It is after midnight and I have been lying awake for an hour now. It’s not that I don’t want to sleep, but the cold is creeping into my body and I feel miserable. The eiderdown in my sleeping bag and the two inches of my air mattress are all that separate me from 27,900 feet of hard, cold, rock. This is just one of the contributing factors adding to my discomfort. Another is that the air is not as dense at this elevation due to reduced atmospheric pressure so it is hard to sustain my mental and physical alertness. To put it more pithily, I feel sluggish. However, the main reason I feel the way I do is because it is bloody cold out – minus 27 degrees Centigrade! I know there is nothing I can do about the temperature, but there is something I can do to lessen the discomfort. However, I either have to suffer some discomfort for another hour and then sleep, or sleep now and suffer later. Lying next to me is a light alloy cylindrical oxygen bottle that has two hours’ worth of oxygen left in it. That is two hours if I adjust the flow rate to one litre per minute, less if I jack up the rate. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot and in reality it isn’t. This odourless, invisible gas which flows out of the bottle through a regulating valve and mask into my lungs, permeates through my body within seconds and warms me up, allowing me to rest comfortably. Unfortunately, there is not enough oxygen in the bottle to get me through the whole night so I have had to turn it off. I decide to wait another hour before turning on the oxygen. This way I can sleep for two hours just before beginning our assault.
Tenzing, who is sleeping on the lower shelf, is no better off than I am in these cold, cramped conditions. His feet are over-hanging the steep slope because the bench he is lying on is too short for his stretched-out body. For his own reason he has decided to sleep with his boots on. They are not the high-altitude boots designed for our British expedition, but the Reindeer boots issued to him by the Swiss last year. I have chosen to take my boots off and use them to prop the toe of my sleeping bag off the ice as my legs are draped across Tenzing in the lower corner of the tent. This thin, flimsy piece of material is the only thing protecting us from the elements, the elements we have no desire to deal with in the dark.
The wind that would begin its violent roar on the ridge above and rapidly descend towards our tent like an agitated swarm of bees returning to their hive after a day of frenzied honey collecting has finally abated and it is now calm and quiet. I no longer need to use my body as a brace against the fabric of the tent.
As predicted, I awake at 4 a.m. when my oxygen supply runs out. A quick peek out the tent door reveals an inky black sky above, but down below the peaks are beginning to glow in the early dawn. Fifteen thousand feet below us Tenzing points out Tengboche Monastery, a sight that he believes is a good omen. I sure hope so! As I recheck the oxygen sets, Tenzing fires up the Primus and we begin consuming large quantities of lemon juice and sugar. One of the detrimental side effects of climbing at high altitude is the loss of appetite and thirst, but I force myself to at least drink.
A major concern of mine is my frozen boots. I reprimand myself for not leaving them on in my sleeping bag as I cook them over the Primus stove. Despite the acrid smell of scorched leather that permeates the tent I manage to soften them up enough to get my cold feet into them.
We don every piece of attire we have with us, including our precious down clothing and wind proofs, and our gloves – all three pairs. Tenzing is also wearing the red scarf given to him by Raymond Lambert, and Earl Denman’s balaclava. I check my camera and set the aperture now so that I don’t have to do it later. One less thing to worry about if we reach the summit! At 6:30 a.m. we crawl out of the tent. Our first task is to strap our crampons onto our boots. Although a simple task at lower elevations, I feel like a farrier who has struggled to attach horseshoes onto the hooves of a Clydesdale. Finally, I set both our oxygen gauges at three litres per minute instead of four as we had planned. I know that by doing this we will be breathing less oxygen, but the bottles will last longer and hopefully get us further up the mountain before we need to change them.
As I tie onto the rope my mind wanders and I remember today is May 29, the 150th day of the year. A rather ordinary day, but I am reminded of my Sunday school teacher in Auckland who talked about Psalm 150 from the Old Testament. It is the last psalm in the Book of Psalms. In it the writer urges the congregation to praise God with music and dancing. Although I am not going to sing, I feel my first step of the day towards the summit is my way of praising God, either my Christian God or Chomolungma, the Tibetan Mother Goddess of the Earth. I slowly lift my right foot and let it sink into the snow. My crampons bite into the ice below and I automatically move my left foot up. My dance has begun!
