first met Hillary in Bhaktapur.

“He was the first foreigner that I met. I had not seen any foreigner before that. I had only heard that they are red-haired and white-eyed. I was surprised to see that tall man (Hillary),” Kanchha shared.

After all the equipment arrived, a jumbo team of 400 people, 15 expedition members from England and New Zealand, and 20 Sherpas and porters trekked all the way to Namche via Dolalghat-Risingo-Chitre route. “It took 16 days to reach Namche from Bhaktapur,” said Kanchha.

Members of the 1953 Expedition (Photo: Royal Geographic Society)
Expedition members of the 1953 Expedition (Photo: Royal Geographic Society)
Sherpa along with the expedition team. (Photo: Royal Geographic Society)
Sherpa along with the expedition team. (Photo: Royal Geographic Society)

It was the ninth British expedition led by Col John Hunt. The expedition was organized and financed by the Joint Himalayan Committee. The team comprised of Britishers Charles Evans, George Band, Tom Bourdillon, Alfred Gregory, Wilfrid Noyce, Griffith Pugh, Tom Stobart, Michael Ward, Michael Westmacott, Charles Wylie; New Zealander Edmund Hillary, George Lowe and Nepali Tenzing Norgay and Sherpa Annullu. James Morris, a correspondent of The Times newspaper, also accompanied the team.

“At that time, supplies were cheap but money was scarce. Daily wage of Rs 8 that too in silver coins was a big thing for us. We were also provided with good gears, but it wouldn’t come fit,” shared Kanchha.

It took the team about a week to find the appropriate trail in the Khumbu Icefall. “Supplies were running out at the time we reached the Icefall. It was not as easy as it is today. Everything had to be built, even the bridges,” Kanchha shared.

The team felled ten trees in Namche Bazaar and carried the lumber all the way to the Khumbu Icefall to build a wooden bridge over the crevasse. “It was the toughest part. We were very afraid when crossing the bridge. But after crossing the bridge, the trail was easier,” he added.

Tenzing and Hillary got the opportunity to climb Everest only after the first choice pair Bourdillon and Evans returned unsuccessful, said Kanchha. Tenzing and Hillary started on May 28 and reached the summit a day later, he added.

Tenzing and Hillary at the Everest Southeast Ridge at 8320m (Photo: Royal Geographic Society)
Tenzing and Hillary at the Everest Southeast Ridge at 8320m (Photo: Royal Geographic Society)

The record-making duo spent only about 15 minutes at the summit. Hillary took the iconic photo of Tenzing posing with his ice-axe. Additional photos were also taken looking down the mountain as a proof of the successful ascent.

Iconic photo of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa at the top of Everest. (Photo Royal Geographic Society)
Iconic photo of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa at the top of Everest. (Photo Royal Geographic Society)

“We were in South Col when we heard about the successful summit. We did not have the permit to go beyond that. We were all waiting for the good news at the camp,” Kanchha said, adding: “Everyone was at the camp was thrilled when the news of the successful summit came. It was a moment of pride as no one suffered casualty. Our hard work had paid off.”

Kanchha, the last surviving member of the Everest expedition, feels Nepal owes greatly to Mt Everest, and Tenzing and Hillary. “It is because of Mt Everest that Nepal has transformed itself into a premier destination for tourists. Our lives have changed since the first summit. Now we have schools, clinics, bridges. We used to eat only potatoes then and always dreamed of rice,” he said, adding: “Things have changed a lot now.”

He also said that people of the Khumbu region will never forget Hillary. “He never forgot us, the Sherpa people. He spent his entire life after the summit for our well-being. He was our ambassador. He built the first school and hospital in the Khumbu for us,” Kanchha shared.

Kanchha, now in his mid-80s, runs a lodge at Namche Bazaar. He is a legend. Tourists come to his place and take pictures with him. “Local people have benefited a lot with the popularity of the Everest Base Camp trail. Now, many people across the world know Namche Bazaar,” he added.

Namche Bazzar (Photo @wandererrj)

Members of the 1953 expedition described Namche as “a cosy and comfortable place with its heavy wooden doors and crooked lanes”. Today, it has well communication facilities like mobile phones and Internet, comfortable lodges, shops, bars and coffee shops as well.

This legendary man has seen the ups and downs of the Everest region up close. “Namche was just a small village with two teahouses. Now, it has become a bustling tourist town with all modern amenities,” he added. “It is all because of Everest.”

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