Articles

“My worst hours on Everest”

Here is the enthralling story behind the conquest of Everest: how an inspired band of unsung heroes fought the unique terrors on the roof of the world to pave the way for the final assault

SIR JOHN HUNT DESCRIBES November 15 1953
Articles

“My worst hours on Everest”

Here is the enthralling story behind the conquest of Everest: how an inspired band of unsung heroes fought the unique terrors on the roof of the world to pave the way for the final assault

SIR JOHN HUNT DESCRIBES November 15 1953

“My worst hours on Everest”

Articles

Here is the enthralling story behind the conquest of Everest: how an inspired band of unsung heroes fought the unique terrors on the roof of the world to pave the way for the final assault

SIR JOHN HUNT DESCRIBES

A BONUS-LENGTH FEATURE

ALL THE WORLD knows the final drama of Everest: how, on May 29, 1953, Edmund

Hillary, of New Zealand, and Tenzing, a Nepalese, made a breakneck dash to the top. What the world doesn’t yet know is the equally gripping drama of how the final dash was made possible, how the first assault failed, how exhaustion, sickness, heartbreak and the worst weather in the world were overcome by inspired men who have since slipped uncomplainingly into relative obscurity. This story is now told by Brigadier Sir John Hunt, leader of the expedition. Hunt, who was up to fifteen years older than the climbers he chose, describes the appalling labor of “leapfrogging” vital supplies and equipment up the face of Everest so that the two assault teams would be given the chance of victory. The long months of preparations, the arduous march into Nepal, the chilling dangers of the ice cascades that guard the

approach to Everest all these are past; the last round of the battle opens as Hunt begins the story of his greatest personal ordeal:

FOR ME it was a bad start on the morning of May 24, on the climb from Camp VII, at the twenty-four-thousand-foot level, to the South Col, the “saddle” between Mount Lhotse and Everest. The Col, at 25,850 feet, was a logical base for the final assault. We were two “ropes,” one consisting of Tom Bourdilion and Charles Evans, the first assault team now moving up for our first attempt on Everest’s peak; my own party, carrying supplies to the topmost camp, consisted of two Sherpas, Da Namgyal and Balu. In keeping with our “leap-frogging” assault tactics, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing, the second assault team, would follow from a lower base camp in twenty-four hours.

Right from the outset I found each step an immense labor, even along the level hundred yards of the lower lip of the crevasse dividing us from the cliff above. Climbing this very steep pitch, the effort was agonizingly great. I stopped to gasp after every step upward. Some feet farther on I could continue no longer and for a terrible moment imagined that my day, and in fact my part in the summit effort, was over. My fears of the day l^efore returned. Then I had found the climb to Camp VII almost equally exhausting, and wondered at one rest stop whether I would perhaps fail the summit party.

“MY WORST HOURS ON EVEREST”

I had had no reason to suspect my oxygen equipment, which had previously worked perfectly, but now I stopped to consult Tom. In private life Bourdillon is a physicist working on rocket engines, and at twenty-eight he is an expert in the use of oxygen gear in mountaineering. He and his father had devised the equipment we were using.

Tom found that my oxygen pipe was kinked and I had been carrying a dead weight of more than fifty pounds without oxygen; small wonder it had l>een a trying experience! He put this right only to find that there was a leak in the tank connection which supplied oxygen at the rate of two liters a minute. This leak could be prevented only by plugging my mask into this connection, although I had been using the other connection which provided oxygen at the rate of four liters a minute. There was nothing for it but to climb at the lower rate of flow. Apart from the extra effort involved, this might not be a disadvantage, for it would bring my pace down toward that of the native Sherpa carriers who were climbing without oxygen; it would also economize oxygen and there would be thus less danger of the supply running out.

So on we went, after losing a valuable half hour 01% this incident. I thought of the watchers below wondering, as I had done on similar occasions, what

on earth we could be doing to stop so soon after leaving Camp VII. We went on up, very slowly indeed, to the top of Lhotse Glacier, the steep barrier to the South Col; it seemed to us that here lay the crux to the ascent of Everest.

Both ropes of climbers were moving at much the same snail’s pace. Just before the top terrace is reached, two final obstacles bar the way; another ice cliff, with a yawning crevasse along its foot. Miraculously, a shelf of ice ran across this, rising steadily from left to right. It meant a deviation from the direction in which we wanted to go, but it led us to the top of the cliff, delightfully. An old line, left behind by last year’s Swiss attempt, lay about loosely, but it was unnecessary to use it.

Above, another big crevasse stopped us; we had to move yet farther to the right until it narrowed sufficiently for a big upward stride to be made. An awkward and anxious stride, for the edges on both sides overhung, and you stepped from one fragile snow bracket on to another. But we got across, and after climbing up a few more feet we all sat down to rest at the level of the Traverse.

It was about 1 p.m. The Western Cwm, the great high-level glen which slopes from the foot of Lhotse, at the twenty-two-thousand-foot level, down to the brink of the Icefall at nineteen thousand feet, now looked shrunk and very distant; it seemed to have narrowed to maplike proportions. The Cwm had been named for his favorite Welsh climbing haunts by George Mallory, the Everest pioneer whose body has lain lost somewhere on this mountain since his tragic attempt with Andrew Irvine in 1924. Below the Icefall, which had earlier challenged us with an all-butinsurmountable cliff of ice two thousand feet deep, the Khumbu Glacier was a black well of seemingly bottomless depth.

An insignificant blur some way dowm, under the

PICTURES COPYRIGHT THE TIMES. LONDON

west ridge of Everest, was Advance Base. We saw beyond the dwarfed cone of Pumori to the level summits of two other giants, Gyachung Kang (25,900 feet) and Cho Oyu (26,900 feet) and felt we could almost count ourselves on equal terms with them. We were very high in the world.