I decide to let Tenzing lead as my feet still feel cold and I feel a little unstable. From our tent we need to angle up a bulge back towards the Southeast Ridge. It’s not very far but the traverse allows us to set a rhythm with our breathing and stride. The lower angle of the climb means we don’t need to breathe too hard. ‘Breathe too hard,’ that’s a joke! I take one step, which is an effort, and then pant for 20 seconds before taking a second step. Although Tenzing is shorter than me and his legs aren’t as long, I am not chaffing at the bit behind him. The length of my stride is usually longer, but because of the effort to lift my legs, my step is shorter and therefore I comfortably fall into stride behind him. Gradually my feet begin to tingle, a sure sign that blood is reaching my extremities and warming up my toes alleviating my concern about frostbite.
On top of the bulge, the South Summit towers a further 500 feet above us. It looks so close, but I know it will take us another two hours to reach it. Angling out to the right from the South Summit are great menacing cornices overhanging the Kangshung Face which lead to the main summit somewhere beyond. I now take over the lead and arrive at a sharp narrow ridge. I avoid the sheer ice on the right and head to the left where it looks more manageable. Here I find a breakable crust, the bane of mountaineers. The snow holds my weight for a few seconds, giving me a false sense of security, then shatters beneath my boot causing me to lurch forward knee deep in powder snow. In spite of this, I feel I am moving well and persist in these trying conditions for another half an hour. We cross a little bump in the ridge and there lying in a hollow are the two oxygen bottles left by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon. I wipe the snow off the dials and see that they are just under a third full. By my calculations we should be able to get to the top and back to here with the oxygen we are carrying. We will be able to use these bottles to continue the descent.
Above us a 400 foot snow slope rises steeply towards the South Summit. Tenzing and I now alternate the lead. A thin skin of ice covers deep snow and my fears are heightened when a six foot wide piece of ice shatters around me and begins sliding down the mountain. I stumble backwards but remain on my feet and watch the ice as it continues to gather speed and slides down out of view. I feel my heart rate increase, but take a couple of deep breaths and pause for a minute to calm myself before moving on. I am aware of the precarious conditions and know that we need to be cautious.
At 9 a.m. we emerge on the South Summit and look for signs of footprints. Three days ago our teammates reached this point, the highest anyone has been on this route. I sense their spirit is with us now, urging us on. They, and the rest of the team, have contributed to getting Tenzing and me to this point. Without the team and the gradual build up over the last months, weeks and days, we would not be standing on the South Summit where our ultimate goal of reaching the top of Mount Everest is now within our grasp.
Tenzing pulls his water bottle out and we take a drink of sweetened lemon juice and I check our oxygen supplies. Both our bottles are almost empty so to save weight I remove them and hook-up our full bottles. I take care to make sure they are securely attached and that there are no leaks in the system. We have roughly four and a half hours of oxygen to get us to the top and back down to the bottles we found and don’t want to be cheated by faulty connections.
With a growing sense of excitement I move down from the South Summit to the small saddle at the start of the final summit ridge, the ridge we saw from below with the great menacing cornices. We are now in uncharted territory. When I talked with Tom and Charles at the South Col after their attempt, they could only speculate about what conditions would be like for us and what we could expect, but now we are literally ‘rubbing our noses’ in it. I lead on for 40 feet cutting steps then I plunge my ice axe into the firm snow and belay Tenzing up. Tenzing then leads off and does the same. We continue in this manner until we reach the base of a great rock step. I had seen this imposing feature from the South Summit and knew that it might prove to be a major hurdle, but I focused on the task at hand to get us to its bottom without dwelling on it. It is very easy for the mind to play games when the brain is not functioning at full capacity due to low oxygen; therefore I want to deal with one step at a time.
At nearly 29,000 feet I am confronted by a sheer rock wall that appears unclimbable. However, looking out to the right I can see what looks like a possible route. Overhanging the precipitous Kangshung Face is a great ice cornice that gravity has pulled away from the rock leaving a narrow crack running up the full length. I nervously wonder if the cornice might collapse under my pressure, but there is only one way to find out. I make sure Tenzing has a solid belay and then ease myself into the crack. Facing the rock, I jam my crampons into the ice behind me and wriggle upwards using any feature I can as a handhold. My breathing is labored and I am puffing hard. The ice is holding, and slowly, inch by inch, I climb the 40 feet and, in a state of exhaustion, pull myself onto the top of the rock step. I lie there panting for a couple of minutes and then slowly arrange a belay to bring Tenzing up. I wave down to him to indicate that I am ready and then he too begins the task of climbing up the fissure. After about 10 minutes he arrives panting next to me. I am now sure the summit isn’t very far away.
I again begin cutting steps in the ice reassured by the fact that the ridge is no longer as steep. I can feel the excitement mounting. I want to go faster. I want to get to the top! Amongst climbers this sensation is commonly referred to as ‘summit fever’. I am in the throes of summit fever, but am tormented by the fact that the ridge appears to go on and on, and all I can do is to continue to move at my snail’s pace.
