Climbing the highest point on earth

How Swiss footwear contributed to the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953

Mountains have always attracted human beings

They evoke the urge to climb them, to perceive our environment from above, and to be as close to the sky as possible. Although aircraft permit this with less effort, climbing mountains remains a desired pure experience, encompassing body, mind, and spirit.
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"Mountaineering can be hiking through wide mountain meadows, roaming through mysteriously luminous forests and climbing harmless mountain heights. But mountaineering is also the storming of towering rock and ice giants in a combative effort of all physical and mental strength. Above the clouds, the mountaineer climbs towards the radiant heights, leaving the sorrows and worries of this earth deep below him."
Film ‘Ruf der Berge’ (1955)

A crew member of the Swiss Everest expedition (1952) by UnknownUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

Footwear is an integral part of any hiking equipment

Shoes support the wearer to stand firmly and move freely, while being comfortable and feeling at ease in the social context. Hiking boots offer our feet protection and stability on often uneven grounds and rocky trails.

A crew member of the Swiss Everest expedition (1952) by UnknownUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

Our shoes do not only match the physical context of use by fitting ergonomically, but also pursue communicative goals. They help us to operate simultaneously in the physical and the semiotic space, oscillating between function and expression.

Camp II on Khumbu glacier in front of Mt. Pumori (1952) by UnknownUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

Mount Everest - a place of longing

A place of longing for many avid mountain goers is ‘the roof of the world’, Mt. Everest. Since the early 1920s, numerous countries engaged in a race to be the first to reach the summit of the highest mountain on earth, on 8.849 metres above sea level. 

Mount Everest

Five crew members of the Swiss Everest spring expedition (1952) by UnknownUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

A stone’s throw away from the peak of Mt. Everest

A nation of alpinists almost took the triumph: with the support of the local Sherpas, the Swiss Himalaya expedition of spring 1952 was the first to overcome a broad crevasse, which had prevented previous expeditions from advancing.

A crew member of the Swiss Everest expedition wearing crampons while overcoming a crevasse, Unknown, 1952, From the collection of: USI Università della Svizzera italiana
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A crew member of the Swiss Everest expedition resting at the 'Geneva spur', Unknown, 1952, From the collection of: USI Università della Svizzera italiana
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A crew member of the Swiss Everest expedition wearing crampons and using an oxygen device, Unknown, 1952, From the collection of: USI Università della Svizzera italiana
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A crew member of the Swiss Everest expedition overcoming a crevasse and wearing a heavy backpack, Unknown, 1952, From the collection of: USI Università della Svizzera italiana
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«It was the closest that men had been to the moon. They were going to a place that no one had ever been to, not knowing if they would ever come back.»
Sherpa Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (2023)

A camp of the Swiss Everest expedition (1952) by UnknownUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

However, not even 250 metres from the peak, the Swiss team was forced to turn around. This was due to a mixture of exhaustion, bad weather and lack of oxygen, or due to the will of the Gods, as Sherpa Tenzing Norgay put it.

A member of the Swiss expedition tells his experience

Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay on the South-East ridge below Mt. Everest (1953-05-28) by Alfred GregoryUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

The first humans to set foot on Mt. Everest

In the following year, Tenzing made another attempt, as member of the British Everest expedition. This time he was successful: on 29 May 1953, Edmund Hillary (1919-2008) and Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986) became the first humans to set foot on the summit of Mt. Everest.

Technologists working on the prototypes of the boots for the British Everest expedition (1952) by UnknownUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

The boots worn by the British crew

An important contribution to the British success was made by their good preparation and equipment. Particular attention was paid to the mountaineers’ footwear. The interplay of different aspects had to be taken into account to create a shoe capable of challenging the extremes.

Special attention was given to the weight of the boots
“One pound’s weight on the feet was equivalent to five pounds on the shoulders.”
Charles Wylie, organising secretary to the British Everest expedition (1953)

The boots worn by the crew members of the British Everest expedition (2010-01-08) by Phil Sheldon ABIPPUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

The materials had to be hardwearing and lightweight at the same time. They needed to provide comfort by avoiding too much pressure and protect the wearer from weather and temperatures. The soles were expected to be both sturdy and flexible and allow grip for safe steps.

An exact fitting was crucial
“Special lasts had to be made for the Sherpas from typical diagrams and foot measurements sent by the Himalayan Club in Darjeeling. Some Sherpas taking size 6 boots had wider feet than Hillary’s size 12!”
Charles Wylie, organising secretary to the British Everest expedition (1953)

A mountaineer presents the British expedition’s footwear

Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Mt. Everest (1953-05-29) by Sir Edmund HillaryUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

However, Sherpa Tenzing wore Swiss boots on the summit

Different from Hillary and the other crew members of the British Everest expedition, Tenzing decided to bring his own shoes: a pair of reindeer fur boots, handmade by the Swiss company Bally. The boots were provided to him when he was a crew member of the 1952 Swiss expedition.

Interior view of the Bally upper factory, sewing department (1950) by Wolf-Benders ErbenUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

From Switzerland to the world

The Bally shoe factories, founded in 1851, were at the forefront of developing mountain and sports shoes. Besides conducting research in the local Alps and in their laboratories, the company has gained knowledge from equipping various expeditions with footwear since the 1930s.

boots (1950/1959) by Bally Shoe Factories LTDUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

Is one pair of shoes enough to climb Mt. Everest?

