Finally, the Top of the World

A witness to the first ascent of Mount Everest 50 years ago this month recalls Edmund Hillary's aplomb, Tenzing Norgay's grace and other glories of the "last earthly adventure"

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 4)

I was not, however, an amateur at my trade. Just as the physiologist had been busy all those months recording people’s metabolisms, and the poet had been writing lyrics, and the cameraman had been taking pictures, so I had been active sending dispatches home to The Times. They went via a cable station in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. There was no road to Kathmandu from the mountain. We had no long-distance radio transmitters, and certainly no satellite telephones, so they went by the hands of Sherpa runners—perhaps the very last time news dispatches were transmitted by runner.


It was 180 miles from the mountain to the capital, and the faster my men ran it, the more I paid them. The journey was very hard. The best of them did it in five days—36 miles a day in the heat of summer, including the crossing of three mountain ranges more than 9,000 feet high. They very nearly broke the bank.


I kept a steady stream of dispatches going, and I was not at all surprised to find that they were often intercepted by rival papers and news organizations. I did not much care, because they generally dealt more in description or surmise than in hard fact, and were couched anyway in a fancy prose that no tabloid would touch; but I did worry about the security of the final, all-important message, the one that would report (or so we hoped) that the mountain had actually been climbed. This I would most decidedly prefer to get home without interference.


Fortunately, I had discovered that some 30 miles from our base camp, at the foot of the mountain, the Indian Army, keeping a watch on traffic out of Tibet, had established a radio post in touch with Kathmandu. I arranged with its soldiers that they would, if the need arose, send for me a brief message reporting some important stage in the adventure. I resolved to keep this resource in reserve for my final message. I could not, however, afford to let the Indians know what such a message contained—it would be a secret hard to keep, and they were only human—so I planned to present it to them in a simple code that appeared not to be in code at all. A key to this deceitful cipher I had sent home to The Times.


The time to use it came at the end of May, and with it my own chance to contribute to the meanings of Everest, 1953. On May 30 I had climbed up to Camp 4, at 22,000 feet in the snow-ravine of the Western Cwm, a valley at the head of a glacier that spills out of the mountain in a horrible morass of iceblocks and crevasses called the Khumbu Icefall. Most of the expedition was assembled there, and we were awaiting the return of Hillary and Tenzing from their assault upon the summit. Nobody knew whether they had made it or not.



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus