Then we moved on upward, toward the north, and on April 22nd established our base camp on the Khumbu Glacier at 16,570 feet. Straight ahead of us the glacier ended in a huge and unclimbable white wall; but off to its right was a sort of avenue—a steep but not impossible-looking slope of tumbled ice, known as the Icefall, which flowed down through a narrow passage between Everest and Nuptse. It was here, a year before, that Eric Shipton, at the head of a reconnaissance expedition, had found the beginnings of an upward route. And it was here that we must follow—and go farther—if we were to get into the long snow valley above it, called the Western Cwm, and from there on to the heights of the mountain.
We had some bad weather on the glacier. But it never lasted too long, and we made progress. From the base we went up and across and set up Camp One near the foot of the Icefall, and from there the Swiss began searching for a way up through the steep tangle of ice.
It went slowly in the Icefall. It was like finding your way through a white jungle. And it was dangerous too, for everywhere there were ice towers that might collapse on you and deep, snow-hidden crevasses into which you might fall. In a sheltered place halfway up we pitched Camp Two. And above this it was even harder. Then, almost at the top, we came to what we knew we would find, and were worried about: a great crevasse just below the entrance of the cwm that had stopped Shipton's party the year before. It was a frightening thing, all right—so wide no man could jump it, so deep you could not see its bottom, and stretching all the way across the Icefall from the walls of Everest to those of Nuptse. What was to be done? What could be done? The Swiss walked back and forth along the rim. They examined every yard of it. They spent hours trying to find a way to get across, but they had still not succeeded when it began growing late and they had to go back to Camp Two. The next day they went up again. After another long search they had the idea that it might be possible to swing across on a rope, and the youngest in the party, Asper, made the try. It was no good, though. From a rope fastened to the lower rim of the crevasse he was able to swing the whole way across, but he could not get a hold either with his fingers or his ax on the smooth ice of the far side, and each time he swung back against the lower wall with a crash.
But at last they found a way. In one section of the crevasse they saw, about 60 feet down, a sort of shelf or platform, by which a man might be able to cross over to the farther wall, and the wall at this particular point did not look too steep to be climbed. Once more it was Asper who made the attempt. His companions lowered him carefully to the platform, he managed the crossing all right, and then, as they had hoped, he succeeded in hauling and hacking his way up until he came out on the upper rim. At that altitude the work had been so exhausting that for several minutes he could only lie there in the snow, trying to regain his strength and breath; but once he was all right again, everything was all right. For with one man across there was no longer any problem. The rope between him and the others was made secure. Other ropes were thrown over. A whole rope bridge was built. And soon, what had looked like an impossible crossing was the easiest sort of operation for both men and loads.
It was a great victory. There we were in the Western Cwm, where no man—no living thing except an occasional bird—had ever been before. It was a deep snow-filled valley, about four and a half miles long and two miles wide, with Everest on the left, Nuptse on the right and the white walls of Lhotse rising straight ahead. Once you are really close to a mountain it is hard to see much of it, and it was that way now with Everest, with its whole upper part lost in the sky above us. But we knew which way we must go to get there, for there was only one possible way: along the length of the cwm to the foot of Lhotse and then up the steep snow slopes on its left to the great saddle called the South Col which joined the peaks of the two mountains. After that...But that was something we hardly dared think about. The first thing was to get to the col.
We made one start on May 24th, but were turned back by bad weather. Then we set off again the next day, and this time kept going. At last, after two days of struggle and fearful cold, in which three Sherpas gave up the attempt altogether, we made it—Lambert, Aubert, Flory and myself; and with three other Sherpas whom I slapped and scolded and cajoled into the job, we got supplies up from below for the camp from which we would make our try for the top.
I have been in many wild and lonely places in my life, but never anywhere like the South Col. Lying at 25,850 feet between the final peaks of Everest and Lhotse, it lacks even the softness of snow and is simply a bare frozen plain of rock and ice over which the wind roars with never a minute's stop. We were already almost as high as any mountain that had ever been climbed, but above us Everest's summit ridge rose up and up, as if it were another mountain in itself. The best route seemed to lead first up a long slope of snow and then out onto the ridge itself, but how it would go we would not be able to tell until we got there. And the very top we could not even see, because it was hidden behind the snowy bump of a slightly lower south summit.
Night came. The wind howled. Lambert and I shared a tent and did our best to keep each other warm. It was not quite so bad a night as the one before—but bad enough—and in the morning it was plain that the other three Sherpas were finished. The Swiss knew that if we were to have any chance of reaching the summit, we must set up still another camp—the seventh—on the ridge above us, and they offered them special rewards if they would try to make the carry. But they refused. Not only their bodies were worn out, but their spirits too; and besides not being willing to go higher themselves, they begged me not to do it. I was as determined one way, however, as they were the other, and finally things were worked out in the only possible manner. The three of them started down, while the three sahibs and I made our preparations to go up. Without the others to help with the loads we could not carry nearly as much as was needed for Camp Seven, and our prospects for success looked slim. But there was nothing we could do about it.
So we started off: Aubert and Flory on one rope, Lambert and I on another. We climbed and climbed—up from the col along the steep snow slope to the base of the southeast ridge, and then on up the ridge itself. The weather was clear, and the mountain itself now protected us from the west wind; but the going was very slow, both because of the altitude and the problems of finding a safe route. We had only one tent with us, which I carried, and enough food for one day, and each of us also carried a small tank of oxygen—this being the first time in my mountain experience that I had ever used it. But the oxygen did not do us much good, because the apparatus would work only when we were resting or standing still and not when we were actually climbing, which of course was when we needed it most. Still we kept going. To 27,000 feet, and then farther.
At about 27,500 feet we stopped. We had gone as far as we could that day. As I have said, we were traveling very light, and I think it had been the sahibs' intention only to reconnoiter that day, dump the tent and a few supplies, and then come back up again when more porters were available. But the weather was almost perfect. Lambert and I were not too tired. I saw a small, almost level place where the tent could be pitched, pointed to it and said, "Sahib, we ought to stay here tonight." Lambert smiled at me, and I could tell he had been thinking the same thing. Aubert and Flory came up behind us, the three talked it over, and it was decided that the first two would go down while Lambert and I stayed there. And in the morning, if the weather was still good, we would make our try for the top.