Seventy years ago in 1953, Hillary and Tenzing became the first explorers to reach the top of Mount Everest. Exposure to low temperatures and high winds on the summit was – and still can be – extremely difficult to cope with and the team was wearing gear that, by today’s standards would be considered quite basic. However, back then it was the best gear around, worked on by the best technologists in the business.
A particularly key component to the expedition team’s gear was their footwear. It was essential that whatever they wore on their feet was robust enough to protect them from the extreme weather conditions and frozen ground. So essential, in fact, that ensuring the right footwear came second only to oxygen provision when it came to working on the team’s safety.
Support from SATRA
Support came in the form of the British Boot, Shoe and Allied Trade Research Association (SATRA). The expedition team worked closely with SATRA to develop the best possible boots to protect the team’s feet while on the mountain.
The project was the first of its kind for SATRA. Many people found the resultant boots unusual, with a press release from that time stating:
“It’s rather difficult to describe the footwear being developed. To me, it resembles a blown-up football boot – in fact it looks more like a boot for the abominable snowman than for those going out to seek him.”
SATRA still has many documents from the project in its archives, including measurements of Sir Edmund Hillary’s feet, taken in order to make the boots as comfortable and effective as possible for him during his long trek. Similar measurements were taken for the whole team, including the sherpas, so that shoe lasts could be constructed and used to produce footwear that was tailored and fitted to each person individually. The boots had to be lightweight too – they ended up weighing just 1.9kg per pair – as they had to be carried when not being worn.
A number of boots actually worn during the expedition to Mount Everest now form part of the archives at SATRA. They still have mud on their soles. A cross-section of one of the worn leather boots shows how they were padded and lined using six layers of kapok – a natural fibre with natural water-repelling properties. Kapok also acted as insulation, its texture allowing plenty of air pockets to remain inside the footwear for warmth.
SATRA’s boots were only designed to be worn for the last 23,000 feet of the climb. They came with a disposable outer rubberised layer. The layer was designed to be worn lower down where there was still quite a lot of water on the ground. Once the climbers reached the higher altitudes, where ice and snow replaced the water, the layer would be cut away and disposed of.
Metal crampons were also provided to fit over the boots to protect the leather as the climb became more arduous. Other protective details included small discs placed at the end of each boot lace to prevent the laces from coming undone at an inopportune time.
Every aspect was thought out in detail to look after the expedition team members. Responses to them were highly favourable. According to one team member:
“The high-altitude boots were extremely successful. At no time during the first assault can I remember suffering from cold feet. As you will know, there were no feet frostbitten through the whole expedition.”
Glowing praise, indeed, and a true pioneer when it came to paving the way for the modern, high-performance footwear of today.
Content and images supplied by www.satra.com