Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon Sunday, July 20, 1969, at 10:56 p.m., signifying one of mankind’s greatest breakthroughs and accomplishments.
The date May 29, 1953, stands for another of mankind’s greatest breakthroughs and accomplishments though not as celebrated. When Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay summit Mount Everest’s 29,035 feet, doubts and fears similar to the Apollo 11 moon landing surrounded the mission. “We didn’t know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt. Everest . . . we weren’t at all sure whether we wouldn’t drop dead or something of that nature,” Hillary explained in the opening paragraph of Conqueror of Mt. Everest, the website celebrating the accomplishment.
The film BEYOND THE EDGE chronicles the true story of their extraordinary achievement with scenes filling the screen from Aoraki Mountain, Cook National Park, and Auckland, New Zealand along with, of course, Mount Everest, Sagarmatha National Park in Nepol. “Beyond endurance, beyond imagination,” the movie’s tagline, reveals a thrilling and informative account of just how it occurred. You are there.
There were “colossal expectations” on the expedition leader John Hunt’s shoulders similar to those on the manned space flights circling the moon. Ever hear of the name John Hunt? In one of the great historical sacrifices, he elected to have Hillary and Norgay attempt the summit when he knew, while on the expedition, that he could not. Even so, the Hillary Norgay team was not the first attempt; it turned out they were second-team.
The possibility, the wonderment achieving the summit ranks it with exploration of earth’s moon. Both exhibited large questions of doubt and fate while drawing great minds together to make them a reality. Though separated by some 16 years, an eternity in terms of modern development, both captured history’s imagination.
Consider Everest an earlier space race preceding the USA and Russian quest to land on the moon. This one promised as its reward becoming immortalized as the first human representing the first nation to stand atop earth’s highest point. The competition surrounding the making of that summit in the post World War II climate, its psychological importance, cannot be underestimated. Something so improbable over the decades as scaling “Mother Goddess of the Earth,” as the Sherpa’s call it, seizing romantic expeditions of dreams with outcomes ultimately causing dozens of deaths shares that fatal risk with space launches and flights. Expeditions, as the one Hunt formed that included Hillary, understood the threats, while members were willing to absorb that fear yet perform at an extraordinary level. In doing so, their imagination reminds the mortal “we” accomplishments of magnitude include perils.
The lessons exhibited by Hillary and the team he accompanied offer significant guidance in life along with business development for those willing to understand just how it came about. Here are 12 reveals buried in this film–there are many more–that find application to our own lives when needs demand “going the extra distance.”
1. Just because you lead a team does not mean you are the best. Learn the 26,000 feet altitude carries the title of “death zone,” not a place friendly for humans. Failing in the expedition’s first shot to the top, a football field away from immortality, Charles Evans arrived back in a “terrible state” while his teammate Tom Bourdinnion was left an emotional mess. “We should have gone on,” said Bourdinnion. Strong and experienced, the two made the South Summit. Hunt led his selections from the front but when the time came, only one shot left to land on the summit for this expedition, acknowledged the reality: he wasn’t strong enough for the last twosome. Having gone beyond his limit like Bourdinnion and Evans, an affliction Everest placed on all previous climbers, Hunt had to go down. He remarked, “I left Ed with the parting instruction not to give in.” Evans told Hillary, “That last ridge… I don’t know if you can do it.” It appeared insurmountable. Hillary gave Hunt his due by pointing out this lesson of leadership: “A great moment in the expedition, in which the leader sacrificed his own personal ambition… Never have I respected John Hunt more.”
2. The thing that gets you might lay tangentially to the perceived challenges. People die by falling off Mt. Everest, right? Yet more perish there by ice falls than anything else. Imagine facing an avalanche of huge ice spears or trailer-sized blocks from deep crevasses of waterfalls long frozen. “Things did collapse without warning” said Alfred Gregory, 1953 expedition member, “Things are always on the move, and it’s a dangerous place for that reason.” Hillary noted, “The ice fall was a constant hazard. We had no alternative but to make a route through country, which we knew to be unjustifiable in the ordinary Alpine climb.” Comments like this explain the reason: “Crazy… You’re dumb to be going up a route like that. But you just can’t go any other way but through the ice fall.” With a nod to Donald Rumsfeld, former United States Secretary Department of Defense, one relates to the “known unknowns.”
