02 September 2012

A few whacks of the ice-axe, a few cautious steps

Oxygen tank used on Hillary & Tenzing's climb,
Science Museum, 23.03.2009
After an hour's going the South Summit was dropping away beneath us, but I suddenly noticed that Tenzing, who had been going very well, was starting to drag. When he approached me I saw he was panting and in some distress. I examined his oxygen set and, finding that the exhaust outlet from his mask was blocked with ice, was able to give him some immediate relief. We moved on again and soon reached the worst problem on the ridge - a great rock bluff which looked far too difficult to tackle directly with our limited strength. There was one possibility: attached to the right-hand side of the rock bluff was a cornice and the ice had peeled away leaving a gap running the full length of the bluff and just large enough to take the human frame. With Tenzing belaying me I moved into the crack and cramponing on the ice behind and using every handhold in the rock in front I wriggled and jammed my way up and pulled myself panting on to the little ledge at the top. I signalled to Tenzing and heaved the rope until he in his turn struggled up and collapsed exhausted on our little ledge. I really felt now a fierce determination that we would succeed in reaching the summit.

The ridge stretched on in a never-ending series of corniced bumps and as I continued cutting the trail round the back of them I wondered just how long we would have to go on. We were starting to tire. I had been cutting steps continuously for almost two hours and wondered rather dully whether we would have enough strength left to get through. I cut around the back of another hump and saw that the ridge ahead dropped away and that we could see far into Tibet. I looked up and there above us was a rounded snow cone. A few whacks of the ice-axe, a few cautious steps and Tenzing and I were on top. The time was 11.30 am.

We stayed 15 minutes, removing our masks and so conserving oxygen. After an hour we were back on the South Summit; moving gingerly down the great snow slope, we were able to shrug off the sense of fear that had been with us all day. At 2 pm we were at Camp IX, where we brewed some lemonade before setting off on the long trek down the ridge. We were both very tired, but not too tired to make the last effort of cutting steps down the couloir where yesterday's tracks had already been blotted out. On the Col we were greeted by Lowe and Noyce; the latter had come up that day in support with Passang Phutar, both making their second trip to the Col.

- Edmund Hillary (1919-2008), 'Everest by Storm', in John Keay, ed., Travel in Dangerous Places, London, 2010. 

[Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit of Everest on 29 May 1953]

See also:
Newsreel - Hillary returns to Auckland and is interviewed by his brother Rex, 1953  

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