Edmund Hillary snapped a picture of his companion, Tenzing Norgay. (The historic gesture wasn't returned, Hillary later explained, because he didn't think Norgay had ever seen a camera.) On the giant mountain revered by natives as Chomolungma, they made offerings, urinated, and then headed back down the trail. Hillary greeted a fellow team member at the camp below with the words, "Well, George, we've knocked the bastard off."
Climbing has come a long way since Hillary and Norgay -- uncertain if they could even survive at such a height -- first set foot in the virgin snowpack. More and more sports enthusiasts are tromping up the slopes to knock the bastard off, often causing thin-air traffic jams and robbing the peak of much of its mystique.
Still, there's something mythic about the initial conquest. Hillary, an international icon, was knighted and remains a hero to the Nepalese people for his various medical philanthropies. And the late Norgay's exploration legacy continues through his son, who summitted Mt. Everest in 1996.
Celebrations are springing up around the world to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the climb. A Chinese mountaineering expedition recently televised live images of their oxygen-masked climbers from the top of the world. Other tributes include a large banquet of Everest summiteers set for next month in San Francisco. Yet Coloradans are relatively low-key about this high achievement.
"I think there will be many celebrations in Nepal, but I don't think here so much," says Shyam Shrestha, who came to this country fourteen years ago and now runs the Mt. Everest restaurant at 1533 Champa Street. He and a few friends (an estimated 2,500 Nepalese natives live in Colorado) might offer a toast to mark the date, Shrestha says. But while he enjoys the Rocky Mountains, he's drawn back to the Himalayas -- and plans to lead a trek to Mt. Everest's base camp next fall.
"It's of interest here, but I don't think people will go out to climb a fourteener on that date," says Mark Cantor of Boulder's Neptune Mountaineering. But then, they could be saving themselves for the June 12 screening at the Boulder Theater of Farther Than the Eye Can See, the documentary that followed Golden's Erik Weihenmayer as he became the first blind climber to reach Everest's top.
Books on Everest are also flooding the market, with a dozen or more new volumes out to tempt armchair adventurers.
For those who lack the cash for a plane trip to Nepal -- and perhaps even the bucks to buy a new book -- but still want a real sense of the ascent, the true path to enlightenment leads to the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Club library, located in a refurbished school at 710 10th Street in Golden.
"We get a lot of people coming in here to read journals and even research their own climbs," says assistant librarian Elaine Perkins. "They want to know what they'll find over there."
What they'll find in Golden is one of the foremost alpine collections anywhere; the rare-book room alone contains thousands of items. There are hundreds of books, pieces of correspondence and other bits of paraphernalia relating to Hillary and Norgay's climb. (The club's scale model of the world's highest peak may someday be brought out of storage as part of a planned mountaineering museum.) Admission to the library is free, but only club members may borrow circulating materials.
Anyone can dream, though, taking inspiration from Hillary's great accomplishment at the ceiling of the world.
"People look at other climbs closer to home," says Perkins, "but Mt. Everest still attracts attention." -- Ernie Tucker