3. It is okay when afraid of failure and its consequences and why that is good. On his attempt Hillary said, “We climbed up it with a good deal of fear and trepidation… I’m frightened a great deal of the time when I’m in dangerous country, but I think being afraid is one of the important factors. It’s a stimulating factor.” In other words, intimidation may enhance concentration… as long as fear remains short of petrifying one. Another way to say it, “I didn’t have complete conviction we were going to be successful,” said Hillary. But he thought it is possible to climb it, and the mission’s success will occur “some day.”
4. Calling on courage if common sense screams “abandon now.” Hillary constantly weighed risks “as to whether something was justifiable or not,” though the decision to carry on did not seem clear. For the first time in his adventures, once Hillary saw the enormous risk and challenge to complete the last leg up to the summit, a deathly decision-point lay directly in the path of success. One has to admire the courage it required to continue, particularly once he “decided it wasn’t justifiable, but we still went on.
5. The crux is whether survival wins the prize. Says Hillary: “You’re right on the edge of what’s possible, and every step you take is putting you more into danger, so the temptation to turn around and go down is strong.” The movie explains, “If anything goes wrong up there, even a relatively minor accident can very rapidly slide into a fatal one.” To their left is the southwest face of Everest: “Immense. If you fell down that, you would probably fall all the way to the Western Col 8,000 feet below.” To the right? Hillary understates this with, “The even bigger precipice of the Kangshung Face, and that really concentrates the mind.” This choice falls somewhere between burning the bridges behind you so there remains no other alternative but to go on or just chucking it like a sensible person might.
The subject of death and dying fills volumes at the library, but Hillary simply explained it this way: “The thought of the process of dying is more unpleasant than the actual fact that you may be dead at the end of it.”
6. Technology won’t necessarily do what you hope. These guys didn’t fret their Garmins failing because, of course, there was no such thing in 1953. The ever-ready compass seemed a key piece to carry. The internet remained almost a decade away from public discussion until concept memos written by MIT genius J.C.R. Licklider surfaced. Watching from down below at Camp Four, the group peers anxiously through binoculars at anyone above them. No satellite photos were available to them since those did not first occur until six years later, August 14, 1959 by Explorer 6. Communication fell to the wayside as the group hoped to use their two-way radios: “Obviously we hoped to have our little walkie-talkies going right up to at least the South Col–probably the most barren spot in the world–but the one carried to the South Cwm didn’t work.” The camp could not follow the progress or travails or the first team until they came back down and shared whatever the news might be. IF they came back. No promise exists that a missing person or their remains will be found, and even if so, recovery made. On Hillary’s climb to the summit, he did not know how much oxygen remained. The possible scenario of having the summit right in front of you but not reaching it because your air gave out had to cloud the mind. Why this possibility? The tank “… only had a pressure gauge on it, so I never really knew… My brain was working fairly energetically working out just how much time we had left.” This is important because, “People die on a regular basis when their oxygen pack’s up.”
7. Potentially big solutions may materialize through intervention by others. On the last climb to the summit, Sherpa Norgay was dropping back. Hillary responded, “I suddenly noticed that Tenzing seemed to be in some distress.” His breath was coming at rapid rates. He might not survive the climb, and indeed the ascent would be doomed if he were to keel over. Hillary checked his tank and noticed “the outlet from his oxygen mask was almost completely blocked up with ice” so the oxygen supply to his body diminished. Clearing it, the problem averted, one questions why didn’t Norgay note the problem himself. Hillary explained, “Because you are suddenly hypoxic, and you’re not thinking straight.”
8. “No one has ever gone there before.” There are points in product development, research, writing or even life where, as in the ascent, “No one has ever gone there before.” No one has ever done this. In this case a straight-up climb towered over the two, a real threat for the summit. “Sir Ed took the gamble with ‘What the hell, I’m gonna go for it.'” He had to climb rock where the ice was frozen so his crampons held. “I was scared stiff,” and rightfully so. The penalty wasn’t a delay on a model launch date or the promotion that would win the corner suite; rather it was an 11,000 foot plummet for one’s last moments alive. His son said, “Dad was not really enjoying the conditions,” with great understatement of that cliff-climb, “You know, if he was back in the Southern Alps, he’d probably turn around and try it another day.” Surmounting that problem, they then climbed one hummock only to find another, then another, yet another. Finally… the summit. But the reward captured more than two people at the top. “The idea… is a quest, a romantic quest.” That a struggle, ranking with the toughest adventures in history, exudes romanticism places these conquests on a higher level, a different plane, than the person on the street ever imagines.
