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PART III: The Great Endeavor
Tenzing Norgay
May 09, 1955
PART III: In which Tenzing, ill after two attempts on Everest within a year, makes the most momentous decision of his life; and of his climb with Edmund Hillary; and of what transpired in those last few feet before the summit; and of his thoughts as he stood at last triumphant on the highest peak in the world
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May 09, 1955

Part Iii: The Great Endeavor

PART III: In which Tenzing, ill after two attempts on Everest within a year, makes the most momentous decision of his life; and of his climb with Edmund Hillary; and of what transpired in those last few feet before the summit; and of his thoughts as he stood at last triumphant on the highest peak in the world

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And off we went.

Hillary's boots were still stiff, and his feet cold, so he asked me to take the lead. And for a while that is how we went on the rope—up from the campsite to the southeast ridge and then along the ridge toward the south summit. Sometimes we found the footprints of Bourdillon and Evans and were able to use them; but mostly they had been wiped away by the winds of the two days before and I had to kick or chop our own steps. After a while we came to a place I recognized: the point where Lambert and I had stopped and had turned back. I pointed it out to Hillary and tried to explain through my oxygen mask, and as we moved on I thought of how different it was these two times—of the wind and the cold then and the bright sunshine now—and how lucky we were on this day of our great effort. By now Hillary's feet were feeling better, so we changed places on the rope; and we kept doing this from then on, with first one of us leading the way and then the other, in order to share the work of kicking and chopping. As we drew near to the south summit we came upon something we had been looking for: two bottles of oxygen that had been left for us by Bourdillon and Evans. We scraped the ice off the dials and were happy to see that they were still quite full. For this meant that they could be used later for our downward trip to the col, and meanwhile we could breathe in a bigger amount of what we were carrying with us.

We left the two bottles where they were and climbed on. Up until now the climbing—if not the weather—had been much the same as I remembered from the year before: along the steep broken ridge, with a rock precipice on the left and snow cornices hiding another precipice on the right. But now, just below the south summit, the ridge broadened out into a sort of snow face, so that the steepness was not so much to the sides as straight behind us, and we were climbing up an almost vertical white wall. The worst part of it was that the snow was not firm, but kept sliding down, sliding down—and we with it—until I thought, "Next time it will keep sliding, and we will go all the way to the bottom of the mountain." For me this was the one really bad place on the whole climb, because it was not only a matter of what you yourself did, but what the snow under you did, and this you could not control. It was one of the most dangerous places I had ever been on a mountain. Even now, when I think of it, I can still feel as I felt then, and the hair almost stands up on the back of my hands.

At last we got up it, though, and at 9 o'clock we were on the south summit. This was the highest point that Bourdillon and Evans had reached, and for 10 minutes we rested there, looking up at what was still ahead. There was not much farther to go—only about 300 feet of ridge—but it was narrower and steeper than it had been below, and, though not impossible looking, would certainly not be easy. On the left, as before, was the precipice falling away to the Western Cwm, 8,000 feet below, where we could now see the tiny dots that were the tents of Camp Four. And on the right were still the snow cornices, hanging out over a 10,000-foot drop to the Kangshung Glacier. If we were to get to the top it would have to be along a narrow twisting line between precipice and cornices: never too far to the left, never too far to the right—or it would be the end of us.

One thing we had eagerly been waiting for happened on the south summit. Almost at the same moment we each came to the end of the first of our two bottles of oxygen, and now we were able to dump them here, which reduced the weight we were carrying from 30 to only 20 pounds. Also, as we left the south summit, another good thing happened. We found that the snow beyond it was firm and sound. This could make all the difference on the stretch that we still had to go.

"Everything all right?"

"Ah chah. All right."

From the south summit we first had to go down a little. Then up, up, up. We moved just one at a time, taking turns going ahead, while the second one wrapped the rope around his ax and fixed the ax in the snow as an anchor. The weather was still fine. We were not too tired. But every so often, as had happened all the way, we would have trouble breathing and have to stop and clear away the ice that kept forming in the tubes of our oxygen sets. In regard to this, I must say in all honesty that I do not think Hillary is quite fair in the story he later told, indicating that I had more trouble than he with breathing and that without his help I might have collapsed. In my opinion our difficulties were about the same—and luckily never too great—and we each helped and were helped by the other in equal measure.

Anyhow, after each short stop we kept going, twisting always higher along the ridge between the cornices and the precipices. And at last we came to what might be the last big obstacle below the top. This was a cliff of rock rising straight up out of the ridge and blocking it off, and we had already known about it from aerial photographs and from seeing it through binoculars from Thyangboche. Now it was a question of how to get over or around it, and we could find only one possible way. This was along a steep narrow gap between one side of the rock and the inner side of an adjoining cornice, and Hillary, now going first, worked his way up it, slowly and carefully, to a sort of platform above. While climbing, he had to press backwards with his feet against the cornice, and I belayed him from below as strongly as I could, for there was great danger of the ice giving way. Luckily, however, it did not. Hillary got up safely to the top of the rock and then held the rope while I came after.

Here again I must be honest and say that I do not feel his account, as told in The Conquest of Everest, is wholly accurate. For one thing, he has written that this gap up the rock wall was about 40 feet high, but in my judgment it was little more than 15. Also, he gives the impression that it was only he who really climbed it on his own, and that he then practically pulled me so that I "finally collapsed exhausted at the top, like a giant fish when it has just been hauled from the sea after a terrible struggle." Since then I have heard plenty about that fish, and I admit I do not like it. For it is the plain truth that no one pulled or hauled me up the gap. I climbed it myself, just as Hillary had done; and if he was protecting me with the rope while I was doing it, this was no more than I had done for him.

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