As it turned out, he was not only without permission to enter Tibet, but had signed a paper promising not even to approach the border. So secrecy was of much importance, and instead of leaving Darjeeling together we met at a prearranged point outside of town and began our trip from there. Following the usual expedition route, we moved up through Sikkim; then sneaked successfully across the border by a little-used pass and headed west across the great plateaus of Tibet. We had many accidents. We seldom had enough to eat. Once we were stopped by a patrol and almost turned back. But somehow we managed to keep going and at last reached the Rongbuk Monastery, where the lamas received us without questions or suspicion.
And now there, straight before us, was Everest: huge and white, with its streaming snow plume; just as I remembered it after nine long years. The old excitement returned, as strong as ever. But I had not taken leave of my senses and, with the mountain looming above us, I was more conscious than ever of the hopelessness of our endeavor.
Still we went on: up the glaciers, past the old lower campsites, toward the base of the walls below the North Col. With only the three of us, the work was backbreaking. The wind and cold were terrible. In fact they seemed to me the worst I had ever known on the mountain, until I realized it was not so much they themselves as that we were so badly equipped. Our clothes were not windproof. Our food supply was low, and we were already out of the most important item—tea. Our two tents gave as much protection as a sheet of paper, and soon Denman, who at first occupied one of them alone, had to come in with Ang Dawa and me, so that our three bodies together could make at least a little warmth.
At least we moved fast. Each day we set up a new camp, carrying everything we had in one trip, and soon we were at the foot of the snow slopes beneath the col. I knew, though, that this was the end of the line. Denman was less used to cold than Ang Dawa and myself and was suffering terribly. He could not sleep at night. Sometimes he seemed to have barely the strength to walk. From our highest camp—the fourth—we made a brief try at the steep snow and ice leading up to the col; but the cold went through to our bones and the wind almost knocked us flat. In a little while we were back in the tent, exhausted and beaten.
Even Denman knew we were beaten. He was a brave man—a determined, almost fanatic man with a fixed idea. But he was not crazy, and he was willing to go back. For this I am as grateful as for anything that has happened in my life, for it would have been a terrible decision for Ang Dawa and myself if he had insisted on going on.
Our retreat was even faster than our advance. Now that he was defeated, Denman seemed only to want to get away from Everest as quickly as possible, as if it were a thing he no longer loved, but hated. We almost raced back to the Rongbuk Monastery and then on across the wild high plains of Tibet—almost as if the mountain were following us as an enemy. Now we were even shorter of food than before. Our clothes were in rags, and Denman's boots were in such bad shape that for a few days he had to walk barefoot. But we kept going. At least we were stopped by no patrols. And almost before I knew it we had crossed back from Tibet into Sikkim and a few days later, toward the end of April, arrived in Darjeeling. The whole trip—to Everest, at Everest and return—had taken only five weeks!
It was as quick as that. As strange and crazy as that. In another few days Denman was on his way back to Africa, and it almost seemed to me that I had not been to Everest at all, but only imagined it. Yet, looking back on it today, I feel that Denman, though a strange man, was also a brave one—a man with a dream—and I am sorry he did not get closer to realizing it. In 1953, when I gained the top of Everest, I was wearing a woolen balaclava helmet that he had left to me; so at least a little part of him has reached his goal.
I have heard my English friends use the expression "a feast or a famine." And that is how it was with me. For years, since the beginning of the war, there had been hardly any expeditions at all, but from now on I was on so many that I have trouble keeping track of them.
In 1947, right after Denman had gone home, I went to Garhwal with a party of Swiss. They were not out to climb any one great mountain, but rather a number of the second rank (at least by Himalayan measurements), and were very successful—reaching several summits more than 20,000 feet high. My own best performance was on a peak called Kedernath, of about 23,000 feet, which became the first big mountain I ever climbed to the top. And besides this satisfaction there was the pleasure of being with the Swiss, whom I liked the best of any people I had ever been with.
During the two years after this I did little high mountaineering but made two wonderful journeys. The first, in 1948, was to Lhasa, the holy city of Tibet, where all my life I had longed to go; and it was especially interesting because I went as assistant to the famous Italian scholar, Professor Giuseppe Tucci, and learned far more than I would have on an ordinary trip. Then in 1949 I went to Nepal with H. W. Tilman, the famous British climber whom I had known from Everest in 1938. On this trip, too, there were no major ascents; but we explored much of the region around Annapurna, and it was the first time in 15 years that I had been back to the country where I was born.