9. Listen up. Your internal voice may give you good advice. Hillary’s son, Peter, describes how self-talk worked in that cliff-climb of terror, where any slip amounted to sure death. “Then that little internal voice going, ‘Ed, my boy, this is Everest. You’ve got to go the extra distance.'” The movie describes, “There are times in life where you need to be bold and decisive. So much hung on Hillary’s ability to pull out all the stops, and he was able to give it that little extra.” Whether technology development or making a finish at a long ultra snowshoe trek, one would be well-served to recall those words he spoke as one’s own personal motivator: This project, goal or physical exertion is MY Everest; get it together and make that finish.
10. The pressure from others is real, generally unsaid. The pressure from others is real, generally unsaid, whether it be the members of the team back at Camp Four, investors in the deal, or all that supported your effort attempting a distance on foot that seems foreign and unreal. Consider as physical candidates those 100 mile trail races or blizzardy beasts like the Tuscobia Winter Ultras, Arrowhead 135 or Actif Epica, without forgetting the ungodly Iditarod Invitational. Hunt had to think, “What would we do if they failed.” But like Home on the Range, that immortal song of hope, no one expressed doubt in the camp, or as the song pines, “Never heard a discouraging word.”
11. Don’t give up, particularly when going up a hill. Such an easy thought to conjure, such a difficult one to hold dear. “There are certain human beings who are able to put one foot in front of another, you know, relentlessly, psychologically able to do it where as other people would fail.” This describes how Hillary led Tenzing on those last ridges called hummocks where, cresting one, there was yet another. The question stirred in their minds: when would this end? Indeed, Hillary admitted, “Well, I didn’t have the complete conviction that we were going to be successful. I was very aware of the fact that very good expeditions had attempted the mountain, and they got very high but had not succeeded.” Once cresting the top that morning, the two celebrating by “thumping one another on the back until out of breath,” Hillary looked at his watch for one of the most important notes ever: “It was 11:30.” They spent a few minutes there. Very aware of the oxygen supply, they turned for the descent, more dangerous in many ways than the ascent. In product language, since the product is ready now marketing and revenue begins. It is still quite dangerous; failure remains a big possibility but now on a bigger stage since the product already unveiled. You’ve made the summit, the first to do it. The stage is now going to get gigantic; don’t die coming back to camp. Many do; that’s no reward.
12. It’s good to offer thankfulness for accomplishment. “Tenzing dug a little hole in the snow where he put a gift to the gods,” looking every bit like a sort of yellow candy in the film. But what that signifies morphs into something larger, the thankfulness of accomplishment. Recognizing powers bigger than ourselves playing a role in whatever we choose to attempt seems to strengthen one. Offering just a few words works. Tenzing’s recognition of that through his humble offering remains a lesson all should remember during joyous celebrations of a product launch or passing an endurance finish line. Hillary exclaimed, “It was a tremendous moment for both of us” that Friday, May 29, 1953.
The top of Mount Everest, at 29,035 feet, ranks as the highest point on earth above the sea. To friend George Lowe, Edmund Hillary directly declared the challenge overcome with the now famous words, “We knocked the bastard off.”
BEYOND THE EDGE belongs on your shelf of important books and media. Each of the many times I screened it for this review, I learned more, a technique honed over the years. This film would place on my list “101 movies to watch 1001 times,” meaning it becomes a lifelong film that viewing again and again feels like visiting a friend.
ADDENDUM: Concluding the movie are resources used that may interest in you in other study and research.
“The Conquest of Everest” 1953 Studio Canal Films
“Everest the Ultimate Challenge 1922-1982” Quarry Lane Productions
HimalayanTrust.co.nz Founded 1980 by Sir Edmund Hillary. “To Sir Ed, his greatest achievement was not climbing Everest, but helping the people of Nepal.”