For the 1952 ascent to Mt. Everest, various shoe models were needed that had to meet the most different requirements. The Bally shoe factories puzzled out four models, each with their own characteristics. Let us take a look at them.

Hiking boots

From Kathmandu to the foot of the mountains, the climate was subtropical, warm, and humid. The hiking boots had to endure heat, dust, rain, mud, and stony paths. Through a suede leather upper and a thin profile rubber sole, the shoes were light and comfortable.

Camp boots

From the high valleys to the base camp, the boots were daily in the snow. In the sun, the snow could melt and during the monsoon on the way back heavy rains were expected. The camp boots were fully waterproof and had seams made from nylon, which was resistant to moisture.

Mountaineering boots

The next stage was covered in snow with an icy crust. The mountaineering boots had a non-slip rubber sole with a solid profile. The sole was glued on to avoid cold conduction through metal screws and thus frostbitten feet. The leather surface was made to resist heavy use.

Reindeer fur boots

The heights over 8000 MASL paired freezing temperatures, heavy winds, and very little oxygen in the air. The reindeer fur boots provided excellent protection against the cold and were lightweight to prevent fatigue. They were suitable both for walking, as well as for climbing.

A member of the Swiss expedition presents his hiking shoes

Three Sherpas in Camp III wearing fur boots (1950s) by UnknownUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

How did the reindeer fur boots convince Tenzing?

The reindeer fur boots were the first shoes that stood on the highest point on earth, together with the British boots. What made them unique 70 years ago is worth a closer look.

Bally reindeer fur boot worn by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on the first ascent of Mt. Everest (2021) by Lifestyle Tech Competence CenterUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

Materials

The boot’s exterior was made of reindeer fur: it had a natural water repellent coat, which insulated against the cold, and retained heat, while avoiding condensation. Demarcated by a felt interlayer, the inner sheath was of military-calfskin.

Soles

Tenzing stood on vulcanised Sparta rubber soles. On the one hand, this outsole was sturdy and provided good stability. On the other hand, it had an elastic, soft tread and good adhesion, which made it ideal for climbing. The separate midsole was of lightweight cork.

Fit

Impeccable shoe size and width was essential. An extra-warm inner boot in felt assured the perfect fit and protection against the cold. A new hook lace-up system located on the boot’s front made it easier for climbers to adjust their boots even under extreme conditions.

Add-ons

The reindeer fur boots were often covered with a cotton overboot for extra protection. Tenzing, for example, had detachable gaiters. In case of icefall, crampons could be attached. 

The reindeer fur boot

Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary drink tea in the Western Cwm (1953) by George BandUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

Did you know that Tenzing kept his boots on while sleeping?

Hillary debated: keeping the shoes on meant an uncomfortable night, but warm feet in the morning. He opted for soft slumber and possibly frozen boots. The next morning, his boots were hard as iron and thus impossible to put on. He needed to defrost them over the cooker’s flame.

Sherpa Tenzing Norgay visits the Bally Doelker store (1953-07-18) by COMET ZürichUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

An artefact for the museum?

Bally requested Tenzing to provide them with his reindeer fur boots, in order to exhibit them in their shoe museum in Schönenwerd, Switzerland. As a compensation, they offered him a new pair. However, Sherpa Tenzing friendly declined.

“Mr. Tenzing has directed me to state that he has also kept a room separate where different equipments and all the presents that he received from various places are displayed. Visitors in great number come to see this and meet him. The boot is the only item most interesting to all, and this is the only thing with him to remind him of Switzerland and the Swiss Expeditions which he accompanied so many times. For this reason only he regrets to inform you of the refusal of your request. Hope you will not mind for it.”
B. N. Pradhan, secretary to Sherpa Tenzing, in a letter to Bally (01.11.1953)

The re-edition of the reindeer fur boots worn in a Bally menswear look (2013) by Bally Shoe Factories LTDUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

From exploration to fashion, from function to communication

The 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt. Everest was celebrated with a special collection by the Swiss company. The replica of the boots worn by Tenzing, ready-to-wear, and accessories were not destined for daring explorers, but for fashionable everyday people...

The Bally Peak Outlook Foundation 8x8000 expedition in front of Mt. Everest (2020-09) by Samir Jung ThapaUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

From expedition to tourism

Over the years Mt. Everest has attracted more and more people, which has led to major littering. The Swiss company has launched a not-for-profit entity to clean up the mountain: the Bally Peak Outlook Foundation.

Crew members of the Swiss Everest expedition (1952) by UnknownUSI Università della Svizzera italiana

From toes to head

Footwear protects our feet and gives us the freedom to explore our world. We choose it according to our surroundings: functional boots for sports, and fashionable shoes to express our values or status in other activities. But the distinction becomes blurred in everyday life...

Credits: Story

This story was created as part of a research on the very nature of footwear and its connection with explorations, sport and tourism.

Footage has been provided by the following institutions:
Archive of the Bally Shoe Factories LTD
Bally Peak Outlook Foundation
Royal Geographical Society
SATRA
Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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