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Conquest of Everest, The (1953)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

London, 2nd June 1953. Queen Elizabeth II's coronation is underway. Meanwhile, in Central Asia, another celebration takes place, in which Tensing Norgay, Edmund Hillary, Colonel John Hunt and the rest of their team are honoured. This is the story of their historic achievement, the ascent of Mount Everest.

The Himalayan Peak 15, between Tibet and Nepal, was named in 1852 after surveyor general George Everest. In the 1920s, several climbing attempts were made, among them one in 1924 by Mallory and Irving, who never returned. Daunting obstacles included the altitude, lack of oxygen, atrocious weather and the logistics of supply and support. In 1951, Eric Shipton made an important discovery: a strange formation of valleys called the Western Coombe.

October 1952. Colonel Hunt is summoned by a joint commission of the Royal Geographic Society and the Alpine Club to lead a new British Expedition. He assembles a highly skilled climbing team.

In a decompression chamber at Farnborough, experiments simulate the extreme conditions of Everest. Scientists demonstrate a novel method of conserving food called 'vacuum packing' and test the most durable fabrics and climbing equipment. The team are trained to a peak of mental and physical fitness.

Supplies are airlifted by cable railway to the sacred mountain city of Kathmandu. Here the two teams, led by John Hunt on the British side and Tensing Norgay of the Sherpas, meet for the first time. The first leg of the 175-mile journey will take them from Kathmandu at 4,000 feet to the base of Everest at 18,000 feet.

The first leg is hot and tiring, but eventually they reach the bare and deeply gorged foothills of the Himalayas. They cross the Dudh Kosi River. At Nanchibazar they drink chang, a local brew of rice wine, and spend a carefree day with the Sherpa people. At Tangbotchey, the last outpost, the Kathmandu Sherpas depart. It is April 1953.

The crew test their equipment. The rest of the expedition will be tackled in three stages - from a base camp at 18,000 feet, across the Western Coombe to a peak at 21,000 feet, from there to the South Coombe (Col) at 26,000 feet and finally to the summit.

They build Base Camp on the Khumbu glacier. 13,000 tons of stores, equipment and oxygen are ferried up from Tangbotchey by a new team of Sherpas.

Hillary, George Lowe, George Band and Mike Ward are sent to recce the next stage. Ward marks out a route; cutting steps in the icy mountains, erecting flags and guide ropes. Between April and May supplies are ferried back and forth to Camp Two on the Western Coombe, where the expedition will stay for two weeks.

The next phase is dangerous and difficult - across the infamous Loetse Face to the South Col. The outriders of this leg are Lowe and Anema, a Sherpa. At first they make good progress but they are slowed by fresh snowfalls and the altitude. Their three to four day schedule mushrooms to nine - with over 1,000 feet to go and worsening weather. After 10 days, they turn back.

Hunt sends two climbers, Wilfred Noyce and the Sherpa Analoo, to find a route to the South Coombe, this time using oxygen. The journey is agonisingly slow. However, the climbers reach the South Col and return, elated.

Finally they can tackle the summit. The first assault team of Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans and a support party led by Hunt set off for the South Col. The climb is cold, desolate and hard-going. Bourdillon and Evans descend, having established a transit camp 500 feet from the top.

Two days later, Lowe, Gregory and a small team of Sherpas build a stepping post higher up the South Coombe. Then the second assault team, led by Hillary and Tensing, set off.

Everyone waits anxiously. Out of sight, Hillary and Tensing pass the great Kamshung face, searching for a way through to the top. Cutting back around a ridge, Hillary sees the rounded cone of the peak itself.

Next day at camp, three moving dots are spotted in the distance. Hillary, Tensing and Lowe descend, roped together. Hillary and Tensing have stood on top of the world.