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How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Be the First to Conquer Everest.

When you prepare to go to sleep tonight, imagine that instead of snuggling down in your warm, cozy bed, you’re in a sleeping bag inside a tiny tent that’s barely six-feet wide, staked precariously to an icy rock ledge and pitched downwards at a 30-degree angle; it’s 30-degrees below zero, and you’re at an elevation of 27,900 feet with howling gale-force winds beating down all around you. When you awaken the next morning (well, “awaken” would suggest that you actually slept), you spend several hours just trying to put on your frozen boots, while your oxygen- and sleep-deprived brain tries to make sense of the unreality of it all. At 6:30 AM, you and your Nepalese Sherpa climbing partner set out for your destination: the summit of Mount Everest, elevation 29,029 feet—the highest point on Earth.

At one point, your trek nearly ends prematurely, when a huge chunk of crusted snow breaks loose beneath you. When you manage to stop your backward slide after 20 or 30 feet, you realize that you can look straight down—10,000 feet. Later, closer to the summit, you come upon your greatest challenge of the entire climb: a seemingly impassable, 40-foot–tall sheer wall of icy rock. But by wedging yourself into a crack, you manage to inch your way to the top. You continue slowly along, hacking steps in the snow and ice with your ax, until you suddenly realize the way in front no longer trends upward, but drops away. You’re on the summit, literally on top of the world. You have succeeded where numerous previous expeditions have failed, and you’ve survived (so far) where dozens of others have perished.

As grand and exhilarating as is the view from the top, you only linger for about 15 minutes to enjoy the stunning panorama, snapping a few photos to prove you actually made it. You know that you still have to make it down, and as dozens will come to discover in the years after your triumph, that’s the hardest part. Your Sherpa climbing partner gets the honor of posing for a snapshot on the summit. (He’s an exquisite mountaineer—tough and tireless, warm and generous—but he’s never used a camera before.) After a quick snack, you leave a crucifix and your Buddhist partner leaves some offerings for the gods of the mountain, and you head down. Several hours later, back at the relative safety of your high camp at 26,000 feet, you casually remark to another expedition member, “Well George, we’ve knocked the bastard off.”


Head and shoulders portrait of Edmund Percival Hillary circa 1953. Taken by an unidentified photographer. Courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand 

Had you been New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953 (he was knighted shortly thereafter by Queen Elizabeth II, who heard the news on her coronation day, June 2), that’s the story you would have told at Carnegie Hall eight months later, on January 29, 1954, recounting how you and your partner Tenzing Norgay tackled the world’s tallest mountain, one of the planet’s final geographical frontiers.


Program cover from Hillary's Carnegie Hall appearance on January 29, 1954. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives. 

In the aftermath of the achievement and for years afterward, whenever the question arose of which of the two men actually first stepped foot on the summit, Hillary maintained that he and Norgay arrived at the peak simultaneously. For his own part, Norgay asserted that Hillary arrived first, despite Hillary’s protestations otherwise. In keeping with his unassuming style, only in 1999—more than a dozen years after Norgay’s death in 1986—did Hillary admit that he was the first. He also showed his deep respect for Norgay and the Sherpa people in another powerful way through the Himalayan Trust, a non-profit foundation Hillary established dedicated to improving the lives of the Sherpas in Nepal.


Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay in Wellington, taken 11 August 1971 by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer. Courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand 

Although he never returned to Everest, Hillary continued to climb in the Himalayas, and on January 4, 1958, as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, he became the first to reach the South Pole overland since the ill-fated expedition of Robert Falcon Scott in January 1912. In 1985, he accompanied astronaut Neil Armstrong on a flight to the North Pole, thereby becoming the first person ever to reach both poles and the summit of Mount Everest. Hillary died in Auckland, New Zealand, on January 11, 2008, at age 88.

Sources:

Barnett, Shaun. “Hillary, Edmund Percival.” Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara—The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 17-Dec-10. URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/6h1 

McFadden, Robert D. “Sir Edmund Hillary, Mountaineer Who Conquered Everest, Dies at 88.” The New York Times (1923–Current file): B6. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851–2007). Jan 11 2008. Web. 24 Jan. 2012.

Related: The History of the Hall