In 1953, after their Everest triumph, Sir Edmund Hillary and his fellow climbers were household names… but not everyone recognised their faces



Tenzing Norgay on Everest, photographed by Sir Edmund Hillary

On 4th June 1953, exactly 70 years ago this month, RSGS sent a telegram to the members of the British Mount Everest Expedition.   It said simply, ‘All Scotland rejoices in your achievement.’   Just a week before, Edmund Hillary and his climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, had become the first humans to stand on the world’s highest mountain;  the message, hastily relayed from a radio post at Namche Bazar, had reached Britain just in time for the papers to proclaim the wonderful news on the morning of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

RSGS quickly secured Hillary and the expedition leader, Sir John Hunt, as guest speakers in the autumn of that year.  Meanwhile, Hillary and Tenzing were only just beginning to come to terms with their new-found fame.   Even before he had got back to Kathmandu, Hillary had learned with astonishment that he was to receive a knighthood;  and when the climbers landed in Delhi, a crowd several thousand strong broke through a barrier to greet them, joyfully shouting Tenzing’s name.  In his book,‘View from the Summit’, Hillary explained:  ’I had innocently thought that [the achievement] would be of interest to mountaineers, but not particularly to anyone else - but I was being proved very wrong.’


Hillary with The Times newspaper supplement, ‘The First Ascent of Mount Everest’

In London, the climbers were swept into a dizzy whirlwind of award ceremonies and celebratory dinners.  After a few weeks, Hillary and his friends were glad to escape into the mountains of North Wales, where they had been invited to a gathering of the Alpine Club at the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel.  It was a welcome return for Hillary, because he and his fellow climbers had spent time training and testing their equipment in Snowdonia before flying out to the Himalayas.  It would also bring him a refreshing reminder that his face was not yet known to everyone in the entire world.

On arriving at the hotel, Hillary discovered that the rest of the party had already gone on a hike up Snowdon, so he immediately set out to catch them up.  He hadn’t brought any climbing gear, so he just wore a pair of beach shoes and his everyday clothes.  About halfway to the summit, he met an Alpine Club member who totally failed to recognise him, but knew what a woefully unprepared climber looked like.  He proceeded to give Hillary a severe dressing-down, telling him that it was ill-equipped people like himself who gave the mountains a bad name.  It was only later, at the hotel bar, that the two met up again, by which time one of them was red-faced and acutely apologetic.


Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) from Crib Goch

Thankfully, by the time Hillary arrived in Edinburgh in October 1953, everyone knew who he was.  Proudly introducing both Hillary and Hunt to an audience in the Usher Hall, RSGS President, John (‘Ian’) Bartholomew recalled other talented climbers who had addressed the Society, among them George Mallory, Frank Smythe and Eric Shipton, and he added that RSGS had ‘a very deep place in its heart for the struggle to conquer the highest crag of the earth’s crust.’  He mentioned other members of the Everest expedition who were present that night, including Charles Wylie, the Organising Secretary;   and he paid tribute to the courage of Louise Hillary and Joy Hunt, the speakers’ wives, who had accompanied them.  Also in the audience was the Duke of Hamilton, who, as Marquess of Douglas and Clydesdale, was one of the first airmen to fly over Everest in 1933.


Hillary receiving the Livingstone Medal (image from SGM)

Hunt receiving the Livingstone Medal (image from SGM)

To enthusiastic applause, the speakers were presented with the RSGS Livingstone Medal, and then they proceeded to describe their experiences of climbing Everest.  Sir John Hunt concluded with a message of humility and hope.  Remembering the immediate aftermath of their success, he said:  ’We thought what a wonderful thing it was that so many people all over the world loved and appreciated such an adventure.  If we brought back any message, it is a message for many others to set out now to seek their own Everests in whatever capacity they may be.’

Hillary added that, after all, it was not just two men who had climbed Everest, ‘and if any of the others had done anything less than they did, we would never have got there.’  Writing much later, in his book View from the Summit, he explained that he had always been a great dreamer, reading books about adventure and walking many miles with his head in the clouds, but he always thought of himself as a person of modest abilities.  ‘My achievements,’ he wrote, ‘have resulted from a goodly share of imagination and plenty of energy.’


Quotes & reference:


Sir Edmund Hillary, View from the Summit (1999)

Jan Morris, Sir Edmund Hillary:  An Extraordinary Life (2005)

(1953) Presentation of the Livingstone gold medal, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 69:3

Newspaper reports in RSGS archives:  The Scotsman, 4th June 1953;  The Scotsman, 12th Sept 1953;  Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, 6th Oct 1953;  The Scotsman, 8th October 1953.