On TV: Surviving Everest Tells of Triumph, Tragedy

April 24, 2003

Fifty years after the first successful ascent of Mount Everest, take a remarkable journey back to the Summit with the sons of three legendary Everest climbers—Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Barry Bishop, one of the first Americans to reach Everest's peak. Experience the dangers and drama of Everest, and uncover untold stories of tragedy, triumph, and rivalry that color this mountain's history—"Surviving Everest," airs on April 27, 2003 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. (NGC will encore "Surviving Everest on the 50th Anniversary of the first Summit on May 29 at 8 p.m. ET/PT).

Mount Everest, the crown of the Himalayas, is a sacred peak, revered by the Sherpas who live in the villages nestled in the valleys far below. Everest is known to the Sherpas as Chomlungma, "Goddess Mother of The World."

Over the last century, the towering 29,035 foot (8850 meter) mountain has proven formidable to mountaineers. Those who attempt to stand on top of the world do so at great risk from sub-zero cold, gaping crevasses, avalanches, and the falling ice. Once they near the top, climbers face a steep, knife-edged ridge to the final crest. Some of those who climb the world's highest mountain pay the ultimate price—her slopes have taken the lives of 175 mountaineers.

At 28,000 feet, the rarified air contains just one-third as much oxygen as at sea level, requiring that most climbers use oxygen tanks. Scientists believe that Everest's peak is about as high as humans can ascend without wearing a pressurized suit. When this extreme environment is combined with powerful winds and bone-chilling cold, the mix can prove lethal.

During the filming of "Surviving Everest," two cameramen got caught in a collapse in the Khumba Icefall on their way down from the team's first failed summit attempt. They barely escaped being crushed by huge ice blocks. Rattled by the experience, the film crew was unable to reach the Summit and descended to Base Camp. The National Geographic 50th Anniversary Expedition leader Pete Athans—who has summited Everest more than any Westerner—took over filming from Camp II, capturing the team's final ascent to the Summit. One of the team's Sherpas, Kami Sherpa, shot some critical footage at Camp IV on the South Col.

Top of the World

Everest first seduced western climbers in the early 20th century. In 1920, the first permit to ascend one of the world's last great exploration challenges was granted to the British, and the race to the "Third Pole" began.

In the thirty-two years that followed, seven major expeditions pushed the limits of human endurance in attempts to reach the summit—and failed. These expeditions were outfitted with comparably primitive equipment and faced extreme challenges.

Then in May 1953, 33 year-old New Zealand beekeeper Edmund Hillary and 39-year old Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, became the first humans to stand atop Earth's highest peak, five and a half miles above sea level.

Ten years later, National Geographic Magazine photographer Barry Bishop was part of the first American expedition—sponsored by the National Geographic Society—to summit Everest. Although Bishop reached the Summit and came back alive, he paid a price—he lost all his toes and the tips of several fingers to frostbite from severe sub-zero weather during his descent.

On the same expedition, two other Americans, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld successfully pioneered a route to the Summit up the perilous West Ridge. Since their astounding achievement, the West Ridge has been successfully climbed just six times out of 40 attempts—and 23 people have died there. Climbing Everest altered each of their lives forever.

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