Remembering Queen Elizabeth’s Indelible Mark On Mt. Everest

May 29, 1953: Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary stood atop Mount Everest in the most badass moment of first ascent history ever.

June 2, 1953: Traveling at mid-1950s speed, the news of the expedition’s success first reaches the British public. That was also the same day that Queen Elizabeth II had her coronation.

That Thursday must have been a heady day for the British: On one front, their Commonwealth countryman (from New Zealand) stood on top of the world. On the home front, a young, vivacious new female monarch replaced a man who, though famously shy, guided the country through World War II with perceived aplomb.

On Everest, British expedition leader John Hunt and other team members sat, still unaware of their comrades’ success. Anticipating the coronation, Hunt hoped the team could summit in time for the two to occur roughly together.

But he had begun to lose hope, as the days dragged on with no news from Hillary and Norgay. Then he turned on the radio.

“In our Mess tent after supper we turned on the wireless to hear the Coronation news; George Band tuned in to All India Radio,” Hunt wrote in his book, The Ascent of Everest. “In the second headline of the news summary, the announcer said: ‘The wonderful news broke in London last night that Everest has been climbed by the British Expedition.’”

Presumably, the group in the tent stared at each other. “We were dumbfounded…With growing excitement and fascination, we listened further. The Queen and the Prime Minister had sent telegrams of congratulation to us via the British Ambassador in Kathmandu; the news had been announced on the loudspeakers along the Coronation route; the crowds had cheered; and so on.”

Libations followed. So did seven decades of radical change. To an individual, Brits may very well have roundly celebrated on Coronation day back in 1953. But two prominent public emotions met the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death on Thursday. In some circles, social criticism tinged the broader sentiment of personal grief.

Few figureheads have reigned over a global superpower as long as the Queen ruled the Commonwealth. And for anyone in a position of political power, their reputation reflects their country’s reputation.

While inspiring, some criticize the first ascent of Mt. Everest as a symbol of colonialism. Arguments exist that the it functioned as a direct act of it.

The Tibetans call the peak Qomolangma, meaning “Goddess Mother of the World.” In Nepali, the mountain’s name is Sagarmatha, translated sometimes as “Sky’s Head,” sometimes as “The Mountain So High No Bird Can Fly Over It.”

In English, we name it after the Westerner who hired the brilliant Indian mathematician who first calculated its height, and realized that it was, in fact, the world’s highest peak.

But humans are nothing if not our own self-contained opposites, and meaningful social progress has also occurred since 1953. The events of June 2 occurred as Great Britain rapidly approached an identity crisis.

Consider the following:

In his bestselling book Elizabethans: How Modern Britain Was Forged, former BBC journalist Andrew Marr described the Coronation this way:

“Few moments now, certainly not a royal moment, can embrace the entire nation in such unity…. It was as though a family was celebrating, and its celebrations were infectious, too, and were shared by other peoples everywhere,” he wrote.

John Hunt’s celebrating team in the tent on Everest must have felt that way; “The Sherpas naturally shared in the revelry,” he reported warmly.

In her book Coronation Everest, celebrated author and explorer Jan Morris describes a British public “at last emerging from the austerity which had plagued them since the Second World War, but at the same time facing the loss of their great Empire and the inevitable decline of their power in the world.”

An individual with an exuberant attitude living under a repressed but rapidly changing system is a volatile thing that can become beautiful indeed. Witness Morris, who joined the 1953 British expedition to Everest — as James Morris, a young male reporter.

Morris’ code phrase, “Snow conditions bad,” sent from Namche Bazaar to the British Embassy in Kathmandu, signaled that the climb had succeeded and triggered the news that Britons heard that day. By 1970, Morris had come out as trans. And by her death in November 2020, she’d published over 40 books, ardently writing and traveling in spite of the hostility she faced.

jan morris

Jan Morris, at home in North Wales. Photo: Antonio Olmos/The Observer


She died nothing less than a legend.

“The greatest distance traveled by Jan Morris, who has died aged 94, was not across the Earth’s surface but between extraordinary identities: from being the golden-boy newspaper reporter James Morris to the female voyager and historian Jan Morris.

“She became an institution after having experienced the world, and herself in it, change radically in a lifetime,” The Guardian wrote in a paean obituary of the writer.

The more things stay the same, the more things change. In western reports of Himalaya climbs, Sherpas now play foreground roles. The first all-Black expedition to climb Mt. Everest succeeded this past season.

full circle everest

The Full Circle Everest team. Photo: Full Circle


And it turned out James Morris wouldn’t be the only person to both change their gender identity and pursue their ambitions on Mt. Everest.

If you’re like me, you were surprised to learn that Norgay and Hillary’s news broke on the same historic day that Queen Elizabeth II first donned her crown. And if you’re like me, you hope the next generation of young world leaders — symbolic or not — preside over a lot more occasions for celebration and camaraderie.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.