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Celebrating the first ascent of Mount Everest

12th May 19

You might already know that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first people to reach the top of Everest, but in EVEREST: THE STORY OF EDMUND HILLARY AND TENZING NORGAY, you learn what lies behind of each their successes.

Author Alexandra Stewart explores the challenges and the desire to achieve that lies behind both men's stories, and the luck and preparation that led to their achievement.


Q: What is your day job and what has your path been to becoming an author?

A: After leaving university, where I studied Modern History, I trained as a journalist. My first job was as the local reporter on the Wembley Observer reporting on a range of stories from outsized marrows at church fetes to gun crime.

After a stint on the London Evening Standard as a general news reporter I realised I was never going to be a high flying journalist - fundamentally because I hate bothering people! So, I crossed the floor to become a press officer for the Metropolitan Police.

From there I moved into the Civil Service where I have held a number of roles, including being a Ministerial Speechwriter and a Parliamentary Liaison Officer. I still work four days a week in the Civil Service and use my Mondays for writing.

Q: What inspired you to explore the lives of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay and how they came to climb Everest together?

A: My Mother was eight when Hillary and Tenzing scaled Everest. She actually went to the same school as Colonel John Hunt's daughter - Colonel John Hunt was the man who masterminded the 1953 expedition.

The ascent of Everest meant it was a seminal moment for children growing up in the post-war era and I remember her talking about it when I was a child. Although I obviously knew what Hillary and Tenzing had done, I had never appreciated quite who they were, why they had done it and how they had done it.

What's more, no children's book had been written telling both of their remarkable stories in tandem - at least I have not seen another! The centenary of Hillary's birth - he was born on 20 July 1919 - seemed liked an ideal time to tell that story.

Q: Which part of their story in particular did you want to explore, or did you feel was missing from earlier accounts of their accomplishments?

A: I wanted to tell the story of how these two remarkable men from incredibly different and unlikely backgrounds - one a bee keeper and the other a former yak herder - found themselves standing together on the roof of the world for the first time in its history.

Yet, as I explored further, I discovered that they had far more in common than I had previously thought. Firstly, unlike the majority of those on previous Everest expeditions, neither was born into wealth and privilege. Life had dealt them some rough hands in the past. Both had battled through bitter disappointments and serious setbacks - personally and professionally on their journey to Everest. Secondly, and rather obviously, both had a deep love of, and fascination for, mountains and climbing.

But, above all, they both had the hunger, razor-sharp discipline, and unshakeable self-belief to keep pushing to the top. Despite all this, they were both humble and modest about their achievement. They were the perfect team.

Q: How much did you know about their lives and the ascent before you started writing the book?

A: In all honesty, I knew very little. I started by reading Hillary's autobiography - which had been gripped from the first line. It was incredibly powerful and such a thrill to read.

Then I read Tenzing's autobiography - which was actually ghost written by the American James Ramsey Ullman. It is based on a series of conversations between Tenzing and Ullman which were conducted via an interpreter. So, as a result, you are reading Ullman's voice, rather than Tenzing's, and there are, inevitable, mistakes and gaps in the story.

Some of these mistakes are also down to the fact that Tenzing himself was vague about his early life. This was because history in Tibetan culture was oral rather than written. What's more, Tibetan and Western calendars differed - which makes pinning historical dates down difficult. Tenzing was never actually sure of his own date of birth.

Luckily, an amazing writer, journalist and mountaineer called Ed Douglas has written a painstakingly researched biography of Tenzing, which uses first hand information from Tenzing's daughter - Pem Pem. So I have a lot to thank Ed for.

Q: Why did you decide to feature all the teamwork that goes into this kind of achievement?

A: One of the recurring phrases used in Col John Hunt's account of the expedition was the "Pyramid of Human Effort". This was the idea that the summit pair - Hillary and Tenzing - could not have achieved what they did without the hard work and sacrifice of countless others.

Everyone was crucial - from their fellow climbers to the Sherpas, porters, scientists, manufacturers, fundraisers, diplomats and their own families. The list of those who contributed to this achievement is seemingly endless.

Crucially, they could not have got there without learning from the experiences and sacrifices of the expedition teams that had gone before them. All of these previous expeditions provided clues that would eventually help solve the puzzle of Everest.

It was truly a team effort which is why Tenzing and Hillary were always bemused by the curiosity surrounding who had got to the top first - it simply was of no consequence. It was everyone's victory - not just one man's.

Q: Were there things you discovered that you hadn't known before and which stood out for you?

A: The life stories of Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were awe-inspiring. They show just what a seemingly ordinary person can achieve with a dream, some courage and a lot of determination.

I was also struck by the resilience both showed in the face of extreme sadness. I hadn't appreciated that both Hillary and Tenzing both lost their wives and a child in tragic circumstances. Yet, they managed, somehow, to carry on and achieve amazing things with their lives.

Beyond that, I was flabbergasted by the scale of the physical and mental challenge that climbers face on Everest. Back then, the challenge was all the greater because climbing equipment and scientific knowledge of climbing at such great altitude were clearly much less advanced than they are today. For instance, until Hillary took off his mask on the summit to take a photograph, experts weren't sure it was possible to survive on the top of Everest without supplementary Oxygen.

Q: What have you learned, through your research, about Everest today?

A: Something I wasn't able to cover in the book - due to the word limit - was the environmental impact of climbing Everest. In a typical year now, more than 600 people reach the summit of Everest, which is roughly half of the number who attempt it.

Around 100,000 people - most of whom are trekkers - visit the region each year. All of this places a huge strain on the environment. In fact, Everest has been called "the highest rubbish dump in the world". The commercialisation of Everest saddened Hillary - who, in 2003, called on the world to give Everest a rest.

Q: How did you respond to Joe Todd-Stanton's illustrations?

A: I was incredibly lucky that Joe was willing and able to do the illustrations - he has such a busy schedule and is much in demand.

His drawings are beautiful, charming and entertaining. I love his little details - like the expression on the face of the Yeti as he looks through a window, or, on the final page, the little Nepalese boy sitting on a wall making a peace sign, as Ed and June Hillary stand in front.

Joe's own enthusiasm and charm come through in each picture and really bring the text to life.

Q: What would you like younger readers to take away from reading Everest?

A: It sounds cliched - but the inspiration to pursue their dreams and ambitions, whatever they may be.

Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norway were not born to climb Everest - far from it. Instead, they forged their own path to the top by putting their head down, gritting their teeth and making the most of every opportunity that came their way. This is a lesson for people of all ages - not just younger readers.

I also hope the book sparks their appreciation for the remarkable world in which we live.

(Image of Alexandra Stewart - Copyright Owen Cooban)


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