How to

25 November 2016

The Little-Known Base Layer of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, 1953

In 2014, Dutch ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof tried to climb Everest in just a pair of shorts. He got to 6,700 m, but had to turn back when an old injury re-emerged. Nevertheless, the point arises: until Hof, climbers tended to rely on their equipment to stay alive on Earth’s highest mountain. Two such old-timers were Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary who, on 29 May 1953, became the first humans to reach the summit. Looking back on the feat over half a century later, one could be forgiven for thinking it remarkable that Norgay and Hillary made it without modern clothing. But did they?

Standing 8,848 m above the sea, where the highest recorded wind speed is 175 mph and the average temperature is -20 to -35 degrees centigrade, Mount Everest is apparently quite nippy. Indeed, although the climbers chose the opportune window in which to go for the summit (the end of May, to coincide with the highest possible temperature at the start of the annual monsoon), it was still deathly cold. Norgay and Hillary therefore donned the best apparel the ‘50's had to offer. So, what exactly were they wearing?

Under their thin, wind-proof ‘cotton wrap, nylon weft’ outer layer, which itself pales in comparison to the type of fully-body suits worn by today’s climbers, the climbers were kept warm by various layers of clothing – one of which was, perhaps surprisingly, synthetic underwear.

The base layer is arguably the most important. Today, we have synthetics everywhere: vests, shorts, leggings, socks and gloves stretch tight over the body in a fabric, IsoTherm hug. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Norgayand Hillary also wore synthetic thermals – or ‘long underwear’, as it was called – made by a Chicago-based company called Duofold. It was a new fabric in the early 1950's, replacing cotton and coarse wool. Indeed, Duofold supplied thermals for (funny story) all 312 members of the Norgay-Hillary expedition, despite thinking at first that roughly 12 sets would suffice.

The 1950's were a decade of innovations in clothing. Nylon stockings had been invented already; as had the material polyester (specifically, a fabric called Terylene), invented by the Brits in 1941. But it took until 1953 for another American company, DuPont, to buy the polyester patent and begin mass-production following the uptake elsewhere of acrylic in 1950. Indeed, it’s polyester from which most synthetic base layers are made today (or a derivation thereof).

Undoubtedly, such materials gave Norgay and Hillary an edge on previous expeditions; but we should remember that equipment isn’t everything. Climber Graham Hoyland, for instance, has provided evidence that the clothing worn by George Mallory and Sandy Irvine may have been sufficient to allow a climber to reach the summit in 1924. Nobody knows whether they made it, however, because they both died on the expedition; and Hoyland himself didn’t summit the mountain when the test was conducted in 2006.

Still, it’s a testament to the quality of modern equipment that nowadays even moderately skilled climbers face less of a challenge than did Norgay and Hillary. Indeed, it seems that anybody in half-decent shape with a wad of cash lying around can rise to the challenge.

Let’s not forget, then, that Norgay and Hillary were two very hardy mountaineers; and that modern coats really are substantively warmer than their predecessors. Still, base layers remain incredibly important; and have proven to be a huge step forward toward conquering ‘not themountain, but ourselves’ (to paraphrase).



James Stannard

James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London.