Ahead of me now is a rounded snowy dome. It must be the summit. Back in 1924 George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were last seen just below the second step on the North Ridge still moving towards the summit when clouds moved in, hiding any further view of their progress. I often wonder if one, or both, of their bodies sit quietly frozen on the summit, but I can now see they do not. Maybe I will find something in the snow they have left behind. With two more steps I move onto a flattish exposed area of snow with nothing but space in all directions. Tenzing steps up beside me. This is it. This is the top. The highest point in the world! The summit of Mount Everest! It is a moment I will never forget. My skin feels charged, electrified, and goosebumps form down the nape of my neck. This pleasant feeling when mixed with my mental state produces a wonderful euphoria. I can feel a huge grin charge across my face. I turn towards Tenzing and reach out with my arm to shake his hand. This is not enough for Tenzing and he throws his arms around my shoulders and gives me a big hug. In this moment I realise that a handshake is too formal, too British. I too reach around my companion and hug him, thumping his back. Even with the oxygen mask on, I can sense his excitement. It is 11:30 a.m. on the 29th May, 1953.
I know we can’t stay on top for long, but this moment has to be savoured. I turn off my oxygen and remove my mask. My face is immediately prickled by ice splinters carried by the wind. I reach inside my down jacket and bring out my camera as Tenzing unfurls the four flags wrapped around the shaft of his ice axe: the United Nations flag, the British Union Jack, the Nepalese flag and the Indian flag. I take a photo of Tenzing standing on the summit with the flags flapping in the breeze, then turn to take photos looking down on the major ridges as evidence that we have reached the summit. The view is dramatic! To the south, east and west are mountains as far as I can see including the mighty Kangchenjunga and Makalu. To the north is the brown, barren Tibetan plateau. However, the most moving view is looking down the North Ridge towards the North Col and the Rongbuk Glacier.
This is the route where many of the early feats of courage and endurance were performed by the British expeditions. In the early 1920’s men struggled and fought their way to reach 28,000 feet without modern equipment and without reasonably efficient oxygen sets. I can see part of the ridge where they established their high camps, but the last 1000 feet, which proved to be such a formidable barrier, is hidden from view. The slopes drop away with frightening abruptness from the snowy summit pyramid. Again my thoughts turn to Mallory and Irvine who lost their lives somewhere on the mountain 29 years ago. I look around for some sign they have reached the summit, but can see nothing.
I turn around and see Tenzing crouch down and dig a small hole in the snow. I watch as he places in the hole some pieces of chocolate and other food and some small gifts for the gods whom he believes spend time on the summit. This jogs my memory and I reach into one of my pockets and pull out a small crucifix that John Hunt, the leader of the expedition, has given me. He asked me to leave it on the summit and I promised I would do so. I bend down and press the crucifix into the snow.
The 15 minutes spent on the summit have passed too quickly and I must think about going down, but before I do there is something else I have to do. Our expedition doctor Griffith Pugh always stated one of the greatest risks faced by climbers going high is dehydration. Before departing the tent Tenzing and I quaffed down copious quantities of hot lemon juice and now as a consequence I have a full bladder. There is nothing else to do but urinate. I move down the ridge on the Tibetan side a few feet so I will not be disrespectful to the highest mountain in the world. I focus on a rock slightly buried under the snow and when I finish I notice something jutting out beneath it. I look back over my shoulder at Tenzing. He has removed the flags from his ice axe and thrust them into the snow and is now looking back down into the Western Cwm towards Tengboche. I reach down and flip the rock over and there is an old sardine tin. Bloody hell! I don’t know what to do. Should I pick it up or flip the rock back over it. Curiosity gets the better of me. It takes a bit of prying, but I manage to free it from the ice. The tin has been opened and the inside is frozen ice. I turn the tin over in my gloved hand and notice a date scratched into the metal with the point of something sharp. I can’t believe what I am looking at. The date etched is 1947!
My initial thought is that the tin must have been left by Mallory or Irvine, but seeing the date I know it isn’t theirs. It takes me a second to recall who else has been on the mountain and I remember Earl Denman, the Canadian. He made an illegal attempt from the Tibetan side in 1947 with Ang Dawa and Tenzing, the very same Tenzing who is standing not more than 10 feet away from me and wearing Denman’s balaclava. I am beginning to feel lightheaded so I put the tin in my pocket and move up to Tenzing. I don’t say anything! I just give one nod of my head as a signal that it is time to leave. He too senses that our time on the summit is up. I clear any built-up ice from my mask, replace it on my face and turn on the valve. I check Tenzing’s valve to make sure it is working okay and then we begin retracing our steps down from the summit. A few feet down I stop and glance back at the summit stunned by the reality that someone had reached the top before us, someone else’s boots had left their footprints in the snow!