On we went, intrigued, toward the Traverse. The wind had coated the surface with a treacherous boardlike crust. Sometimes it let you sink awkwardly into the underlying soft snow; at other times it bore your weight. It was a tiring progress. For a while the angle was fairly steep, more so than I had expected —perhaps as much as fifty degrees at the point where the gully runs beside the Lhotse Glacier; an old rope could be seen a hundred feet below us, fixed between the glacier edge and a horizontal band of rock. Then the gradient relented as we stepped across the huge slope. I remembered Raymond Lambert, the Swiss guide who with Tenzing had reached within less than a thousand feet of the summit a year before, mentioning that it might have been possible to ski down. It was in fact about the limit of steepness for skiing turns; it would have made a strenuous but exciting plunge down those three thousand feet to the Cwm.

Slow Going Three Miles Up

The hours began to drag as we went across this slo{>e. Charles and Tom were ahead, having a hard time of it breaking the trail through the crust; the Sherpas with me were now tiring rapidly, and our pace was even slower than that of the leading pair. Time seemed endless. We would advance for perhaps four, or even six successive paces. After the third, there would be suggestive groans from behind—Balu wanted to rest. Another pace and he would give clearer expression to this: “Sahib, Aram mangta hai," and when I had taken yet another step forward I would be forcibly restrained by the rope. There was nothing for it but to stop, watching the agony of these two men as they crouched over their axes, puffing and panting, for a full minute at a time. “Thik hai?" I would ask. A faint grunt from Da Namgyal and we would go on, to the accompaniment of a few encouraging but probably unconvincing words from myself about the nearness of the Col. The performance would then be repeated. About every hundred yards I stopped and carved a large hole in the slope for all three to sit in safety and we rested for a longer spell, our feet dangling out over the great slope, sweeping away beneath us toward the tiny speck that was Camp V.

By about 3 p.m. we had entered a couloir, or gully, and were close in beside the rocks. We had heen going five and a half hours and I glanced at the pressure gauge of my oxygen bottle—three hundred pounds per square inch. This is almost the point where the effective supply dries up and I shouted up the slope to Tom and Charles to wait while we crawled toward them. Was I to go on without oxygen? It would certainly give out within the next half hour. Or should I join the other rope and leave the two Sherpas to come along at their own pace? We were now only about two hundred and fifty feet below the point where it is possible to traverse out of the couloir to the left and across the upper part of the Geneva Spur; the Col was not far off. I consulted Da Namgyal, who assured me that they were happy to come along slowly; anything was better than being dragged along as at present. So I tied on to Charles’ rope and we went ahead, glancing back from time to time to make sure that the Sherpas were following.

It was 4 p.m. when we topped the Spur and stopped for a minute on a level patch of hard snow. Above us, across the hollow of the South Col, rose the South Summit of Everest; no longer a “minor eminence” as I had dubbed it in London, but an elegant snow spire, breathtakingly close yet nearly three thousand feet above our heads. Right-handed from this peak

the South-East Ridge descended, very steeply at first and then at a more gentle gradient to a snow shoulder at about half its height. This seemed just the place for that top camp, my task for the next day.

The flanks of this ridge facing the South Col are very steep, part rock, part snow, seamed here and there with snow-filled gullies, spilling out into the upper slopes of the Col opposite our viewpoint. We had heard from Wilfrid Noyce, a member of the expedition who had made the difficult climb in a preliminary survey a few days before, that

South Peak which topped it was impressive; none of us had been prepared for any spectacle quite so sharp, quite so beautiful as this. To me it seemed that a new and unsuspected peak of alpine stature stood above the South Col; my first reaction was one almost approaching dismay and resentment that we should be confronted with such a problem after struggling so far toward the end of our journey.

And what of the South Col at our feet? We looked down upon as dreary and desolate a place as I ever expect to see: a broad plateau, perhaps six

hundred yards along each edge, its northern and southern limits set by the steepening slopes rising toward Everest and Lhotse, falling away abruptly westward into the Cwm and eastward down the Kangchung Face. The surface of this waste is partly covered by stones, partly with sheets of bare bluish ice. And the wind adds to the sense of dread which possesses this place. It was blowing fiercely as we went down the slope which must be descended from the top of the Spur to reach the level surface of the Col. We were making toward the right where there were some patches of color among the stones; orange caught the eye. These patches marked the remnants of the Swiss camp.

It was a queer sensation to go down like this at the end of our long hard climb, as though entering a trap; and this feeling was heightened by the scene which we were approaching. For there before us were the skeletons of the Swiss tents, three or four of them; they stood, just the bare metal poles supported still by their frail guy ropes, all hut a few shreds of the canvas ripped from them by the wind. Around, frozen into the ice, were other fragments of cloth, and lying upon the surface some heavier objects. I noticed two oxygen frames, a coil of nylon rope. But there was little time to take stock of our surroundings, for it was growing late and we must make haste to get our tents erected before the cold gripped us. Clothed and hooded as we were in every garment we possessed —windproofs, down jackets and trousers, down, silk and windproof gloves: all this over jerseys, woolen shirts and underclothes—it was cold enough. We pulled out the pyramid tent and set to work.

And now began a struggle the like of which none of us is likely to forget. If the wind had been strong on the Spur, it was terrible down here. My oxygen had finished and Charles Evans took his off to leave him more free to work. We were pathetically feeble, far too weak to compete against that fiendish gale. For over an hour we fought and strove with it, playing a diabolical tug-of-war, trying to put up one single tent. All the time the canvas was being snatched from our hands and we were being caught in a tangle of guy ropes. We staggered about, getting in each other’s way, anoxic and hopelessly inadequate to cope with the conditions. Tom kept his oxygen set on for a short time and at first could not understand the antics of Charles and myself as we rolled around like drunkards. Once I tripped over a boulder and lay on my face for five minutes or so, before I could muster the strength to get up. But soon Tom’s oxygen gave out. He too fell down and also lay, more or less unconscious, on the ground.

By now—it might have been 5 p.m. —the two Sherpas had arrived. Balu at once crawled into the half-erected tent; he had completely lost his nerve. But he served at least one useful purpose, even if unwittingly; we were able to pass in rocks and oxygen bottles for him to weight down the inner edges of the tent. And in the end it was up, more or less. The Meade tent took less time, and by about 5.30 p.m. we three were in the pyramid, the two Sherpas in the Meade, lying amid a confusion of sleeping-bags, mattresses, rucksacks, ropes and oxygen sets, to recover from this ordeal.

