View from the summit: Sir Edmund Hillary on Mt Everest ascent

In front of me was the rock wall, vertical but with a few promising holds. Behind me was the ice-wall of the cornice, glittering and hard but cracked here and there.

Everest from Pumori Ridge where Shipton and I saw the possible route up the mountain from the south

I took a hold on the rock in front and then jammed one of my crampons hard into the ice behind. Leaning back with my oxygen set on the ice, I slowly levered myself upwards.

Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Mount Everest at 11:30 am. Tenzing waves his ice-axe on which are strung the flags of the United Nations, Britain, Nepal, and India

Searching feverishly with my spare boot, I found a tiny ledge on the rock and took some of the weight of my other leg. Leaning back on the cornice, I fought to regain my breath. Constantly at the back of my mind was the fear that the cornice might break off and my nerves were taut with suspense. But slowly I forced my way up -- wriggling and jambing and using every little hold.

Sir Edmund Hillary at Lake Camp, April 17, 1953

In one place I managed to force my ice-axe into a crack in the ice and this gave me the necessary purchase to get over a holdless stretch. And then I found a solid foothold in a hollow in the ice and next moment I was reaching over the top of the rock and pulling myself to safety. The rope came tight -- its forty feet had been barely enough.

Tenzing and I at Camp IV the day after reaching the summit

I lay on the little rock ledge panting furiously. Gradually it dawned on me that I was up the step and I felt a glow of pride and determination that completely subdued my temporary feelings of weakness. For the first time on the whole expedition I really knew I was going to get to the top. ‘It will have to be pretty tough to stop us now’ was my thought. But I couldn’t entirely ignore the feeling of astonishment and wonder that I’d been able to get up with such difficulty at 29,000 feet even with oxygen. 

When I was breathing more evenly I stood up and, leaning over the edge, waved to Tenzing to come up. He moved into the crack and I gathered in the rope and took some of his weight. Then he, in turn, commenced to struggle and jam and force his way up until I was able to pull him to safety -- gasping for breath. We rested for a moment. Above us the ridge continued on as before -- enormous overhanging cornices on the right and steep snow slopes on the left running down to the rock bluff.

But the angle of the snow slopes was easing off. I went on chipping a line of steps, but thought it safe enough for us to move together in order to save time. The ridge rose up in a great series of snakelike undulations which bore away to the right, each one concealing the next. I had no idea where the top was. I’d cut the line of steps around the side of one undulation and another would come into view. We were getting desperately now and Tenzing was going very slowly.

I’d been cutting steps for almost two hours and my back and arms were starting to tire. I tried cramponing along the slope without cutting, but my feet slipped uncomfortably down the slope. I went on cutting. We seemed to have been going for a very long time and my confidence was fast evaporating. Bump followed bump with maddening regularity. A patch of shingle barred our way and I climbed dully up it and started cutting steps around another bump. And then I realized that this was the last bump, for ahead of me the ridge dropped steeply away in a great corniced curve and out in the distance I could see the pastel shades and fleecy clouds of the highlands of Tibet.

To my right a slender snow ridge climbed up to a snowy dome about forty feet above our heads. But all the way along the ridge the thought had haunted me that the summit might be the crest of a cornice. It was too late to take risks now. I asked Tenzing to belay me strongly and I started cutting a cautious line of steps up the ridge. Peering from side to side and thrusting with my ice-axe, I tried to discover a possible cornice, but everything seemed solid and firm. I waved Tenzing up to me. A few more whacks of the ice-axe, a few more very weary steps and we were on the summit of Everest.

Adventure’s end
It was 11.30 am. My first sensation was one of relief -- relief that the long grind was over; that the summit had been reached before our oxygen supplies had dropped to a critical level; and relief that in the end the mountain had been kind to us in having a pleasantly rounded cone for its summit instead of fearsome and unapproachable cornice. But mixed with relief was a vague sense of astonishment that I should have been the lucky one to attain the ambition of so many brave and determined climbers. It seemed difficult at first to grasp that we’d got there. I was too tired and too conscious of the long way down to safety really to feel any great elevation. But as the fact of our success thrust itself more clearly into my mind, I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction spread through my body -- a satisfaction less vociferous but more powerful than I had ever felt on a mountain top before. I turned and looked at Tenzing. Even beneath his oxygen mask and the icicles hanging from his hair, I could see his infectious grin of sheer delight. I held out my hand and in silence we shook in good Anglo-Saxon fashion. But this was not enough for Tenzing and impulsively he threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back in mutual congratulations.

But we had no time to waste! First I must take some photographs and then we’d hurry down. I turned off my oxygen and took the set off my back. I remembered all the warnings I’d had of the possible fatal consequences of this, but for some reason felt quite confident that nothing serious would result. I took my camera out of the pocket of my windproof and clumsily opened it with my thickly gloved hands. I clipped on the lenshood and ultra-violet filter and the shuffled down the ridge a little so that I could get the summit into my viewfinder. Tenzing had been waiting patiently, but now at my request, he unfurled the flags wrapped around his ice-axe and standing on the summit held them above his head. Clad in all his bulky equipment and with the flags flapping furiously in the wind, he made a dramatic picture and the thought drifted through my mind that this photograph should be a good one if it came out at all. I didn’t worry about getting Tenzing to take a photograph of me -- as far as I knew, he had never taken a photograph before and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how.

I climbed up the top again and started taking a photographic record in every direction. The weather was still extraordinarily fine. High above us were long streaks of cirrus wind cloud and down below fluffy cumulus hid the valley floors from view. But whenever we looked, icy peaks and sombre gorges lay beneath us like a relief map. Perhaps the view was spectacular to the east, for here the giants Makalu and Kanchenjunga dominated the horizon and gave some idea of the vast scale of Himalayas. Makalu in particular, with its soaring rock ridges, was a remarkable sight; it was only a few miles away from us. From our exalted viewpoint I could see all the northern slopes of a mountain and was immediately struck by the possibility of a feasible route to its summit. With a growing feeling of excitement, I took another photograph to study at leisure on returning to civilization. The view to the north was a complete contrast -- hundreds of miles of the arid high Tibetan plateau, softened now by the veil of fleecy clouds into a scene of delicate beauty. To the west the Himalayas stretched hundreds of miles in a tangled mass of peaks, glaciers and valleys.

But one scene was of particular interest. almost under our feet, it seemed, was famous North Col and the East Rongbuk Glacier, where so many epic feats of courage and endurance was were performed by the earlier British Everest Expeditions. Part of the ridge up which they had established their high campus was visible, but the last thousand feet, which had proved such a formidable barrier, was concealed from our view as its rock slopes dropped away with frightening abruptness from the summit snow pyramid. It was a sobering thought to remember how often these men had reached 28,000 feet without the benefits of our modern equipment and reasonably efficient oxygen sets. Inevitably my thoughts turned to Mallory and Irvine, who had lost their lives on the mountain thirty years before.

On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary, born in New Zealand, became the first man to stand on the summit of Mount Everest at the height of 29,035 feet. He and Nepalese mountaineer, Tenzing Norgay scaled Everest together. After being knighted following his ascent, Sir Hillary achieved many more adventuring ‘firsts’ in surroundings as varied as Antarctica and the Ganges. Sir Hillary died of heart failure on January 11, 2008. High Adventure is an autobiography celebrating the 60th anniversary of Hillary’s achievements. 

Courtesy Roli Books, from their book High Adventure
By Sir Edmund Hillary.
Price: Rs 350 

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