Compared to the years of endeavour and death that preceded it, the 1953 conquest of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay was something of a formality. It was a bit like the breaking of the sound barrier six years earlier. Few had doubted that supersonic speeds were technically possible; indeed the sonic boom had been heard well before the barrier was officially declared broken. In both mid-century feats, international rivalry provided a powerful stimulus. So did war, interrupting the funding and publicity that sustained such attempts yet hastening the inventions and refinements that facilitated them. ‘To boldly go where no man went before’ was its own justification. It presumed that the going was feasible, that others were trying it and that they might just get there first.
Famously George Mallory and Andrew Irvine may in fact have reached the summit of Everest in 1924. Over the previous three years they and a host of other pioneers cracked all the main logistical problems, such as reaching the elusive mountain and enlisting the high-altitude endurance skills of