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Vertical Climb in the Death Zone

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Fri, 07/10/2020 - 09:41

Sir Edmund Hillary and the First Ascent of Everest

Story 5 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century

Part One

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay plodded slowly up the southeast ridge of Everest. Behind them was the lower South Summit. Ahead of them was the summit of Everest itself. Nobody had ever reached the summit before. Would they be able to make it? To their right were large cornices of snow. These are a bit like the lumps of ice cream which stick out over the edge of a cone. If they stood on one of these and it collapsed they would plunge 3,050 metres down the Kangshung Face to certain death. To their left was the southwest face which plummeted 2,400 metres to the Western Cwm.

In between the cornices and the rock face was a narrow stretch of snow. They took it in turn to cut steps in the snow with their ice axes. Two or three swishes of the axe were all that were needed to make a big enough step. The climbers were attached by a rope. Tenzing would push the handle of his axe into the snow and wrap the rope a few times around it. If Edmund slipped then hopefully the axe and rope would hold and stop him sliding down the mountain. When Edmund had cut steps for about twelve metres he would stop, push his axe into the snow, and wait while Tenzing climbed up to meet him. Tenzing would then cut the next lot of steps while Edmund rested.

The South Summit of Everest is 8,690 metres above sea level and the height of the actual summit is 8,850 metres. At these heights the air is very thin and it is impossible to survive for any length of time without using bottled oxygen. Mountaineers have a name for the section of a mountain which is above 8,000 metres - they call it the Death Zone. Edmund and Tenzing had bottles of oxygen on their backs. Tubes from the bottles fed into a mask on their face. As they climbed up the ridge, ice began to form in the tubes. They had to unblock them to make sure they had a good supply of oxygen.

The weather was fine and they were making steady progress. What could stop them now from making it to the summit? There was one obstacle which stood in their way, a near-vertical, twelve-metre cliff of rock.

It looked almost impossible to climb. There were no handholds, just smooth rock. They were wearing lots of layers of clothes and gloves. On their feet they had large clumsy boots with crampons. These are sharp metal spikes to give grip on snow and ice. They wore sunglasses to protect them from the glare of the sun reflecting off the snow. Oxygen face masks covered their faces and the oxygen bottles on their backs were heavy. How could they climb smooth rock with all this?

They looked to see if there was a way round to the left. But it was no use. They could not climb straight up the rock, they could not go round. It looked like they could not go any further. The summit seemed beyond reach. One thing was for sure, they knew they couldn’t delay for long. After all, they were in the Death Zone.

Part Two

Sir Edmund Hillary was born in 1919 in Auckland, New Zealand. Shortly afterwards his parents moved to the small town of Tuakau. He went to primary school here, but when he was older he had to travel to the grammar school in Auckland.  This involved a four-hour round trip each day by train and he spent a lot of time reading books about exploration on these journeys. At school one of his favourite sports was boxing and this helped to give him more confidence.  He enjoyed going on school trips to the large mountains in New Zealand. In 1935 he went on a school skiing trip to Mount Ruapehu. This made him realize how much he enjoyed being outdoors in the sun, in the cold and snow of the mountains.

After he left school he studied mathematics and science at university and then worked as a beekeeper in the family honey business. This job was quiet during the winter and he used the spare time to go climbing. Edmund joined a hiking club called the Radiant Living Tramping Club and went with the club on tours in the Waitakere Ranges, a chain of hills in the Auckland Region. In 1939 he completed his first major ascent when he reached the summit of Mount Ollivier in the South Island of New Zealand. However, this ascent is more of a scramble than a climb. Edmund was very strong and fit, but he was yet to develop his technical climbing skills.

In 1939 the Second World War began. At first Edmund was reluctant to join the armed forces because he was a conscientious objector and did not wish to fight others. But as the Japanese threat increased in the Pacific he changed his mind and, in 1944, joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a navigator. He served in Catalina flying boats which, amongst other things, carried out search and rescue missions for downed pilots and hunted enemy submarines. Edmund served in Fiji and his squadron then moved to the Solomon Islands. Here he was badly burnt in a boating accident and was sent back to New Zealand.

After the war, he started climbing again. In 1946 he met Harry Ayres who was one of the leading mountain guides in New Zealand. Ayres took Edmund on several climbing expeditions during the next three years. Their climbs included the highest mountain in New Zealand, then known as Mount Cook, but today known officially as Aoraki / Mount Cook. Ayres taught Edmund the more advanced techniques of climbing and he became a highly skilled climber.

