"We've just got to reach the top before then," he snapped back.
For a moment the climbing became easier and we could move together. But above us a steep, smooth nose of rock barred the way. Would this defeat us? We couldn't see, but knew we must be near the summit.
We turned to the right, around the corner, hoping to see a passage to the top. Instead a wall towered about 20 feet above us. The amber-colored face was broken by several deep vertical cracks and Joe, without a second thought, wedged his body into one of them and with a tremendous struggle forced his way to the top. It was the hardest part of the whole climb. Suddenly he turned and shouted, "George, we're there!" I clambered up and there before us, some 20 feet away and five feet higher than the ground on which we stood, was the very top, a gently sloping cone of snow.
Since we had promised the Sikkimese not to disturb their god by stepping on the uppermost crest, we stopped short. But the summit was ours.
We said nothing for a moment. We stood there, realizing what had been accomplished. Nine of us started out on reconnaissance, and now the two of us stood at the top.
I glanced at my watch: a quarter to 3. Looking on all four sides, we could see little detail: a great sea of clouds covered the land so only the highest peaks stood out, like so many rocky islands above a white sea. Against the horizon 80 miles to the west we could just make out Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. Then we turned and started to descend.
After an hour our oxygen ran out and we began to gasp in the thin, bitter air. I felt extremely weary and lightheaded. As I stepped down a small patch of unstable snow, my foothold suddenly broke. I rolled over onto my stomach, dug my ax point into the snow, and in a split second it was over. Joe clambered down where I lay panting and quipped, "It makes me tired just to watch you do that."
By the time we descended the 1,200 feet back to our tent it was dark; Hardie and Streather were already there, as planned, for a second attempt in case we had failed. The four of us squeezed into the tiny two-man tent that overlapped the narrow ledge and drank and drank and drank—lemonade, soup and chocolate. I don't believe that I ever felt so thirsty in all my life.
A SIMPLER WAY
That night there was no tossing for who would sleep on the outside position. The rest reckoned that I knew all about it, so there I went. Somehow, I don't quite remember how, we passed the night. Hardie and Streather used the sleeping bags and some oxygen because they still wanted to have a crack at the top—and in the morning we started down while they set off to repeat the ascent. The night before, Joe had taken off his goggles for a moment and became snow-blind, although not nearly so bad as Jackson had before and we were able to get down safely.