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The Everest expedition was, by the standards of the day, a very professional one?
I think it was well organized, but I wouldn't have said we were very heavily funded. We were a relatively small expedition.
How many were you?
There were really only 10 foreign climbing members, and then Tenzing, who became a climbing member. So there were really only 11 of us who were climbing Everest, and there were three other people, there was the film camera man, the doctor and James Morris, the press bloke. So there was really only 13 or 14 of us. After us came those really huge expeditions: the Japanese and Italian expeditions, with 50 or 60 people on them and vast numbers of Sherpas. Ours was nothing compared to what came afterwards.
And you were in a competition?
It was definitely a race, and all eyes were on it. The Swiss had two attempts scheduled [in spring and autumn of 1952], and we were in the mountains climbing around and listening for news. We were really quite concerned as to whether or not the Swiss would be successful. We didn't wish them any harm at all, we were quite respectful of them really. But we just hoped that they wouldn't be successful getting to the top. The Swiss put in a particularly good effort, getting to 28,000 feet. That's when Tenzing really came into his own. He teamed up with [Raymond] Lambert, and Lambert and Tenzing were a pretty formidable combination. Post-monsoon they had bad weather and didn't get as high.
How did you and Tenzing become a team in '53?
The person I really enjoyed climbing with most was George Lowe, and I still believe that if George and I had been in the final summit push, we would have made it because we were a very strong combination. But John decided George and I were both useful as snow and ice climbers, and he split us up and used us with different groups. So I realized I simply wasn't going to be able to climb with George. I looked around and decided that the best and fastest mover around the place, apart from myself, was Tenzing. I remember once at lower altitudes, going up to this pass. On the walk up, Tenzing and I really raced up to the pass. I beat him to it. But he was obviously very fit, very strong and I was impressed. Tenzing was very competitive too, he wanted to be up front. That was a good sign. And he was a good, sound mountaineer. He had been on quite a few Everest expeditions. He really started as just an ordinary porter on the north side of Everest, and then, since he was obviously strong and accomplished, he became a very useful technical climber as well.
Was he a congenial mate?
Yes, very, very. It wasn't easy to communicate with him in those days. Although he spoke a certain amount of English, we couldn't discuss the philosophy of life, that kind of thing. But mountaineering decisions and so on, he was able to deal with those.
Do you remember the climb vividly?
I remember it pretty vividly. I remember we almost broke down on the Lhotse Face. George and I and the Sherpas were on the Lhotse Face, and we simply weren't making any progress for a week or so. I persuaded John to let Tenzing and me go up and start things moving again, otherwise we simply weren't going to get anywhere and finally he agreed. We did that and we shot up. It was Tenzing, me and Wilf Noyce. We climbed to 24,000 feet, and we sort of got things rolling again. A bit later, when the big lift to the South Col was imminent, the party was making very slow progress, and once again I persuaded John that Tenzing and I should go up quickly and then more or less lead them up to the South Col. John somewhat reluctantly agreed. John wanted me and Tenzing not to wear ourselves out before the final push. But really, I was perfectly okay. We had the meeting, to talk about the summit strategy and who would make the final push. It really wasn't tense for me. I'd have been very surprised if Tenzing and I hadn't been given the job of the final assault. We established our last camp at just under 28,000 feet. I can remember there were some very fierce gusts of wind, whistling around the mountainside. We'd hear it coming before it actually hit our cotton tent on this sloping snowy ledge, and Tenzing and I were inside and it seemed to us it was the main thing that was holding the tent down was our weight. We didn't know anything about wind chill factor in those days, but the wind chill factor must have been very considerable. And I really felt that night, with the wind blowing as it was, that we might have trouble with the summit. I have never been the sort of person who is absolutely confident that he is going to reach the summit of any mountain. I was always very much aware of the fact that weather conditions or snow conditions could make getting to the summit difficult or even impossible. But early in the morning the wind had eased off. There was still wind all the way up, but it wasn't anywhere near as severe. I looked out of the tent about 4:30 in the morning, and there were clouds around, but it was a good deal clearer so I realized that we had a good chance to put in a push towards the summit. I was absolutely certain that Tenzing and I could do this. Tenzing was keen to go. We knew that the conditions were good enough, so we just made our preparations and pushed on. I wouldn't say the final push was fun. It was jolly hard work actually, and the long slope up to the South Summit had soft snow and we were very concerned about the potential avalanche. But, you know, as I've said many times this was Everest so we felt we had to push it a bit harder than maybe we would. Once we climbed that step on the ridge, which is now called the Hillary Step, the ridge sort of ran away, almost out of sight. You couldn't really see exactly where the top was. We couldn't find the summit. It wasn't until we came to a place where we could see that the ridge ahead dropped away, and we could see Tibet in front of us, that I realized we must be pretty close to the summit. Up above us the snow rounded off into a dome, and we realized that that must be the top. It's not a really sharp summit the sort you hold your hands around. It's a summit that you can stand on reasonably comfortably. Six or eight people could probably all stand together. A nice summit. I took my oxygen off and took photographs down all the leading ridges, just to make sure I had plenty of evidence that we had actually got to the top. Then I looked across at Makalu, and I can remember assessing the routes up Makalu, which hadn't yet been climbed. I began mentally working out a potential route to the summit, which was actually the route by which it was finally climbed.