In 1951, he went on an expedition to the Himalayas with three other New Zealand climbers and climbed several mountains. While he was there he joined an expedition led by Eric Shipton, a famous British mountaineer. The expedition explored the area around Everest. He went on another of Shipton’s expeditions in the same region the following year.  This one was not very well-organized, but Edmund continued to learn more and more about climbing in the Himalayas. Later that year, John Hunt, a colonel in the British army, was appointed to lead an expedition to try and get to the top of Everest. The attempt would be made in 1953. Although it was to be a British expedition, Edmund and another New Zealander, George Lowe, were given a place on the team.

The climbers and Sherpas gathered at Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, during early March 1953. After much sorting out, on 10 March, the first of the group set out to walk to the base camp. This three-week walk would give them time to get used to the thinner air as they got higher and higher. During the walk Edmund was able to spend some time with Tenzing. He was one of the local Sherpas helping with the expedition. Although, of course, neither of them knew then that they would be the climbers who would try for the summit.  

On 25 March they were over halfway and had reached a town called Namche Bazaar. Everybody in the town welcomed them, with singing and dancing. Tenzing’s mother and family had also gone there to wish him well. The climbers then walked on to a place called Thyangboche, famous for its Buddhist monastery. Hunt ordered the whole expedition to stop at Thyangboche for a few days. This would give everybody time to get used to the thin air before they went even higher. Also, they went off in small groups to the mountains nearby to practise using the equipment.

Base camp was set up on 12 April at the edge of the great Khumbu Icefall. This had to be crossed to reach the Western Cwm, the valley next to Everest. It took many days to find a safe route through the icefall. It is a dangerous glacier that is always moving. It has blocks of ice as big as houses which can fall at any moment. It also has crevasses. These are cracks, sometimes hidden by snow, which are so deep a man could be killed if he fell through. They put up flags to mark the way and used metal ladders and wooden planks to cross the crevasses. Each day, Sherpas and climbers would make trips through the icefall to take supplies to the camps further up the mountain. One day Edmund had a narrow escape when he walked over a hidden crevasse.

It was late in the afternoon and Edmund and Tenzing were returning from Camp 2. They often worked together in the icefall. They were tied together with a rope and Edmund was in front. They were snaking around the tall blocks of ice which towered above them when the snow beneath Edmund gave way. He had stepped into a crevasse. He started to slip down its side. ‘Tenzing! Tenzing!’ he shouted.

Tenzing had to act fast. Edmund knew that any second their rope would pull Tenzing over the ice towards the crevasse. Then the rope went tight with a jarring yank. But he had stopped falling. Tenzing had realized straightaway what had happened. He jammed his ice-axe into the snow and threw himself down. When the rope went tight he held on with all his strength to the axe. But then he had to get Edmund out of the crevasse. He began to pull on the rope and at the same time Edmund managed to climb a little up the icy wall of the crevasse using his crampons. Slowly but surely he reached the top and climbed out of the crack. Edmund was not badly hurt and they continued on their way. Edmund later said that without Tenzing he would not have made it.

As the weeks went by the climbers and Sherpas made camps higher and higher up the mountain.  They climbed part of the way up the steep face of the Lhotse peak at the back of the Western Cwm. They then turned left and headed towards the South Col. This is a flat and exposed area between Lhotse and Everest. On 21 May Camp 8 was set up on the South Col. On 26 May Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans set out from the South Col to get to the top. They reached the South Summit, but they were running out of oxygen and they had to turn back. They returned, exhausted and despondent, to the South Col.

Now it was the turn of Edmund and Tenzing. To improve their chances it was decided to make another camp higher up the mountain. Early on 28 May two climbers and a Sherpa set off from the South Col carrying supplies with Edmund and Tenzing following. By the middle of the afternoon they reached a spot where a tent could be pitched. It was about 265 metres beneath the South Summit. The others went down leaving Edmund and Tenzing alone. Before they could pitch the tent they had to make the ground level by chipping away at the ice. When they had done this they found that the canvas and ropes for the tent were frozen. By the time the tent was ready it was nearly dark. They crawled inside and made hot drinks and ate some food.  Thankfully the wind died down during the evening. They were then able to get a little sleep.

At 3.30 a.m. they started to get ready. They lit their stove and melted snow to make hot lemon juice. They added lots of sugar for energy. They also ate some biscuits and sardines. Edmund had taken his boots off the previous night because they were damp. Overnight they had frozen solid and he had to melt the ice by holding the boots over the stove. At 6.30 a.m. they set off in the bright sunlight. At 9 a.m. they reached the South Summit. By now they had both used up one of their oxygen bottles. They used their axes to make a place to sit in the snow and got rid of the empty bottles to reduce weight. They continued their climb up the southeast ridge. They were in the Death Zone, but all seemed to be going well. Then they reached the vertical cliff.