My lightheadedness disappears once I begin breathing the oxygen and I notice a distinct brightening of my vision. I just wish it would also clear my head of the sardine tin dilemma. Had Tenzing reached the summit with Denman? Why had he never said anything about Denman? Maybe Denman went for the summit by himself and didn’t tell Tenzing he had reached the top! Should I say something to Tenzing? Obviously, now isn’t the time. I have to focus on the descent!Coming down off the summit I am finding it much easier knowing the route and having steps to follow. In what seems like no time at all I am back at the top of the rock step. I down-climb the familiar crack reversing the procedure I had used to get up and wait for Tenzing to join me. Although tired, I am not too tired to be careful. I continue the descent down the ridge and after a short rise, I crampon back onto the South Summit. It has only taken one hour. I have a swig of sweetened lemon juice and hand the bottle back to Tenzing. I feel refreshed as I turn and begin descending again. Several times I touch the outside of my jacket pocket where the sardine tin is stashed. I have to reassure myself that it is real.
It is real and so is the fear I am feeling as I face the descent down the steep snow slope. The snow is very firm and Tenzing leads off re-cutting the steps as he goes until he reaches the end of the rope; then I come down. I carry on ahead and produce a neat line of steps for Tenzing to follow. To the left the snow is a little softer so I move over and begin stamping out firm footholds. This is done to ensure our security as the exposure below us is scary. Eventually I start moving right onto a narrow ridge above our camp and come across the oxygen bottles. We load them onto our backs and descend the short distance to our tent where we collapse as the oxygen bottles we are breathing from are now empty. It is 2 p.m..
Tenzing lights the Primus and makes refreshing hot lemon juice with sugar while I take the empty bottles off the pack frames and attach the one third full bottles. Going down I calculate we can get all the way to the South Col if I set the flow rate at two litres per minute instead of the three litres we have been using. I push the sleeping bags, air mattresses and personal gear into our packs, but leave the tent and empty oxygen bottles where they are. I can now sit down and enjoy the drink!
Although I am tired and my body feels numb, I take some time to reflect on the sardine tin and the moral dilemma of what to do with it. Why had Earl Denman never said anything about his ascent? Was it because it was unlawful? The Tibetan authorities know nothing about his attempt and if they did would it have implications for future expeditions? It is possible Denman’s ascent would not have been believed by the mountaineering community unless he had photographic evidence. So why, then, did he leave anything at all on the summit? Because it would verify his ascent when it was eventually found? If I had not walked from the summit down the North Ridge those few feet I may never have seen the rock or found the tin underneath it. Why did he bury it down there and not leave it on the very summit where it would have been more obvious? I start to suspect that he didn’t want it found by the next party to climb the mountain. The only sense I can make of it is that he wanted that party to announce, to the world, their success in being the first to conquer Mount Everest. Maybe in the future other mountaineers, who reached the summit from the north, might have found the sardine tin, but by then it would be too late to change history. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I found it! I know now what I must do.
With a last look at our tent that has served us so well I begin the final descent to the South Col. I follow Tenzing as we head towards the tattered remains of the Swiss campsite where we branch off on our last stage down to the great couloir. After a couple of feet I pause and pull the sardine tin out of my pocket. Looking down at it I silently acknowledge Denman’s extraordinary achievement and promise to find him when I get back to England. I throw the tin over the edge into the abyss. My heart cries as it disappears from sight.
Below us I find that the wind, which has been blowing in the latter part of our climb, has completely wiped out our tracks. It is now a hard, steep, frozen slope before us and in our tired state the gusting wind is trying to pluck us from our steps. I am resigned to cutting steps for another 200 feet before handing the lead over to Tenzing who cuts another 100 feet of steps.
At long last we exit the couloir and plod wearily down the long, easy slopes above the South Col. I can see a figure coming towards us and know it is my ol’ mate George Lowe. Tenzing and I both stop and turn to look at the mountain. This will be the last time today that the two of us – just the two of us - will stand together before the mountain and share this unbelievable day. The intensity of the wind is rising and a plume of snow is blowing off the summit ridge. Any sign of our footprints will soon vanish. Tenzing lifts the mask from his face, turns and leans towards me, the silhouette of Mount Everest mirrored in his dark obsidian eyes. In a discreet voice he whispers: “Secrets buried in the snow stay buried in the snow.”