What was embarrassing? They did the right thing by recognizing the guy that made it to the top. What was embarrassing, humiliating and insulting was clearly that Tenzing wasn't invited over to the White House.
Photograph by George W. Hales, Getty Images
Published May 29, 2013
Mount Everest was recognized as Earth's highest mountain in 1852, and ever since it has challenged the imagination of mountaineers.
Soaring over 29,000 feet (8,850 meters), it was for many years virtually inaccessible, guarded by two closed kingdoms, Nepal and Tibet. It was also practically insurmountable, its untrodden snows awaiting the development of modern climbing gear and techniques.
Starting in the 1920s, though, a handful of expeditions won permission to attempt ascents. Some only glimpsed the mountain towering in the distance; others climbed to within a thousand feet of the summit before being beaten back by bad weather and worse luck.
In 1953 a British expedition, led by Colonel John Hunt, made a fresh assault. On May 29, two of its members, New Zealand's Edmund Hillary and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, finally crested the peak, becoming the first men ever known to stand there and gaze, transfixed, at the sublime panorama below.
Headline-Making Team Effort
The successful ascent of Mount Everest made world headlines and the climbers received a slew of accolades, including knighthood for John Hunt and Edmund Hillary by the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II.
The trustees of the National Geographic Society also joined in praising the explorers. Appreciating the group effort involved, they decided to confer the Society's most distinguished award, the Hubbard Medal, on the entire British Mount Everest expedition—the first time a group had been so recognized.
It seemed a fitting gesture given that Hillary and Norgay's accomplishment had been the culmination of a massive team effort. The Everest expedition consisted of 15 team members and hundreds of porters and Sherpas, who assisted with logistics and the transportation of gear. Expedition leader Hunt had picked his crew carefully from a large pool of eager applicants. His criteria were stringent.
Potential expedition members had to be experienced climbers between the ages of 25 and 40 and in superior physical condition. They were also required to possess an "unusual endowment of selflessness and patience."
In his July 1954 National Geographic article, "Triumph on Everest," Hunt described the members of his accomplished crew. They included Charles Evans, an "imperturbable" 33-year-old surgeon; Tom Bourdillon, a "hefty physicist of 28"; Alfred Gregory, the "thin but wiry" director of a travel agency; Charles Wylie, a 32-year-old officer who had survived three years in a Japanese prison camp; and George Lowe, a schoolteacher with a "great reputation for ice technique."
Last, but certainly not least, there was Edmund Hillary, the lanky, dynamic 33-year-old beekeeper from Auckland, New Zealand, who would steal the spotlight. In the months of publicity that followed the expedition, the press and public lauded Hillary—a dashing mountaineer, and the first man to the summit—while neglecting Hunt, much to Hillary's chagrin. The Hubbard Medal ceremony seemed like a perfect opportunity for Hunt to receive the credit and exposure he deserved.
Gathering at the White House
The ceremony certainly had all the trappings of a grand event. It was to take place at the White House, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower had let it be known that he took particular pride and pleasure in presenting the medals himself. A camera crew from the CBS network would be there to film the ceremony for the television news. In front of the eyes of the American public, Hunt and Hillary would accept the medals on behalf of the expedition.
On the morning of February 11, 1954, the official party gathered in the late morning chill at the northwest gate of the White House. Joining Hunt and Hillary were the British and New Zealand ambassadors and such Society luminaries as Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, Dr. Thomas W. McKnew, and Melville Bell Grosvenor.
The celebrated climbers were also there, tired but excited. They had arrived at Union Station in Washington, D.C., well after 2:00 a.m., but were still eagerly anticipating the noon ceremony.
Things Get Awkward
As soon as they were ushered into the Oval Office, however, things began to go wrong. In his memoir, View From the Summit, Hillary recalled the experience:
"After a brief wait a door opened and President Eisenhower entered with an aide beside him. He looked at us in a startled fashion and it was clear that he didn't have faintest idea who we were."
Once an aide jogged his memory by whispering hastily in his ear, Eisenhower welcomed the climbers warmly. But there was more awkwardness to come.
After everyone stepped into the White House conference room—crowded with newsreel, television, and newspaper photographers—Dr. Grosvenor made some introductory remarks. Eisenhower then took the gold medal, turned to Hunt, extended his hand, and began, "Sir Edmund..." Hillary was mortified and leaned over and whispered into the President's ear: "Sir John Hunt."
Eisenhower just as quickly recovered: "Er, Sir John, may I tell you that it is a very great privilege..."
Hunt, a respected military man and war hero, could only reply, quite truthfully, that he accepted the medal "with great humility."
"Sense of Disappointment"
If both explorers were now acutely embarrassed, worse was yet to come. The President turned to Sir Edmund to present him with his medal—and it was only then that the television lights came on and the cameras started rolling. When Hillary asked one of the camera crew why they had waited to start filming, his reply was: "You were the guy who got to the top."
This was injury enough, but insult was quick to follow as clamorous reporters induced Eisenhower to repeat his presentation to Hillary—and Hillary alone—to be sure they had a take.
Mortified for the sake of his teammate and leader, Sir Edmund refused to speak, hoping to deflect the attention from himself. But newspaper accounts instead chose to dwell on his attractive bashfulness. As a result, Hillary always remembered the occasion of his being awarded the Hubbard Medal with a great sense of disappointment.
However, there was more time in the spotlight to come for both men. Two days after the Hubbard ceremony, Hunt and Hillary joined other members of the expedition at Constitution Hall to give a lecture about their adventure on Everest. Demand for tickets was so intense that two sessions were held for a combined audience of over 7,000 people. It was the most popular event the Society had hosted since lectures by legendary explorers Robert E. Peary and Richard E. Byrd and aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Ceremony in Darjeeling
And what of Tenzing Norgay—the other guy who got to the top?
Half a globe away, the U.S. Ambassador to India and Nepal, George Allen, traveled to the Indian city of Darjeeling, nestled at the foot of the Himalaya amid breathtaking scenery.
There, on March 15, Allen presented National Geographic's Hubbard Medal to Tenzing Norgay. There is no evidence that any mix-ups marred the occasion.
"President Eisenhower expressly asked that his personal congratulations be extended to you for your splendid part in the conquest of Everest," the ambassador told the Sherpa, adding that the Hubbard Medal is possibly the world's greatest award for adventure.
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