‘Cakes & Prayers’: 60th anniversary for Mount Everest, Queen Elizabeth II and a unique interfaith celebration

WEDNESDAY, MAY 29, and SUNDAY, JUNE 2: The New York Times captured the spirit 60 years ago in its headline: “CAKES and PRAYERS.” The Times staff was scrambling to assemble scattered information on the first successful human ascent of the world’s highest mountain. The Times story described New Zealand beekeeper Edmund Hillary and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay as eating mint cake and offering prayers at the summit. It was a moment of “reverence and gratitude,” the Times reported, as “each man prayed in his fashion.” Hillary (1919-2008) was Christian; Norgay (1914-1986) was a devout Buddhist.

Around the world, the British Commonwealth still was recovering from World War II. The startling news of a human conquest of Everest’s deadly height snowballed into coverage of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Newspapers reported that the first news-flash to reach London of the Hillary-Norgay success was delivered personally to Elizabeth on the eve of her big own big event. Reporters described the Everest accomplishment as a coronation gift for the new queen.

These landmark anniversaries will be jointly commemorated this year when Hillary’s son, Peter, and Norgay’s son, Jamling, join Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Geographical Society in London.


In the months approaching the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt. Everest, climbers of every age and ethnicity have been heading to the mountain to break more records. In a book released in tandem with the anniversary, humanities professor Peter Hansen points out that human fascination with Everest is a powerful metaphor for our changing relationship with the environment. The book is titled The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment.Hansen argues that mountain peaks were viewed with awe and reverence throughout most of human history. Only with the Age of Enlightenment did popular culture shift toward “defeating” these massive works of nature.

We know you’re wondering: What are the latest stats for Mt. Everest climbs? Upward of 3,000 people have scaled the world’s tallest mountain since Hillary and Norgay—with more than 200 perishing in the attempt—but recently, more mountaineers than ever have been attempting to break records. Here’s the official list:

    • Oldest: Japanese climber and extreme skier Yuichiro Miura scaled Everest at age 80, just a couple of weeks ago—his third ascent of Everest since his 70th birthday.
    • Youngest: American Jordan Romero took on Everest at age 13 in May 2010.
    • Most frequent: Nepalese native Apa Sherpa has reached Mt. Everest’s top a record 21 times. “Super Sherpa” made his 21st climb in May 2011. Sherpa also is a global hero because of his work with the Eco Everest Expedition, the team that has brought down more than 12 tons of other climbers’ garbage over the past three years.
    • More 2013 firsts: Arunima Sinha became the first woman to climb Mt. Everest with prosthetic legs; meanwhile, Raha Moharrak became the first Saudi woman to top Everest, making a dent in the conservative Saudi view of women’s roles. Nepalese climber Chhurim (who, like most Sherpas, goes by just one name) became the first female to summit Everest twice in one season.

As pointed out by both scientists and Norgay’s grandson, Everest celebrations should also recall the crucial need to preserve the Himalayas. Tons of garbage has collected on the mountain from climbers through the years. The mountain’s runoff waters are vital to a large region during the dry season, so decomposing refuse can spell catastrophe for tens of thousands. Global warming is melting snow and ice atop the Himalayas at an increasing rate, causing glaciers to disappear faster every year. (The Guardian reports.)  After a 13 percent overall glacier shrinkage since Hillary and Norgay took to the peak—the climb is quite different now than it was 60 years ago.


Events surrounding the coronation went on for weeks and news stories popped up around the world day after day. In the era after World War II—but decades before the Internet—a “live television” broadcast from an unfolding news event was rare and exciting. The BBC network had been a pioneer in this technology and first broadcast a live TV show in 1929! But live on-the-scene news events were unknown until after World War II. In 1953, the crowning of Elizabeth was the first coronation ever broadcast live. (Watch a portion of that original broadcast on YouTube.)

On that day, 27-year-old Elizabeth rode the Gold State Coach through the streets of London, leaving Buckingham Palace to arrive at Westminster Abbey. Approximately 3 million spectators had been lining the streets overnight to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth, and more than 200 microphones had been stationed along the procession route. Foreign royalty and heads of state rode in a seemingly endless parade of carriages, as 750 commentators broadcast the events in 39 languages. (Learn 50 facts about the Queen’s Coronation from the official website of the British Monarchy.)

Despite objection by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Elizabeth had previously asked that her entire coronation be filmed by television cameras—with the exceptions of being anointed and taking communion. Before 8,000 live spectators and millions of television viewers, Elizabeth swore an oath to uphold the laws of her nations and to govern the Church of England. As Elizabeth left Westminster Abbey that day, guests sang out, “God Save the Queen.”


Sixty years isn’t the same as a 50-year or centennial milestone, so anniversary events vary widely. Most are regional in nature. Check news sources in your part of the world for events marking these 60th anniversaries. Many public television stations across the U.S. will be airing a three-part series on the life of Queen Elizabeth II called The Diamond Queen; some also will air a portion of the 1953 TV coverage of Elizabeth’s coronation. But, check your local TV guide for details and these programs will not air everywhere.

Popular media is buzzing over the royal baby’s due date of July 13—right in the middle of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation Festival. British newspaper also are reporting on the more serious role that the queen has played in recent history. The more conservative Telegraph newspaper headlined one story: “Only the Queen has Been Our Constant,” commenting on her loyal status through the ever-changing demands of the last six decades. The Telegraph also notes, in a separate story, that the next royal coronation will break longstanding tradition by making a place for people of faith outside of Christianity.

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