It was already getting dark. Charles started to prime the stove; 1 went out to chip off lumps of ice from the surrounding boulders to melt for water, and I hauled in ration packs from the dump. We sorted out the muddle as best we could and crawled into our ba£S, clothed in everything, including windproofs. B Tween 5.30 and 9 p.m. we brewed ana drank no less than four mugs of liquid each; there was lemonade, soup, tea and cocoa. It was most satisfying. While Charles and I were occupied in this way, Tom was fitting up oxygen equipment for sleeping purposes. We eventually settled down for the night, always conscious of that great wind as it tore at the tent walls.

Overnight we had agreed that it would not be possible to make an early start next day, desirable though this was. We were too tired and the confusion was too great. Despite the wind, we three spent a reasonably comfortable night with the aid of oxygen. I woke abruptly and remained awake when my supply came to an end after four hours; my breathing became labored and I began to feel cold in my sleeping-bag. But even so, we all agreed that we felt rested and refreshed next morning. It did not take long, however, to reach a certain decision. We would postpone the attempt by twenty-four hours. The implications of this were serious enough. We should be consuming more rations, more fuel; deterioration was bound to make itself felt, and we might be so weakened that this would prejudice oui chances. Last but not least, we were taking a big chance with the weather, and especially the wind. Indeed, this was the most tantalizing aspect of all, for on this day, May 25, the wind relented, the weather was utterly clear. There was no more than a breeze blowing across the Col.

Queer Appetites on Everest

But we were not ready. Food had to be sorted out; Balu was unable to start, but we hoped that with rest he might recover. The decisive factor was that the oxygen had not been prepared and this is a slow task at this altitude. For it takes infinitely longer to do simple things, let alone intricate jobs such as this. Fortunately, from the viewpoint of the assault program, there was time, for instead of following us at a twenty-four hours’ interval, as had been planned, Ed Hillary’s party would not arrive until the evening of the following day.

We spent the time restfully. After a late breakfast I forget what we ate, but remember it included some excellent Swiss honey which I had found on the Col, and our own salami sausage

I went out to tidy up around the tents. Da Namgyal came to help, and we put up the third tent—the little six-pound “blister.”

I was in a tidying mood and took a certain pleasure in lining our oxygen bottles in a neat row just outside our tent, stowing all food stores close to the entrance, and placing the Swiss gear separately from our own. I also placed a small packet upon a rock. This contained photographic plates intended to record cosmic rays; it had been given me by Professor Engster, of Zurich University, during our visit there shortly before we left for India. These had already been exposed for nearly a fortnight at Camp VIL I very much regret to say that they have remained on the South Col, where they must by now have made a very definite recording of these interesting phenomena.

In addition to four tins of honey, some cheese and Vita-Wheat, I found a tin of tunny fish among the Swiss kit. It is an interesting commentary on appetite at twenty-six thousand feet

and a fact which I mention not without a certain feeling of shame—that I was unsocial enough to conceal this tit-bit from my companions. I took it into the little “blister” tent and emptied the tin myself. Other moun-

tain climbers have noted peculiarities in appetite at very high altitudes, often a desire for unavailable foods. High on Everest in 1933 Eric Shipton had a craving for a dozen eggs. His colleague Frank Smythe wanted frankfurters and sauerkraut; in his 1924 attack on Everest Dr. Howard Somervell’s favorite diet was strawberry jam and condensed milk; Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Everest, craved pineapple cubes.

Afterward 1 took a stroll along the Col, wearing a flimsy pair of down socks. First, toward the western edge,

in order to peer down into the Cwm from a huge square block which had been a landmark from below. I moved slowly along, heading into the breeze. Each step had to be carefully considered, but the ground sloped gradually away and the effort was not unduly great. Reaching the brink, 1 looked down at last on the Nuptse Ridge, now quite undoubtedly below me, and beyond it to the lower peaks to the south, an infinite distance away. Directly below, I could see quite clearly three of our earlier camps. Before leaving the edge 1 waved just in case anyone

below should happen to be looking in this direction at that moment. As far as 1 know this gesture was not observed.

And so back up the gradual slopes, the wind behind me. A much greater effort this, stopping every few yards with a slight anxiety lest 1 should not make the distance. As 1 approached the tents, I was astonished to see a bird, a chough, strutting about on the stones near me. At every camp we had been visited by choughs; even at Camp VI l there were t wo or three and I had wondered then whether we should find them on the Col. But here the bird was, behaving the same at twentysix thousand feet as his cousins had at Base Camp. During this day, too, Charles Evans saw what must have been a migration of small grey birds across the Col. Neither of us had thought to find any signs of life so high as this.

After a rest to gather strength, I went out again to view the eastern panorama. The tents were more or less in the centre of the Col, and the journey was much the same as the other. There was a good deal of ice to cross before I could stand at the edge. I found this tiresome in nyloncovered down socks; so much so that I did not venture too close in case a gust of wind—it was then increasing in strength—should send me sliding helplessly over the brink.

Back at camp Tom and Charles were getting ready for their attempt on the summit the next day and it seemed better to give them more space and freedom to make an early start by moving into the little tent myself. I shifted my belongings and spent a restful afternoon, reading Borrow’s Wild Wales. There was a great urge to do nothing—the danger signal of deterioration.

Life Wanes Four Miles Up

The rarefied air surrounding the upper part of Everest makes movement much more difficult; mental effort no less than physical is infinitely greater; lack of oxygen slows down and blurs the mental process. Beyond a certain point life itself is no longer possible. The ill-effects of altitude may be retarded by a regimen of acclimatization, a gradual getting used to increasing height. Above twenty-one thousand feet, however, the policy of gradualness breaks down, for the muscle tissues begin to deteriorate fairly rapidly and the climber’s resistance to cold, his fortitude in the face of wind and weather, are weakened. He tends to lose the promptings of appetite and thirst and is denied the relaxation of normal sleep.

