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Do you remember your first brush with fear?
The first peak I climbed in [New Zealand's] southern mountains was a very old route, but we had to climb up a long, steep snow-slope. I was aware that if I slipped on the slope that I could possibly injure myself. I was aware that I had to be careful and there was a danger. It was really a very small possibility of danger compared to my later situations, but at that time I was aware of it. Getting up to the top of this little mountain and down again gave me probably as much pleasure as climbing a really difficult mountain did later on.
You became a serious climber on New Zealand's South Island?
Yes, but although I did a lot of climbing in New Zealand and a lot of backpacking and walking around the hills, I was really a relatively late starter as a "serious" mountaineer. When I first went to the Himalayas in 1951, I was 31 years old. I really was at my prime, though some would think I was getting on. I think Himalayan climbers tend to mature fairly late. I think most of the successful Himalayan climbers have ranged from 28 to just over 40 really. When you're younger you're probably faster, but when you're older you have incredible endurance, and you also have a good deal more experience you've had more experience of being uncomfortable and miserable, whereas the younger person who is all go, go really hasn't been all that miserable in his life. When you're climbing at high altitudes, life can be pretty miserable business, and I think the older person is able to put up with this more easily than younger people.
So you had gained experience in the Southern Alps, you were part of a group of talented New Zealand climbers including your friend George Lowe, you had joined these British expeditioners and, at 31, off you went to scout Everest?
I was involved in two [Himalayan] expeditions in 1951, and then another one 1952, before doing the top of Everest. I remember in 1951 we got to Australia to head for the Himalayas and we were interviewed by a large number of press people in Sydney. When we told them we weren't going to climb Mt. Everest they completely lost interest in us. One chap from one of the main Sydney papers, when I told him we weren't going to Everest, his face dropped. He said to me, "Have you ever been close to death?" And I said "Well, I don't know. I've been scared a few times." He asked, "Has anybody ever died in the course of your trips?" And I said no. And he said to me "Gosh, nothing exciting?" He was a real tough Sydney reporter. I quite liked him, but he was very disappointed in us.
When you first saw the Himalayas, were you awestruck?
No. When we first saw the Himalayan peaks, I was very impressed they looked pretty good but they didn't look all that different from what I'd been climbing in the Southern Alps.
Did you find yourselves up to the task?
Yes, I think so. Our first trip was very much a shoestring operation we were pretty impoverished and most of our equipment was inadequate. For instance, I had a pair of boots that were very primitive and had rubber soles on them, and they were much too small for me so I could only wear about one pair of thick socks and one pair of thin socks, which really was completely inadequate for climbing at high altitude in the Himalayas. Even though I had pretty good resistance to cold in my feet, that first trip I definitely had cold feet. But we still made a lot of new summits and we really did extremely well. We weren't using oxygen that trip. The highest mountain we climbed was just over 22,000 feet.
How many mountains were there?
This was one of the great pleasures really: We were in an area where almost nobody had done any climbing and we made six first ascents of mountains over 20,000 feet. That sort of experience is very difficult to come by these days. There are still lots of mountains around, but all the big ones have been done. Reinhold Messner was the first to reach the summit of all the 8,000-meter peaks [a feat the Italian mountaineer completed in 1986].
You were known as an aggressive climber in your Himalayan years..
I was quite competitive, and I tended to compete with members of my own expedition. I don't think I was unpleasantly aggressive, but I think I rather enjoyed grinding my companions into the ground on a big hill. I remember when [Everest expedition leader] John Hunt and I were walking in from Kathmandu to Everest, we crossed over a river and had to climb up a very long, steep hill. We were going to camp at the top of the hill. I always used to enjoy going fast up these hills, and at one stage I caught up to John, who was at least 10 years older than I was. I passed John. John was very, very competitive, and even though he was older he really put on the pace to try and pass me again. Well, there was simply no way I would permit anybody to pass me, and I put on the speed and left John behind. I always remember looking behind at John, who was absolutely desperate to try and defeat me on this hill, and I really couldn't understand it. Here was the leader of the expedition, the big wheel, why should he be so desperately keen to beat someone who was a great deal younger than he was? I was physically strong back then, and I acclimatized well, and I had quite a competitive spirit. Technically, I was a good snow-and-ice technician, as far as the standards in those days went. I was a good step-cutter, and could climb incredible snow and ice pretty effectively. Things have changed so much that the technical ability of people like Messner is greatly superior to anything that we had. But I wouldn't say the modern mountaineer is any stronger, and certainly is not more strongly motivated.