They say you should start with little things and go on to big ones, but it was not that way for me. My first expedition, in 1935, was to Everest. This was with the fifth of the British parties to go out to the mountains. Their first one, in 1921, had not been an attempt to climb, but only an exploration, and it was on this one that a way was found through Tibet to the north side of the peak. To the Sherpas, who knew the route from Darjeeling to Solo Khumbu, it seemed strange to be going so far around to get to Chomolungma. But the English had permission to enter Tibet, while at the time—and until only a few years ago—no Westerners could enter Nepal.
From near the Rongbuk Monastery, straight north of Everest, the 1921 explorers made many journeys along the glaciers and to the high passes, looking for a route to the upper mountain; and at last it was decided that the best one was along the East Rongbuk Glacier and then up a steep wall of snow and ice to a pass, or saddle, more than 22,000 feet high, which they called the North Col. The famous climber, George Leigh-Mallory, with some others, reached this col, and though they were not equipped to go farther they felt sure they had found a good way up the mountain. Meanwhile they had looked for still other ways and climbed a high pass which looks over onto the southwest side of Everest and almost to Solo Khumbu. But Mallory did not think this side looked like good climbing; and besides it was in Nepal. So it was 30 years before anyone tried the mountain from that direction.
In 1922 the first real climbing expedition came. With many Englishmen and Sherpas they set up camps on the glacier, another on the North Col and still another on the steep ridge above. From there the strongest climbers went on to more than 27,000 feet, which is only 2,000 feet from the top and much higher than men had ever been before. But later there was the great avalanche on the steep slopes below the North Col when a whole ocean of snow came pouring down on the roped porters. This was when seven Sherpas were killed, and it was the worst accident there has ever been on Everest.
Still, in 1924, both Englishmen and Sherpas came back, and this was the famous expedition on which Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared as they climbed together toward the top. This time there were not only one but two camps above the col, and the higher, at 26,800 feet, was carried up by the three Sherpas, Lhakpa Chedi, Norbu Yishay and Semchumbi. From here, before Mallory and Irvine were lost, Colonel E. F. Norton and Dr. T. H. Somervell made a fine attempt, in which Norton reached more than 28,000 feet. This remained the world altitude record until Raymond Lambert and I went a little higher on the other side of the mountain during the first Swiss expedition of 1952.
The fourth attempt on Everest was not until 1933, which was the one on which I so much wanted to go but was not taken. The result was much like in 1924, except that no lives were lost, and two teams of climbers—Wyn Harris and L. R. Wager together, and Frank Smythe, with Eric Shipton stopping a little below him—went to about the same place that Norton had reached. Again the highest tent, Camp Six, was set up by Sherpas, and the English, in appreciation, called them "Tigers." In 1938 this title became official and Tiger Medals were awarded to the porters who went highest. But already in the '20s and early '30s the name was used, and our men bore it proudly.
Then came 1935 and my first chance.
From the beginning of the year there had been much talk about another expedition; but there was trouble getting permission to enter Tibet again, so it was late before Eric Shipton, who was now leader, arrived in Darjeeling. Because of this it was decided that there would be no real summit attempt, but only a reconnaissance, as in 1921. For the monsoon, which blows up each June from the south, would surely come while we were still climbing, and after that it is almost certain death on a high mountain from storms and avalanches. A reconnaissance would not be a waste of time, though, because the British thought they might find a better route for the next year than the one always used before by way of the North Col.
As had happened in 1933, I was almost left behind again. The sirdar for the expedition—which means the one who is in charge of the porters—was Karma Paul, a businessman of Darjeeling, who did not know me; and also I had no certificate for previous service. Mr. Shipton and Mr. W. J. Kydd, who was then secretary of the Himalayan Club, interviewed the Sherpas, but picked only those who had climbed before or were recommended by Karma Paul; and I was very unhappy. Then later it was announced that they needed just two more men. There were more than 20 candidates, and I slipped into the line wearing a new khaki bush jacket and shorts which I hoped made me look very professional. Mr. Shipton and Mr. Kydd checked one candidate after another, and when it was my turn they asked me to produce a certificate. This was awful, and I wanted to argue and explain. But at that time, when I was only 20, I did not yet know either English or Hindustani, and all I could do was make a gesture that I did not have one. The two sahibs talked together, then told me to step out of line, and I thought that was the end of it for me. But when I started to leave they called me back, and I found that I was one of two men elected.
Some of the older men were annoyed because I was a novice and had been taken in. But I was so happy they could have beaten me and I would not have minded. The wages on the expedition were 12 annas a day, which would be raised to one rupee for every day above snow line; so if I did well I would make more money than I ever had before. It was not money, though, that was the important thing to me. It was that I was a mountain man at last—and going to Chomolungma! In 1953, when I saw Eric Shipton at a reception in London, I reminded him that it was he who, 18 years before, had given me my first chance.
Because this was my first expedition there were, of course, many things that were new to me. We were issued special clothes and boots and goggles. We ate strange foods out of tin cans. We used pressure stoves and sleeping bags and all sorts of other things I had never seen before. And in the actual climbing, too, there was much that I had to learn. Snow and glaciers themselves were nothing new to a boy who had grown up in Solo Khumbu, but now for the first time I had experience with the real techniques of mountaineering: using a rope; cutting steps with an ax; making and breaking camps; choosing routes that are not only quick but safe. As an apprentice porter I was not given much responsibility. But I worked hard and was generally useful, and I think the sahibs liked me. Also the altitude did not bother me, even though I had never been so high before, and I was one of the Sherpas who carried loads to the North Col, at a height of more than 22,000 feet.