The Meade tent was only a yard away and I shouted to Namgyal to find out how Balu was. The reply was not encouraging and I told Da Namgyal that we should share between us the loads to be carried up next day, with Tom’s help. We prepared our oxygen equipment and I fetched a bottle to use that night. All was set for the great day.

I had decided overnight that since we would apparently be deprived of the services of Balu, the chances of Da Namgyal and myself carrying the share of the total loads required for the top camp to the Snow Shoulder, probably nearly twenty-eight thousand feet, were very small. It seemed best now to take them as high as we could and leave the second support party, Alfred Gregory and his three Sherpas, who had rather less than half the total weight of stores to lift, the task of taking on the loads from the point where we left them. Our loads consisted of oxygen, a tent, food, kerosene, etc.; my share weighed about forty pounds. Gregory’s party was bringing up four oxygen bottles and a small primus stove.

I was astir at 5.30 next morning, still feeling reasonably fresh after another four hours’ use of oxygen during the night. I shouted to Da Namgyal in the neighboring tent, to make sure he, too, was getting ready. Charles and Tom were due to start first, at 6 a.m., as they had much the longer journey. I looked out at about that time, hoping to see them ready to leave. But they were still within and I took no action. Shouting into the wind, I would not have been heard even at that distance —five yards. Meanwhile 1 went on with my own preparations, putting on boots and crampons, all a deplorably slow business. Da Namgyal brought me a cup of tea and told me that Balu was in a bad way and could not come with us. Just before 7 a.m. the two of us came out on to the Col and roped up, tightening our hoods around our faces against the bitter wind.

Outside the pyramid tent was Charles Evans, crouching over his oxygen set and blowing into one of the tubes. One of the valves was repeatedly freezing up. He had been trying to get this right for over an hour. It was not a propitious start.

Some minutes later Charles Evans and Tom Bourdilion were still by their tent, the freezing-up problem still unsolved. This was serious, but I suppose Î was too intent on my own coming effort for that day to feel despondent about this bad news of the assault; it seemed all I could do was to carry on with my job. There was indeed nothing more to say, and words were an effort - in the wind. So Da Namgyal and 1 started off toward the ridge soon after 7 a.m., each carrying about forty pounds on our backs and using oxygen at four liters flow per minute.

We moved very slowly. In fact, the gently rising ice-slopes seemed just as much of an effort as had my wandering on the Col the day before. The ground was bare ice polished by the wind, with scattered pebbles embedded in it. As it steepened, the slope became covered with brick-hard snow on which I found that my short-pointed crampons tended to scrape and slip; it was already tiring. Looking round, I was delighted to see Tom and Charles just leaving the tents and moving toward me; they „must have put right the defect, and the first assault was on its final lap.

At the same time it was depressing to note howr little progress we had made in the past half hour—perhaps one hundred and fifty feet upwards and two hundred yards in distance. I was heading for a snow-filled couloir which had been pointed out to us on a photograph by the Swiss as being the only practicable route to the South-East Ridge. The ridge now towered directly above our heads, over one thousand feet up. Da Namgyal wanted me to move farther to the right, to the foot of the rock buttresses which cut off the Ridge before it reaches the edge of the Col, and by that time the gully appeared to rise so steeply that for a moment I was inclined to agree that we might as well try the alternative rock climb. But it would now have involved a long detour to the right, and there was a compelling urge to economize energy as much as possible. Indeed we already had little in reserve.

Tom and Charles were coming up fast from behind. As Da Namgyal and I stopped to take our first rest, they went ahead. It was good to see that they were climbing so strongly, and I admit to feeling glad that I should be spared the labor of kicking or cutting steps higher up.

On we went, still on a hard surface in which our crampons left barely a scratch, but after a while we struck softer patches and these became more frequent as we crept up into the comparative shelter of the rock walls limiting the gully. It. was pleasing to note that already we were above the top of the rocky hump which stands near the eastern edge of the South Col. The couloir steepened. At half height it was perhaps forty-five degrees, nearer its top it had risen in gradient to at least fifty degrees, making the cutting of steps—or kicking them when the snow was soft enough to make an impression—essential to comfort at this altitude.

Tom and Charles were busy with this task; it slowed them down, but they were still gaining ground on us; they were perhaps as much as forty yards ahead, halfway up the couloir. Our progress grew slower, more exhausting. Each step was a labor, requiring an effort of will to make. After several steps at a funeral pace a pause was necessary to regain enough strength to continue. I was already beginning to gasp and fight for breath.

In this distress, 1 tried a different technique: resting for a minute, then starting forward as fast as I could

—it was doubtless ludicrously slow — for eight or nine consecutive paces, without taking account of the need to co-ordinate my movement with breathing. I would then hang upon my axe until once more sufficiently controlled to go on. This was an agonizing performance which, on reflection, I do not recommend to future Everest climbers. That 1 experimented with it at all, flouting all the tenets of mountain climbing, was a gesture of desperation.

Toward the top of the couloir, Tom and Charles had traversed across it to

set foot on a steep slope of mixed rock and snow; direct ascent had become awkwardly steep. We followed in the steps they had made, and I sat upon the first rock ledge to take in Da Namgyal’s rope as he came toward me. He did not say anything but looked woefully tired.

We went on, for the ridge was now close; up steep but easy ground until we reached the crest. Quite suddenly we had arrived at the little tent left, by Lambert and Tenzing almost exactly a year before—or the ragged remains of it. Like those on the Col below, it had only the struts, held upright still, with scraps of orange cloth flapping in the wind. We fell on to the small level space just above the tent. My lungs seemed to be about to burst; I was groaning and struggling to get enough air, a grim and ghastly experience in which I had no power of self-control. But only while it lasted. For, as had happened lower down in the couloir, normality came quite suddenly and with it a desire to go on, an ability to take an interest in the surroundings.

