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ONE OF THE FIRST ROYAL ACTIONS of the coronated Queen Elizabeth II was to knight Edmund Hillary for the conquest of Mt. Everest. In fact, loudspeakers announced the conquest to the three million people lining her route to Westminster Abbey on the morning of June 2, 1953.
New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepal-born Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had reached the summit, then cited at 29,002 ft., at 11:30 a.m. local time on May 29, 1953. BBC Radio 4 recently celebrated this in “The Crowning of Everest,” a five-part podcast of “A Nation Waits,” “The Allure of Everest,” “The Summit,” “The Scoop of the Century,” and “The Crowning Glory.” Here are tidbits gleaned from these and from my usual Internet sleuthing.
The Summit. As described in Wikipedia, Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India, said in 1856 the peak was “ ‘most probably the highest in the world.’ Peak XV was calculated to be exactly 29,000 ft., but was publicly declared to be 29,002 ft. in order to avoid the impression that an exact height of 29,000 ft. was nothing more than a rounded estimate. Waugh is sometimes playfully credited with being ‘the first person to put two feet on top of Mount Everest.’ ”
Two years after its conquering, an elevation of 29,029 ft. was determined by an Indian survey using advanced optical measurements.
Politics and the Summit. Wikipedia recounts that following a 2005 measurement by the Chinese Academy of Science, “An argument arose between China and Nepal as to whether the official height should be the rock height (8,844 m, China) or the snow height (8,848 m, Nepal). In 2010, both sides agreed that the height of Everest is 8,848 m, and Nepal recognises China’s claim that the rock height of Everest is 8,844 m. On 8 December 2020, it was jointly announced by the two countries that the new official height is 8,848.86 metres (29,031.7 ft).”
Let’s call it 29,032 ft, and note “It is thought that the plate tectonics of the area are adding to the height and moving the summit northeastwards.”
The Scoop of the Century. The podcast and an earlier BBC News “The Press Battle to Report Everest Climb,” May 29, 2013, give details: “In today’s world, with the latest satellite technology, it is easy to forget just how much agility – both physical and mental – would have been involved in such a scoop.”
Wade Davis describes in Episode Four “Scoop of the Century,” “James Morris, later to become Jan Morris, is a reporter from The Times newspaper embedded with the team on the mountain. When news arrives that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay have reached the summit, he must find a way to get the news to London without it leaking to other journalists waiting in Kathmandu.”
Morris had set up a series of coded messages describing various outcomes, but there was no radio communication between the expedition and the rest of the world. So he, accompanied by the expedition’s Mike Westmacott, trekked by night down the Khumbu Icefault to initiate sending the report at Base Camp.
“I kept falling over,” Morris recounts, “and halfway down I said ‘You go ahead, Mike, I need to rest a bit,’ and he said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ and we went on together.”
“… There was developing dusk and nightfall… and the news that only I knew,” Morris recalls, “I had to get it through to London… the queen was going to be crowned… can you imagine it all?”
A Coded Message by Runner and Pedal Transmitter. At Base Camp, Morris typed out the message in prearranged code: “Snow conditions bad. Advance base abandoned yesterday. Awaiting improvement. All well!”
Decoded, it announced the success, the date, and Hillary and Norgay as the climbers reaching the summit. From Base Camp, Morris arranged runners to get this message to the nearest radio, a pedal-operated transmitter in Namche Bazaar, more than 20 miles away.
News of the Day. Morris recounted to BBC News in 2013, “It went in the press on the very day of the Queen’s coronation and everybody cheered.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023
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Thanks Dennis, a good story. I hope you remember when we first marveled at “Heather, Whisky, Adam Smith,” travel writing in the uniquely enjoyable style of Jan Morris. Not to be missed: