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While the summit was in each of our hearts, our immediate task was to force through the Lower Icefall. From the outset we failed. Norman and I were given the task, which alter a week's reconnaissance, proved far more difficult than the infamous Everest Icefall. One incident I shall remember all my life. Norman and I had reached an impasse; before us loomed an irregular line of overhanging cliffs up to 60 feet in height. Try as we might, we could not find a break in this solid fortress of rock. As a last resort we picked a comparatively safe place where the cliff towered only 40 feet high and decided to climb it direct.
Taking turns, we began cutting away minute bulges of ice so that we could stand in balance. After four hours we had climbed only 20 feet; the remaining 20 feet promised to be even harder.
We returned the next day and after more exhausting chopping I began to wonder whether we would ever get up. "Let's try artificial," I yelled to Norman. This is an extremely strenuous technique, but one by which the hardest rock problems in the Alps have been overcome. The lead man hammers a piton into a crack, attaches a snap-link and slips a rope through the ring. The second man then assists by hauling on the rope, much like a primitive pulley system.
Soon I was perched precariously 30 feet up the side of the cliff, dangling like a puppet on a string. At last I hammered in the final, crucial piton, balanced carefully and stretched across to a shallow scoop. Then, holding my breath, I eased over and pulled myself onto a sloping ledge coated with melted snow. With one great heave I rolled over into the slush. We were up!
But our week of exhausting exploration soon proved to be wasted effort. The terrain beyond was even more risky. This was a serious setback, for our initial strategy, based on the 1954 reconnaissance, depended on reaching the Upper Icefall and then the Great Shelf via this route.
An entire new plan of attack was necessary. Fortunately, Norman had one in mind, for, looking up the Icefall, he had noticed a small glacier on the other side of the Fall. If we could but climb to the top of the tributary glacier we might yet gain the foot of the Upper Icefall. Evans decided it was worth a try and, while the rest of the party moved Base Camp to the foot of the Western Buttress, Norman and I set out on reconnaissance.
We had great luck. On the first day we established Camp I and in a short while a site for Camp II. This would bypass the dangerous Lower Icefall completely and put us in position to put Camp III on the steep but less hazardous Upper Icefall. At last we felt we were getting somewhere.
Camp III, at 21,800 feet, was a spectacular spot—on a platform 40 feet long and 15 feet wide. From here we could look for miles over the barren, snow-covered landscape 5,000 feet below. Above was the unknown. No human had set foot higher on this side of the mountain than where we now stood. Although the Great Shelf lay less than 2,000 feet above our heads, we still did not know whether we could reach it.
Early one morning Evans and Hardie strapped on oxygen and with two of the strongest Sherpas set out on a lightning reconnaissance to find out. They were lucky.
By one o'clock they stood at 23,500 feet, on a level with the Great Shelf but cut off from it by an ugly barrier of crevasses and seracs. They set up a tent—Camp IV—and sent the Sherpas down.