I looked around, first out on to the world, for we were now on its roof. Kangchenjunga and Makalu stood now above a sea of cloud which was rising rapidly all around us; the wind was already strong, but we were fairly well sheltered, for as usual it was blowing from the northwest. Then I gazed down to the South Col. This was highly satisfying: the tents looked

minute, for we had climbed more than twelve hundred feet, even though it had taken us almost three hours to attain this height. Below the lip of the Col, we could now look straight down the Lhotse Face and upon the top of Camp VI1 ; despite all its twentyfour thousand feet, it looked an infinite distance below, and I wondered how we had managed to climb those apparently precipitous slopes above it. Lastly, 1 glanced up the ridge, now half-hidden in mist. It was snowing, and the wind was in my face as I turned. There were Charles and Tom, climbing the steeper ground toward the Snow Shoulder. They seemed to be going very strongly indeed, at least three hundred feet above us now; I wondered how they managed to go so steadily without taking rest.

Up till now Da Namgyal had, 1 believe, been climbing with less effort than myself. But now he seemed utterly done up. I spoke of going on and he was apathetic. But it is not Da Namgyal’s nature to give in. Leaving one oxygen cylinder, for it was only too clear that we should not be able to continue much farther and I decided to carry this back to supplement the supplies of the second assault, we followed in the steps of the summit pair. The going was not steep at first, the ridge narrow but not uncomfortably so. But there was a tiresome layer of about three inches of powder snow upon a harder undersurface, masking the rocks on the crest. The track made by the others, where we could trace it, was a help. I resorted to some attempt at achieving a rhythm —a step, four or six gasps, another step, and so on. It was a little less painful than the rush tactics, but we climbed no faster than before.

After about twenty minutes -we might have climbed a hundred feet above the Swiss tent—Da Namgyal said he could do no more. I knew him too well to doubt it, for there is no stouter-hearted and less complaining man. I urged him on, for there was no satisfactory place to leave the gear at this point; a likely-looking shelf could be seen above, another fifty feet up. We got there and stopped. As so often happens, it was disappointing

-scarcely room to sit, let alone place the equipment securely. I felt I could manage yet another fifty feet and again saw what appeared to be a better ledge up the now steeper section rising toward the Snow Shoulder—the shoulder itself seemed to be only about three hundred feet above us now. But Da Namgyal could not do it, and I cannot say I was sorry that he had reached his limit; I was near enough mine. So we stopped and built a cairn upon a rock on the crest of the ridge, immediately above a little gap, just big enough for the tent and other stores.

There we placed the tent, food and our own oxygen bottles. To these I added a candle and matches to provide a small measure of comfort for the second summit party. The height, like others, has yet to be calculated exactly. Taking 27,300 feet as the altitude of the Swiss tent, as they had estimated,

I then believed myself to be at 27,500 feet. Later we agreed to a general scaling down of all our heights, and reckon this dump to be at 27,350 feet.

For no reason that I can now explain, we moved a few yards across the southern slope and began, very feebly, to scrape out a platform. This was not logical, for I had long determined that the highest camp must be in the region of twenty-eight thousand feet, and 1 had in mind the Snow Shoulder. Being short of one Sherpa, it was fairly certain that we must leave the final lift to the second party. We again rested until about 11.30 a.m., when we were ready to start back.

It must have been while we were there that Da Namgyal removed a glove. Two days later he had a badly frostbitten finger. This was skilfully attended to by Michael Ward, the expedition’s doctor, and the trouble cleared up without his having to take any drastic measures. This was the only serious case of frostbite during the whole expedition.

A Step at a Time

Carrying our empty oxygen frames, we went down the ridge, now enveloped in mist, the snow on our backs. We were terribly slow and wobbly, so much so that on reaching the platform where the framework of the Swiss tent stood,

I decided to use oxygen from the bottle left there, at any rate for the steepest part of the couloir, to reduce the risk of an accident. But this made matters worse and 1 quickly took off my mask. So far I had given no thought to the efficient working of the oxygen equipment; it had never failed before and it did not occur to me to check in case there might be some blockage. This worsening effect, when tried only for a few minutes as we descended toward the couloir, may however be significant . It was not until twenty-four hours later, when unscrewing the tube connecting the mask with the set, that I discovered this was completely blocked with ice. It is mentioned here, not in any sense as an excuse but simply as a possible explanation of the otherwise quite extraordinary difficulty in breathing and climbing which I experienced going up.

In the couloir we took extreme precautions. Although it has a good run out on to the stone-covered iceslopes of the Col, the height from the point where we entered it is certainly over a thousand feet above the Col, and a slip would have had serious consequences. We moved singly, each alternately securing the other with a turn of the rope round the head of the ice-axe, driven into the snow. First Da Namgyal would go down and I would join him, then he went down farther; so it went on, rope length by rope length. Once he slipped and slid for several feet, but only until the slight amount of slack rope was taken up; it was a warning for additional care.

As we descended we could see figures spread out across the Lhotse Face, coming up toward the South Col. The second assault party was approaching to join us; this was a pleasing sight.

At last we were on easier ground. When we came out of the couloir and on to the upper slopes above the Col, two of the party arrived at the tents; shortly afterward they came toward us. We were now sitting down every ten paces or so, although the difficulties were over and the angle was no longer steep. We recognized Tenzing and Hillary approaching us over the icy surface. I suddenly felt as though the strength was leaving me like water. My knees gave way and 1 collapsed, a ridiculous figure, as they came up. Da Namgyal flopped down also, while we were plied with lemonade from Tenzing’s flask. Hillary helped me toward the tents, but finding that I could not make the distance, hurried off to fetch his oxygen set. With a boost of six liters a minute I soon revived and we were able to complete the few remaining yards. I shall not forget their exceeding patience and kindness.

We spent an anxious afternoon, with a lurking uncertainty lest Charles and Tom should not return. Later they told us the story of what they regarded as their failure, but which I insist was a great triumph:

On reaching the ledge where we first stood upon the South-East Ridge of Everest at 27,200 feet, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans were feeling well and confident. They arrived there soon after 9 a.m., having taken one and a half hours to climb thirteen hundred feet: only about the same height had to be covered to reach the South Summit. At this rate of progress —almost a thousand feet in one hour

they should have time to spare for the suspected difficulties of that final, hidden ridge leading to Everest itself. Besï of all, the oxygen sets were functioning well, in spite of the anxiety caused earlier that morning and the fact that Charles Evans’ apparatus had perforce been set at the low flow of two liters per minute. Only the weather was unfavorable, but even this was not -a serious hindrance. They set off determined and full of hope.

