Innovation Lessons from Mt. Everest – Being First

“Well George, we knocked the bastard off.” These were the first words of Edmund Hillary to his old friend George Low meeting him near the South Col of Mount Everest [i].

It was just after his historic climb with his Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on May 29th 1953. George welcomed Ed with hot tomato soup from a thermos flask. Hillary and Norgay were the first ones confirmed as having reached the summit of Mount Everest. Hillary’s book ‘View from the Summit’ describes his adventures in detail.

In the fifties, the route to Everest was closed by Chinese-controlled Tibet. Nepal only allowed one expedition per year. Hillary had been part of a British reconnaissance expedition to the mountain two years earlier in 1951. The 1953 Everest expedition consisted of a huge team of over 400 people, including 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides and almost 5.000 kilogram of baggage. Expedition leader Hunt named as the first assault team two British mountaineers: Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans.  Hillary and Norgay were the second assault team. Bourdillon and Evans attempted the climb but due to a failing oxygen system only reached the South Col, around 100 metres below the summit. Then Hillary and Norgay got their chance. A crucial last part of summiting Everest is a 12 meters rock face, which Hillary managed to climb. It’s now known as the Hillary Step. They reached the 8,848 meters high summit, the highest point on earth, at 11:30 am on May 29th 1953.

Reaching the highest point of the Earth is one of the greatest expeditions of mankind. It made Hillary famous. Reading Hillary’s ‘View from the Summit’ ten innovation lessons popped into my mind on being 1st.

1. Passion

As a youngster, Hillary was a great dreamer. He read many adventure books and walked many miles with his head in the clouds. He was unaware his passion of adventure would make him, together with Tenzing Norgay, the first man on the highest point of the Earth.

2. Urgency

In 1952 the British heard that in 1954 the French had been given permission to attempt Everest. They just had to be first. The expedition could not fail again.

3. Teamwork

Getting to the summit of Everest is all about teamwork. As Hillary wrote: “John Hunt and D Namgyal’s lift to the depot on the South-East Ridge; George Low, Alf Gregory and Ang Nyima with their superb support at Camp IX; and the pioneer effort by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon to the South Summit. Their contribution had enabled us to make such good progress”.

4. Courage

The Khumbu Icefall is the first major hurdle to cross at Everest. It is vast and unstable, and has claimed more lives than any other part of the South-East approach. The higher you get on Everest the more courage you need. At 7.800 metres Hillary wrote in his diary “Even wearing all my down clothing I found the icy breath from outside penetrating through my bones. A terrible sense of fear and loneliness dominated my thoughts. What is the sense of this all? I asked myself”.

5. Test

On the reconnaissance expedition of 1951 team members tested oxygen equipment and did research on high-altitude physiology. The results of both studies were important deciding on the right approach for Everest in 1953.

6. Initiative

Hillary read in a newspaper in India that the British were taking an expedition to the south side of Mount Everest in 1951. He wrote a letter to expedition leader Eric Shipton suggesting a couple of members of a New Zealand climbing expedition could make a substantial contribution to the team. And so two New Zealanders were invited. If you want something you have to take the initiative.

7. Choices

The British Himalayan Committee replaced the 1951 expedition leader Eric Shipton by Colonel John Hunt, a climber. After eight failed attempts on Everest they needed someone to get them on the top, before the French had their chance.

8. Overcome setbacks

Along the way there are always major setbacks. After the reconnaissance expedition of 1951, when they found a new route up Everest, the British heard that the Swiss had obtained permission for two attempts on Everest the following year. The only thing they could do was wait and see if the Swiss would succeed.

9. Competition

Who would be the top teams? And which of them would get a first chance? That was the question. Hunt proposed that Evans and Bourdillon should use the closed circuit oxygen equipment to reach the South Summit and Norgay and Hillary would push to the top with the open-circuit oxygen. Hillary describes the terms first – and second assault team as completely misleading.

10. Luck

With so many possible setbacks you also need some luck. As New Zealander Hillary first of all was lucky to be classified as a British subject and was therefore invited by the British. The second time Hillary was ‘lucky’ was when the Swiss had their chance on Everest in 1952, before the British Everest expedition of 1953. In their first attempt the Swiss climbed Everest up to 300 metres below the summit before they had to retreat from utter exhaustion. Autumn 1952 their second attempt only reached just above the South Col due to cold temperatures and strong winds, leaving Everest unclimbed.

Hillary was first on Everest. It changed his life. May his lessons inspire you to follow your passion and realise your innovation dreams. It inspired me to create the FORTH innovation map, a structured approach to innovation.

[i] Sir Edmund Hillary, ‘View from the Summit’, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000

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Gijs van Wulfen

Gijs van Wulfen leads ideation processes and is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. He is the author of Creating Innovative Products & Services, published by Gower.

Gijs van Wulfen




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No Comments

  1. divakarssathya on August 31, 2012 at 7:39 am

    One more. The exploration of the Everest was as not just the achievement of a solitary White male. The quest for excellence is not confined to members of a particular race, culture, religion or gender. So look everywhere. Follow me @divakarssathya

  2. Maud on February 19, 2014 at 10:08 am

    This is good reading material.

    I am looking for a specific team member of 1953 expedition (on psychological research) whom I met. Do you have a list of team members maybe? Or do you know who did psychological research in 1953? It is supposed to be people from NASA. Thanks!

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