One Flew Over by Clay Hall
On March 1, 1953
Tenzing started for Katmandu with his team of twenty hand-picked
Sherpas, there he met with expedition leader Colonel John Hunt of the
British military and the rest of the members, Major Wylie, Edmund
Hillary, George Lowe, Tom Bourdillon, Dr. Charles Evans, Alfred Gregory,
Wilfrid Noyce, George Band, and Michael Westmacott. Though a strong and
organized leader, Hunt was as unaccustomed to dealing with the Sherpas
and porters as they were to his military-like leadership and problems
soon arose. Tenzing had to work feverishly throughout the two week trek
to Thyangboche to smooth out the grumbling of the Sherpas and present
their grievances to the Sahibs. He wondered if he had indeed bitten off
more than he could chew.
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At Thyangboche the expedition
split into two groups and each went to nearby glaciers to get
acclimatized and practiced with their equipment while a few final
quarrels were worked out by Tenzing. The British had wanted the Sherpas
to carry sixty pound packs which Tenzing successfully petitioned to be
reduced to fifty. He then found himself trying desperately to convince
Colonel Hunt that they needed to bring logs and timber up from
Thyangboche for crossing the many crevasses of the Icefall. The British
had brought only a single aluminum ladder that was to be disassembled
and moved up the route for each crevasse crossing.
A busy base camp was set up at
the toe of the Khumbu Glacier and by April 22 the team had pushed
through the Icefall to establish Camp III in the Western Cwm. The
weather remained mild with only small afternoon storms as the team
labored to set up three more camps on the Lhotse Face.
During this time Tenzing had
been on a rope with the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the two were
showing themselves to be a strong team. Tenzing and Hillary remained
lower down on the mountain and limited their workload in preparation for
a summit bid. By May 20 the supplies were in place and the advance team
was ready to make the push to the Col, but some of the fifteen Sherpas
in Camp VII were stalling on going higher. After a quick confab in ABC
it was decided that Hillary and Tenzing would head up (using oxygen) and
find out what the problem was. On arriving at Camp VII Tenzing found the
Sherpas in their tent complaining of headaches and sore throats, not
wanting to carry higher. They begged Tenzing to go no higher and accused
him of conspiring to ruin their livelihood. They cried that if Everest
was climbed there would be no more expeditions and they would have to go
back to work in the tea plantations of Darjeeling.
“Stop worrying like old
women!” Tenzing scolded them. “If Everest is climbed the Himalayas will
be famous all over the world. There will be more expeditions and jobs
The scolding worked and the
following day Tenzing and Hillary led the Sherpas up to the South Col
following the previous day’s efforts of Noyce and the Sherpa Annullu.
They then descended to ABC while the Sherpas erected Camp VIII on the
Col among the ruins of the Swiss tents from the autumn prior.
On the 23 of May Bourdillon
and Evans started up from Advanced Base Camp for their summit push while
the Sherpas moved supplies up to the Col ahead of them. Two days later a
fresh Tenzing and Hillary along with Lowe, Gregory and eight healthy
Sherpas left ABC for the South Col as Bourdillon, Evans and Hunt made
their try for the top.
On May 26 Tenzing’s group
reached the Col and waited for the return of Hunt’s party from their
summit bid. Soon after, Hunt returned with the Sherpa Da Namgyal,
exhausted and near collapse. They had climbed to 27,350’ and dumped gear
and their oxygen sets while the climbers Bourdillon and Evans continued
on. Bourdillon and Evans returned in the afternoon having had to turn
around at the South Summit due to troubles with their oxygen equipment.
Hillary and Tenzing spent the afternoon gleaning information from the
two climbers. As the ten men lay in their tents on the South Col that
night the winds began to roar.
The next day the wind was yet
howling on the Col and it was decided that there would be no summit
attempt. Colonel Hunt, along with Bourdillon, Evans and a sick Sherpa
descended to the Western Cwm. The remaining climbers lay pinned in their
tents sucking on their oxygen. Tenzing knew this would be his final
chance. This was his seventh attempt on Everest. Three times in little
more than a year he had waited out the battering gales on this frozen
pass. Tenzing lay awake in his tent all through the night while his
hopes rose and fell opposite the strength of the winds.
The tempest had steadily decreased
through the night and by 8 AM it was decided that they would have a go
at the ridge. Just before 9 AM a party of three led by Lowe set off with
oxygen and forty pound packs to break trail and cut steps. Tenzing and
Hillary followed an hour behind with fifty pounds of oxygen apparatus.
Around noon the pair caught Lowe’s party near the sight where Tenzing
and Lambert had spent their numbing night exactly one year earlier. They
trudged through the deep snow and, coming upon Hunt’s abandoned gear,
added this to their packs. Lowe cut steps until 2 PM and then Tenzing
took the lead to a sheltered tent site near 27,900’. The others wished
Tenzing and Hillary good luck and left them alone on the high ridge. The
weather was mild enough that the two were able to take off their gloves
while they melted water for soup. Inside their tent they passed the
night lying awake in their sleeping bags breathing O2.
At 3:30 AM the two men began
to brew up liquids for their summit push. First light allowed Tenzing to
point out to Hillary the glowing Thyangboche Monastery in the valley far
below and by 6:30 the pair had slung on their oxygen gear and set off up
the ridge with Tenzing in the lead. On surpassing Tenzing and Lambert’s
high point from the year before they began to encounter unconsolidated
snow on the ridge. At 9 AM they reached the South Summit and were able
to discard their empty twenty pound oxygen tanks and start on fresh
cylinders. From here they found good snow conditions and continued
toward the summit, stopping occasionally to clear ice from each others
breathing tubes. Just below the summit they encountered a forty foot
vertical section of rock. Hillary took the lead and through superhuman
effort was able to labor up a chimney created between the rock and a
vertical cornice of snow. Continuing on and carefully belaying each
other one at a time they labored up the ridge. One hump of snow led to
another and finally there was nothing beyond but the plains of Tibet
fading toward the curved violet horizon. They were on the summit!
Hillary offered a
congratulatory handshake to Tenzing but that was not sufficient. Tenzing
threw himself at Hillary and gave him a hearty Sherpa hug. Hillary took
some photos while Tenzing knelt down and buried a small pencil (given to
him by his daughter Nima) and an offering of sweets in the summit snow,
then he said a short prayer.
Standing up, Tenzing thought
of Irvine and Mallory back in 1924 and scanned the summit for evidence
of their attempt. Nothing. A gentle breeze caressed the climbers. On his
head Tenzing wore the balaclava given to him by the crazy Earl Denman,
around his neck was a scarf belonging to his great friend Raymond
Lambert. His Swiss reindeer skin boots were on their third expedition
and the wool socks that he wore were hand-knitted by his wife Ang Lahmu.
He owed the entire sum of his expedition salary to friends back in
Tenzing gazed down at his Solo
Khumbu Valley where he had spent his childhood wondering at the far away
summit on which he now stood. He marveled over the high pastures where
he had grazed his father’s yaks as a child and knew that the Wheel had
come full circle. For Tenzing Norgay it had been the shortest of
distances, but a long journey indeed.