But from this point onward the

going became worse. The overlay of fresh snow called for greater care, covering the ledges and making for difficulty in getting a grip with their crampons on the hard surface beneath; they moved much more slowly. In two hours, indeed, they had not covered more than half the distance toward t he South Peak. But they had now reached an important landmark. This was the Snow Shoulder, so noticeable a feature when seen from the top of the Geneva Spur. As Tenzing pointed out later, it is probably about the highest place reached during the attempt by himself and Lambert in the spring of 1952. Clouds were all around them, snow was falling and being blown off the ridge.

As they paused on this less steep ground, an awkward problem arose affecting the oxygen equipment. The soda-lime canisters which form a part of the mechanism of the apparatus have an endurance of approximately three hours. They had now been going at least two and a half hours, and the canisters in use might be expected to have at most a further half hour of useful life. Each man was carrying a second canister, and it was now a question whether they should change to the fresh ones at this point. By doing so here, they would have the advantage of a fairly spacious resting place, and this might well not be available higher up. Equally important was the fact that there is a tendency for the valves in the apparatus to freeze up after a new and cold canister lias been connected. This had happened only three days before, when they had introduced new canisters at Camp VI on their way up to the South Col. The risk would be better faced here than on top of the South Summit, where a breakdown of this nature might have very serious consequences. Against these arguments was the objection that by rejecting the canisters in use they would be wasting the endurance of their oxygen equipment and would thus shorten their day. If I have gone into this problem in some detail, it is merely to stress what a dilemma it must have been for Charles and Tom, at twenty-eight thousand feet on the South-East Ridge of Everest; hardly the most congenial place in which to consider and discuss such a nicely balanced problem, especially wearing oxygen masks.

They decided to change the canisters and went on. Charles was now having trouble again with his set, resulting in rapid labored breathing which may or may not have been due to the new canister. They arrived at the foot of the final steep rise, a great slope tilted abruptly at a high angle sweeping up toward the South Peak. The snow was unstable, a fragile crust overlying loose deep snow underneath and Tom, who was ahead at this point, suspected its safety. Away to the left were rocks, bordering the South Face where it falls away toward the western brink of the South Col. They traversed across to these, half expecting the slope to break away beneath them. The angle of the rocks was also steep and they were somewhat crumbling, but the strata dips favorably to the climber on this side of the mountain, and the ledges, small though they were, tilted so as to provide accommodating holds. On and on, up those last four hundred feet, very slowly now, Charles Evans in considerable trouble with his breathing. Then quite suddenly the angle eased, and almost at once they found themselves standing upon the South Peak of Everest, at 28,720 feet. It was one o’clock. Charles Evans and Tom Bourdilion had climbed higher on Everest by many hundreds of feet than anyone had ever climbed before. Better still, they had reached the highest summit so far climbed.

Clouds were all round them, obscuring the view, adhering like a banner to the tremendous eastern precipice falling away from the final ridge toward the Kangchung Valley. But that final ridge was clear, and they were now gazing upon a problem which had intrigued all mountaineers and which we especially had all been longing to see. It was not encouraging. Viewed thus, end on, it is narrow and apparently rising steeply. On the left, it falls sharply away to the edge of the rocks topping the West Face of the mountain, which drops sheer seven

thousand feet into the Cwm above our Advance Base. On the right, or east, is an even more abrupt precipice of even greater height, masked now by cloud. Huge bulges of snow hung over it from the crest of the ridge, cornices formed by the prevailing westerly wind.

Should they go on? For them here was a unique chance to climb to the top. But unless it were to be a one-way journey, it obviously depended on the factors of time and weather; the question of time was directly linked with that of their oxygen supply. Unless they had sufficient oxygen to last the traverse along the ridge both ways and also to descend the ridge by which they had climbed, it was not feasible. To estimate the time required to climb an unknown ridge, seen foreshortened in this way so that you cannot be sure the farthest visible point is the summit, is not easy. Charles Evans reckoned that it might take three hours to the top, another two hours back to the South Peak. At that rate they would long since have exhausted their remaining oxygen supply and, even had they been able to return to the South Peak without it, they would not be back there until 6 p.m., with nearly three thousand feet to descend to safety. In fact, it was out of the question.

Yet it was with some reluctance that they turned to go down. Both were now very tired, emphasizing, if any further persuasion had been needed, the futility of going on toward the summit of the mountain. The trouble with Charles’ oxygen set persisted. They did not fancy the small ledges on those steep rocks and took a chance now on the snow slope to the left, sinking deeply into it through the crust, but probably too tired to think of the possible consequences. The descent of fifteen hundred feet to the Swiss tent took them about two hours. Charles’ state of exhaustion is shown by the fact that, sound climber as be is, he slipped on a number of occasions on the technically easy part of the ridge above this tent. It was about 3.30 p.m. when they arrived there.

Then they, like Da Namgyal and myself a few hours before, had to face the couloir. They too took the usual precautions, but they were understandably more groggy than we had .been. Tom led down and bad just reached the end of the rope and fixed his axe as a belay when Charles came hurtling down the slope from behind “like a bullet.’’ As the rope tightened round Tom’s axe it was wrenched out of the snow and Tom was dragged from his steps, sliding with gathering speed down the hard surface of the couloir. But the jerk on the rope as the axe checked it had slowed Charles’ fall. Tom instinctively cook the correct action, turning on to his stomach and jabbing the pick of his axe above him into the snow as a brake. They came to a stop, waited to recover and started on down again.