Part Three

At first, it seemed there was no way up the cliff. But then they had an idea. It was risky, but it might just work. At the right hand side there was a giant cornice of snow attached to the rock. It ran all the way up the cliff, sticking out over the edge. In between the snow and the rock was a small gap, a crack which ran right up the cliff. It was just about wide enough for a man to get in. It might be possible to force a way upwards using this crack. Tenzing watched as Edmund wedged himself into the crack. If Edmund fell, Tenzing would have to take his weight on the rope. If he was not strong enough, they could both plummet to their death. But how could Edmund force his way upwards?

Edmund faced the side of the rock and had his back to the cornice. He used the back of his crampons to jam into the snow. With his arms and legs he used every piece of grip he could find to pull himself upwards. There was a danger the cornice would break away from the rock. It was stuck against the rock, but it was already coming away from the rock because, after all, there was a crack. He had to take the risk. He had come this far. He did not want to give up now. Slowly he got higher and higher up the crack. It was exhausting work, even with the help of the bottled oxygen. Eventually, he got to the top of the crack and managed to get out onto a big ledge. He lay there for a while as he got his breath back. Then he made himself secure and signalled for Tenzing to come up. But would the cornice continue to hold? Tenzing jammed himself into the crack and forced his way upwards. Edmund pulled on the rope, but this only helped a little. Tenzing had to fight just as hard as Edmund had to make progress. Thankfully the cornice continued to hold and at last Tenzing made it onto the ledge. 

They rested for a short time, but then it was time to press on. They trudged up the ridge, cutting steps as they went. They tried managing without cutting steps but it was too slippery. It seemed the mountain just went on and on. Each hump they saw on the horizon they hoped would be the top, but when they got there the mountain continued upwards. Then they got to a hump which had nothing beyond it. They shook hands and thumped each other on the back with joy. At 11.30 a.m. on 29 May 1953 they had reached the summit of Everest.

They spent just over a quarter of an hour on the summit. Edmund took a photograph of Tenzing holding his ice axe with lots of flags attached to it. Edmund also took photographs of the spectacular view. In the snow Tenzing buried some sweets, chocolate and a pencil which his daughter had given him for a religious offering. They then began the dangerous descent. They arrived back at the South Col at 4 p.m. The climbers there were elated. Man had climbed the highest mountain in the world.

Part Four

News that Everest had been climbed soon spread down the mountain to the other camps. From there the news reached London just in time for the coronation of Elizabeth II on 2 June. Although Edmund was from New Zealand, this country is part of the British Commonwealth. The British people were very excited about this great achievement happening on the eve of the coronation.

Edmund and Tenzing were treated as heroes around the world. Whilst in London the expedition members were invited to Buckingham Palace. They attended a garden party and the queen gave them medals. Edmund and John Hunt were given knighthoods.

Edmund just wanted to get back to the mountains. Soon afterwards he led his own expedition to the Himalayas. The team consisted of climbers from New Zealand and they climbed twenty-three peaks. However, two climbers fell into a crevasse and Edmund broke some of his ribs as he helped rescue them. He later caught pneumonia and malaria. He had to be evacuated from the mountains.  After this he found it increasingly hard to climb at high altitudes.

From 1955 he became involved in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. It was led by the British explorer, Vivan Fuchs. He aimed to cross the Antarctic via the South Pole. Fuchs would travel from Vahsel Bay on one side of the Antarctic to McMurdo Sound on the other side. Edmund would lead a team from McMurdo Sound and go part way to the Pole, laying supply depots for Fuchs. Edmund set out in late 1957 and laid the depots. But he then carried on to the Pole, arriving on 4 January 1958, over two weeks before Fuchs. Fuchs went on to complete the crossing, but some felt Edmund had undermined Fuchs by going to the Pole himself.

He continued to go on epic expeditions. He led an expedition in 1960 to Mount Makalu in the Himalayas, but he suffered a minor stroke and a doctor had to walk him down to a lower altitude. In 1977 he led a party which travelled by speedboat from the mouth of the Ganges River to its source in the Himalayan foothills.

But perhaps more important than his expeditions was the work he did to help the Sherpas and their families. In 1960 he went to Nepal and helped build a school in a place called Khumjung. It became known as ‘the school house in the clouds’. He set up a charity called the Himalayan Trust and this has helped many Sherpa communities over the years with various projects, including the building of more schools and also hospitals. Edmund regarded his work for the Trust as more important than climbing Everest.

Sadly, in 1975 his wife and daughter were killed in a plane crash. This badly affected him, but his determination shone through and he continued his active life. From 1985 to 1988 he was New Zealand’s ambassador to India and Nepal. He continued to take an interest in the welfare of Sherpas and the Nepalese people until he died in 2008. He achieved many things in his life, but he will always be remembered for that momentous day when he and Tenzing climbed the vertical cliff in the Death Zone and made it to the top of the world.


A particularly helpful source was:

Conefrey, M. (2013) Everest 1953 :the Epic Story of the First Ascent (London: Oneworld Publications).