I was sick. Day after day I lay in a hospital bed with high fever, and much of the time I was delirious. If Everest was still my dream, it was only a bad one...The Swiss had made a second attempt on the mountain in the fall of 1952—the first time it had ever been tried at any other season except the spring. And I of course had gone along again. Of the old sahibs, only Lambert and Dr. Chevalley (who was now leader) had come back; but the new men had been good ones, and we had hoped for better weather than in the spring. It was a hope, though, that had not been realized. Though the sky was clear and little snow fell, the cold of approaching winter cut through to our bones, and our problem was not so much climbing as simply not freezing to death. On the Lhotse Face there was a fatal accident—the first on Everest in many years—when the Sherpa Mingma Dorje was killed by falling ice. But still we had kept going. Working out a different route and making more camps than before, we reached the South Col on November 19th, and from there Lambert and I, with another sahib and some Sherpas, tried to go even higher. It was hopeless, though. Long before we reached our high point of the spring, the wind and cold had finished us, and we were barely able to get down the mountain alive. As the Swiss put it, Everest had "purged" us from its heights.
It had been on the way back through Nepal that I took sick. Partly it was malaria; but even more, I think, it was the strain of two big expeditions in one year. As always, the Swiss were wonderful to me. They flew me out from Katmandu to Patna in northern India, and there I stayed for 10 days at the Holy Family Hospital which is run by American Catholic missionaries.
I was alone in the hospital. Some of the time my fever was so high I was delirious, and I thought I was back on Everest, fighting the wind and the cold. Then it would pass, and I would lie motionless in bed for hours, too weak even to open my eyes or raise my hand.... "Yes, it was too much," I thought. "Two expeditions. The wind and the cold. And most of all, being two things at once: a sirdar and a climber. That was too much, both in the work and the responsibility."...I lay there, and there was only weakness in my mind and body. Then the fever would come again.
When I left the hospital I had lost 16 pounds. And a few days later, when I reached Darjeeling, my wife and family were shocked to see me. "You must rest now," Ang Lahmu said. "This whole year you must rest and get back your health." And I think that then at the beginning I just nodded and said nothing, for I hadn't the strength for anything else.
But now it was already 1953. The story of the two Swiss expeditions had become known throughout the world, and I was receiving letters from many countries asking me to go along on climbs during the coming spring. Even while I was still in the hospital in Patna a letter had come from a Major Charles Wylie inviting me to go back to Everest with a new British party, of which he would be transport officer; and now, in Darjeeling, Mrs. Henderson, of the Himalayan Club, urged me to go with them. "You have been with the English so often," she said. "And they want you so much." But Ang Lahmu was against it, and I was too tired and weak to make a quick decision.
I rested. And I thought. I thought about the Swiss and their two great efforts, and of how proud and happy I had been to be with them. But the Swiss were not going back. They had had their chance, and now in 1953 it would be the British coming with the strongest possible expedition. They would profit greatly from the Swiss pioneering of the route. Most important of all, they would be prepared to make a tremendous effort, for they had always considered Everest their mountain, and now it seemed to be slipping away from them.
I did not know any of the climbers who would be going along this year. In the beginning Eric Shipton was to have been the leader, but he had been replaced by Colonel John Hunt of the British Army, who had lived and climbed much in India, but whom I had never met. With him would be the best pick of English mountaineers and also two New Zealanders, one of whom, Edmund Hillary, had been on both the 1951 Everest reconnaissance and on an expedition to nearby Cho Oyu in 1952. In 1951 there had been some trouble about baksheesh and the payment of the Nepali porters, and I mentioned this to Mrs. Henderson. "But that's one of the reasons it's so important that you go," she said. "No one can handle the men like you, and if you are along there will be no such troubles."
What would another big expedition—the third in only a little more than a year—do to me? Like the Swiss, the British wanted me both as sirdar and as a climber, and I had already decided that the combination was too much. But how else could I go along? I thought about it all so much that I could hardly sleep at night. If it kept up much longer this way I would be sick all over again. So one day I left Toong Soong Busti, went to Mrs. Henderson and said simply, "Yes, I will go."
What I could not tell her—what I find hard to say even now in the right words—is that I would go because I had to go.
Saying yes to Mrs. Henderson was one thing, but with Ang Lahmu it was another. "You are too weak," she argued. "You will get sick again, or you will slip on the ice and fall and kill yourself."