On the Col, I was resting in the “blister” tent, talking to Tenzing. George Lowe, our second New Zealander, and the most tireless worker, suddenly put his head through the entrance. He was tremendously excited. “They’re up: by God they’re

up!” he shouted. This was indeed electrifying news, quite sufficient to banish the weariness of my own efforts that day. Everyone was overjoyed. The Sherpas were no less thrilled than ourselves. Indeed, perhaps more so, for they were under the impression that the peak rising from the South Col was in fact the highest point. They believed that Everest had been climbed. When they reached the tents, Ang Nima turned to me and said in slang Hindi: “Everest Khaim ho gya, Sahib,” which in equally slang English may be translated, “Everest has had it.” For them, the spectacle had been particularly dramatic. They had been watching our nrogress all that morning, but Bourd ilion and Evans had been hidden for some time by the clouds which now screened the mountain. At about one o’clock there was a break in the mists around the sharp snow cone of the South Peak and upon it, like insects on a wall, two little dots could be seen. They climbed steadily up that forbidding, impossibly steep-looking snow -slope and soon disappeared over the top. It was as if they did not trouble to stop, intent on going farther to the utmost point beyond.

The clouds completely obscured the ridge and the wind had increased in strength. At 3.30 p.m. there was a thinning of the cloud at the top of the couloir, and there they were. They came down slowly and we prepared to receive them. At 4.30 they approached the tents and we went out to meet them, burdened with their cumbersome equipment and bulky clothing, their faces frost-covered, looking like strangers from another planet. Both were utterly weary.

Failure Was a Triumph

It was natural that disappointment should have been among their feelings, to get so near the ultimate goal and then be denied it. Yet it must be remembered that they had achieved exactly what had been hoped of them. I had been insistent that the South Peak was the objective and that, by reaching it, they would provide invaluable information to the second summit pair; indeed, the two assaults were intended to be complementary. Their feat in climbing to over 28,700 feet and back in one day from the South Col was a magnificent effort, and a triumph also for the oxygen equipment on which Tom and his father had taken such infinite pains. They had sighted that last part of the ridge and were able to describe it to Tenzing and Hillary. They had given us all, by their example, incalculable confidence in final victory.

With the second assault party and their extra stores safely arrived on the South Col, preparations were made for their departure next day.

First, the Sherpas who had accompanied them, bringing up these stores, got ready to go down. Da Namgyal decided to join them, in spite of his outstanding and exhausting effort that day, and Balu also left. They were

a heroic little band, whose names deserve to be specially recorded in this story of the ascent of Everest: Dawa Thondup, approaching his fifties; Da Tensing, a near-namesake of Tenzing and another veteran; little Topke, who had sometimes exasperated us in the Icefall and the Cwm by his carelessness and his irritating cough, yet with the heart of a lion; Ang Norbu, sturdy and unshakable; the jaunty Annullu, whose pace was like that of “a fast Swiss guide.” No praise is too high for them.

George Lowe had escorted them up and now asked to stay to assist in the “carry” of stores to the top camp. This I very gladly agreed to. Of the three special Sherpas accompanying this second party, the team to carry the stores up to Camp IX, only one now appeared likely to be fit to continue. This was Ang Nima, already renowned among us for his work with Lowe in the early days of preparing the Lhotse Face. The other two, Ang Temba and Pemba, my orderly, were both feeling ill on arrival. In the second team, too, it would be necessary for the climbers to become porters.

We were overcrowded that evening at Camp VIII. The pyramid tent was occupied by the four members of the second assault party, while we of the first party, having finished our effort, occupied the Meade, designed for two. The three remaining Sherpas of the second support team somehow managed to squeeze into the tiny “blister” tent. It was a terrible night. For Hillary it was “one of the worst nights I have ever experienced.” For those of us whose third night it was on the South Col, packed like sardines, managing without oxygen and exhausted after climbing high on the mountain throughout that day, it was a nightmare. The temperature was minus twenty-five degrees Centigrade and the wind, which had been strong all day long, now rose again to gale force. Pressed as we were against the walls of the tents, it was as if we had no protection at all. Constantly buffeted throughout the night, there could be no question of sleep. It continued hour after hour, adding greatly to our existing state of weariness. On the morning of May 27 there was no longer any doubt about it—the first assault party was in very poor shape indeed, especially, I think, Tom Bourdillon.

My diary for this day reads as follows: “It was no surprise to find

at about 8 a.m. that Ed Hillary’s party had not started. The wind was blowing like mad, so much so that it was a nightmare to go out of the tent. A scene of wild confusion reigned around Everest, which was shrouded in cloud with snow being tom from the S.E. Ridge. We huddled into the pyramid and discussed the situation while Tenzing made some attempt to work the Primus—of the Sherpas, only Ang Nima was showing any sign of life. A postponement of twenty-four hours was imperative; fortunately we have stockpiled enough to make this possible and the important thing is to keep up our strength by eating and drinking enough. For me, this is my third day spent on or above the Col, and I’ve had three nights of it. It is interesting to compare our condition with that of the Swiss who spent a similar period here last year, and who scarcely got down alive. Here are we, well supplied with food, fuel and oxygen, sitting at twenty-six thousand feet almost as if at Base.

“At about midday Charles and Tom started off on their way down. Then Charles suddenly reappeared with the alarming news that Tom could not get up the slope to the top of the spur and was in a critical state. Another of us must accompany him down if he were to get down alive. Here was another difficult decision. My post was here on the Col, to see the big assault safely launched and decide, if need be, on a further postponement or, possibly, a withdrawal. Yet I was supporting the first assault, and by sending either Gregory or George Band would only weaken the second assault’s chances. I decided I must go. So rapidly packed, with much willing help, and plodded very slowly up the slopes of the spur, Hillary carrying my sack.

“Left Ed with parting instruction not to give in if avoidable, and promising to send up a reinforcement party. We (Charles, Tom, Ang Temba and self) started slowly —so painfully slowly

down the couloir and across the big slopes beneath Lhotse. We halted frequently and for long intervals, for Tom, and to a less extent Ang Temba, were barely in control of their legs. I led, Charles brought up the rear. So it went on until, very nearly at the end of our strength (except, perhaps, Charles), we staggered down the last few feet to Camp VII. To our relief and delight, here we were met by Wilf Noyce and Mike Ward, who helped us in. Just as we were coming down the ice pitch above the camp, Temba slipped and fell into the big crevasse. He was held by Charles, and Wilf managed to remove his sack (he was upside down) and get him up. I,t is indicative of my state of exhaustion that 1 could not find strength to lift a finger throughout this incident.”

