55 years ago we reached the highest point on Earth – now what about the lowest?

Atop Everest ¦ CNN/AP File

Edmund Hillary, the first human to reach the summit of Everest, died last week 

55 years ago humans had reached the two poles, discovered the Northwest Passage, and successfully sailed across the Atlantic without falling off the end of the world. The only ‘first’ left on Planet Earth for explorers was ascending the world’s highest peak: Everest (map). After thirty years of failed attempts and tragic deaths, on May 29 1955, Edmund Hillary (later to be knighted by a young Queen Elizabeth of England) and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay finally reached the summit of the world.

So it was over half a century ago that we reached the peak of the world, but what happened about descending to the lowest point on our planet? The problem is that you can’t just grab a few oxygen tanks and a thick coat to descend to the Mariana Trench (map), 11km (6.8 miles) below sea level. The extreme pressure (1000 times greater than at sea level) would mean a person descending so low would essentially implode. Not too easy to plant a flag then. In fact, a U.S. Navy expedition sent two men down to the bottom of the trench back in 1960 in a submersible, but no-one has ever returned since.

 It is often (and correctly) said that we know more about the surface of the Moon, hundreds of thousands of miles away, than the deep oceans just miles from us humans. Surely Edmund Hillary, great mountaineer as he was, would love to think that over then next 55 years, the other extreme of out planet will become as well known and as well explored as Everest. 

Fast forwarding five decades, Hillary passed away on Friday January 11 2008, over twenty years after his companion Norgay. Many say he was a ‘true celebrity’ – a man who achieved something great, and then used his fame to help the world, very unlike the celebrities of today. From his roots as a New Zealand beekeeper, Hillary devoted much of his life after Everest to helping the Sherpa people, bringing hospitals and schools to their villages. He will be greatly missed.

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