Aubert and Flory dumped their few things. "Take care of yourselves," they told us—and there were tears in their eyes. They went down. They became tiny specks and disappeared. Lambert and I pitched the little tent, gasping and stumbling with the exertion; but as soon as we stopped working we felt better again, and the weather was so fine that we were able, for a while, to sit outside in the fading sunlight. With our different languages, we could not talk much. But there was no need to talk. Once I pointed up and said in English "Tomorrow—you and I." And Lambert grinned and said, "�a va bien!"
There was no sleep. But we did not want to sleep. Lying still, without any sleeping bags to protect us, we probably would have frozen to death. So we slapped and rubbed each other all night long to keep our circulation going, and slowly, slowly the hours passed, until at last there was a faint gray light in the tent. Stiff and cold, we crawled out and looked around; and what we saw was not good, for the weather had worsened. It was not wholly bad—there was no storm—but the clearness was gone, clouds filled the sky to the south and west, and the wind, rising, blew sharp grains of ice into our faces. We hesitated a few moments, but, as usual, there was no need for words. Lambert jerked his thumb at the ridge with a wink, and I nodded, smiling. We had gone too far to give up. We must make our try.
It seemed to take hours to get our crampons fastened on with our numb hands. But at last we were on our way. Up—up—very slowly, almost creeping—three steps and a stop. We had three tanks of oxygen between us, but, as before, they were of no use while we were moving, and after a while we dropped them to relieve ourselves of the weight. Every 20 yards or so we changed places in the lead, so as to share the harder work of breaking the trail, and also so that one of us could rest and breathe deeply while letting the other pass. An hour went by. A second and a third hour. Mostly, the climbing itself was not too hard, but we had to be very careful of our route, for on one side of the ridge was a great precipice and on the other a cornice of snow overhanging a whole ocean of space. Then at times the ridge steepened, and we had to cut steps; and at this sort of climbing Lambert was wonderfully good.
Another hour passed. It seemed like a day—or a week. The weather was growing still worse, with waves of mist and wind-driven snow. Once Lambert turned and said something, but I could not understand him. Then a while later he spoke again; under his goggles and thick wind cream he was grinning; and this time I understood him all right.
"�a va bien!" he was saying.
"�a va bien!" I answered back.
It was not true. It was not going good, and we both knew it. But that was how things were between us. When things were good, it was �a va bien! And when they weren't, it was �a va bien just the same.
At a time like this you think of many things. I thought of Darjeeling, of home, of Ang Lahmu and the girls. I thought of Dittert and his second team of climbers now coming up below us, and that if we didn't get to the top, perhaps they would do better. I thought, "No, we ourselves will get there—we can do it! But if we do it, can we get down again?" I thought of Mallory and Irvine, and how they had disappeared forever, on the other side of the mountain, at just about the height we must be at now.... Then I stopped thinking. My brain went numb. I was just a machine that moved and stopped, moved and stopped, moved and stopped.
Then we stopped and did not move again. Lambert stood motionless, hunched in the wind and driving snow, and I knew he was figuring things out. I tried to figure too, but it was even harder to think than to breathe. I looked down. We had come—how far? About 650 vertical feet, Lambert reckoned later; and it had taken us five hours. I looked up. And there was the south summit about 500 more feet above us. Not the summit. Just the south summit. And beyond it...
I believe in God. I believe that in men's hardest moments He sometimes tells them what to do, what decision to make, and that He did it then for Lambert and me. We could have gone farther. We could perhaps have gone to the top. But we could not have got down again. To go on would be to die.... And we did not go on. We stopped and turned back.... We had reached an altitude of about 28,250 feet: the nearest men had ever come to the top of Everest, the highest anyone had ever climbed in the world. But it was still not enough. We had given all we had, and it was not enough. We turned without speaking. We descended without speaking. Down the long ridge, past the high camp, along the ridge again, along the snow slope. Slowly—slowly. Down—down—down....