Noyce’s presence at Camp VII was very fortunate. Without him, Tom j Bourdillon, Ang Temba and I could j not have managed for ourselves that I evening; he looked after us like a nurse j and prepared our supper. Moreover, ¡ he was halfway to the Col and, unbeknown to him, 1 had told Ed Hillary | before leaving there that I would send j up Noyce and three more volunteer j Sherpas with further stores, to enable J them to stay out yet another day of I bad weather if, necessary. I also had j in mind that Noyce and one or more | of these men might replace any casual| ties up there and thus take part in the j second assault. So it was that Charles ! Evans, who found the energy to conj tinue on down with Michael Ward to Advance Base the same evening, was to arrange for three men to come up and join Noyce here at Camp VII on May 28.

Tom and I descended to the Cwm next morning. On the way we met Charles Wylie with three Sherpas. Wylie had rightly decided that they should not go up to the Lhotse Face unaccompanied, and he had also felt that this camp should be occupied until the return of Hillary’s party. These rôles he took upon himself: a great

contribution to the sound conduct of the assault. It is typical of Charles that as he passed 1 noticed in his bulky load an oxygen bottle. This and other items of replenishment he had taken over from a fourth Sherpa who should have been with the party, but who had not been able to go beyond Camp V. He was, of course, climbing without oxygen.

We reached Advance Base in the early afternoon, our immediate task completed. There was nothing for us now to do but await the outcome of the second assault . . .

It had been an anxious day waiting for news at Advance Base. The weather seemed perfect; it was cloudless and there was apparently little wind up there on the Col. We were watching the Lhotse Face all day, observing Noyce and his three Sherpas going up from Camp VII.

At the top of the Lhotse Glacier one man dropped out; soon after, we noticed another of the remaining trio go back to join this one. Two only con► tinned, two started down again toward Camp VII. It no longer looked a very premising aid for Ed Hillary, whether as a reinforcement or a rescue party. Meanwhile, three others were coming down from the Col; the two groups passed, and later the descending caravan reached Camp VII. It was all most intriguing and kept our minds from brooding too much on the unseen drama higher up. Some time later, no fewer than five men emerged from Camp VII and came down to the Cwm; evidently this must now include the two men who had broken away from Noyce’s reinforcement party. All this activity gave rise to much conjecture.

That afternoon we had some indication of the outcome when Gregory arrived with four Sherpas, including two of the three men who had been with Noyce. Greg had great news. He J\ßd~seen Ed Hillary and Tenzing at nine o’clock that morning, just as he had seen Tom Bourdilion and Charles Evans three days before as they climbed the final snow slope toward the South Peak. They were going well as he watched them. Th s news, and in particular the time of day when he had seen them, gave us good reason to be confident and we waited impatiently for the evening when it was hoped we should have a signal which Wilfrid Noyce and I had arranged between us. We had agreed that he would place sleeping-bags on some suitable snow slope either above or just below the edge of the Col, clearly visible to ourselves at Advance Base. The placing of one bag would mean that the summit party had been unsuccessful; two bags placed side by side would spell the second ascent of the South Peak; two bags placed at right angles in the form of an L would give the glad news of complete success—the summit itself.

Would They Make It?

Our feelings may perhaps be imagined when, toward evening, light mists came up the Cwm, veiling the slopes below the South Col. In vain we strained our eyes, searching those snow slopes during an occasional thinning of the cloud; no sign could be seen. The sun went down behind Pumori. The suspense continued.

We waited on next day, hoping for success, not daring to contemplate a setback. Michael Westmacott had come up overnight, after doing splendid work for the past ten days in the , Icefall; according to his report, later confirmed by our own observations, the ^ice was undergoing rapid change and he had been kept continually busy on this thankless, risky but essential task of keeping the changes in our return route charted. Our numbers, apart from those engaged in the second assault and Charles Wylie, waiting in support at Camp VII, were completed next day when James Morris,The Times correspondent, came up the Cwm from Camp III, which he had reached the previous evening. The sense of expectation gripped us all and it was difficult to keep even outwardly calm.

Suddenly we saw five figures appear from behind the screening rocks of the Geneva Spur, in the couloir. A sigh of relief escaped me. At least the whole assault party was complete and safe; although they were moving slowly, no one appeared to be in distress. Hillary, Tenzing, Lowe, Noyce and Pasang Phutar were on their way down. All we could do was to wait. Considering what they had been through, they did not keep us long. Soon after disappearing into Camp VII, three of them

emerged, coming down the Lhotse Face for the last time. The expedition’s photographer, Tom Stobart, with one Sherpa, set out for Camp V; he was intent on an early “shot” of the returning party, whatever their fortune.

Then five men appeared at the top of the shallow trough about five hundred yards above the camp. Some of us started out at once, Mike Westmacott and myself ahead, while our Sherpas crowded outside their tent, no less eager than the rest of us to know the result. But the approaching climbers made no sign, just plodded on

dejectedly toward us; they did not even wave a greeting.

My heart sank. Weak as I was, this plod up the track was already an effort; now my feet felt like lead. This must be failure; we must now think of that third and last attempt ...

Suddenly, the leading man in the party — it was George Lowe — raised his axe, pointing unmistakably toward the distant top of Everest; he made several vigorous thrusts. The others, behind him, were now making equally unequivocal signs. Far from failure, this was IT: they had made it!

Feelings welled up uncontrollably as I now quickened my pace—I still could not muster the strength to break into a run, and Mike Westmacott was now well ahead. Everyone was pouring out of the tents; there were shouts of acclamation and joy. The next moment I was with them: handshakes—even, I

blush to say, hugs—for the triumphant pair. *

This account is part of a book, The Ascent of Everest, by Sir John Hunt, to be published soon by Hodder & Stoughton Limited, Toronto.