!! BUCKINGHAM COVERS EXCLUSIVE !! An interview with Sir Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund Hillary's' autograph is a classic for any collector. He was the man who achieved the impossible. Health experts agreed that even if someone could reach the top of Everest, the world's highest mountain, he would almost certainly die from the extreme conditions exerted on the body at such an altitude. But Sir Edmund confounded the sceptics - becoming the first man to set foot on the 29,000ft summit and plant the Union Jack on the roof of the world. Now, following the 50th anniversary of the historic expedition, the 83-year-old has given an exclusive interview about his amazing feat.
"I was always a dreamer"
From his home in New Zealand the Kiwi born climber recalls how he first got the mountaineering bug. He says: "I was a dreamer. I dreamt about adventure. I read lots and lots of adventure books and I used to walk for miles around the country paths near my home in New Zealand. "Then, when I was 16, I went on a school trip to a National Park and there was heavy snow. "For ten days I skied and climbed. I really enjoyed it and I decided that this was what I wanted to do. From then on, whenever I could, I headed for the mountains climbing harder and harder peaks."
Sir Edmund went on to become a beekeeper but kept up his mountaineering and then, in 1952 he was asked to join an attempt on the summit of Everest. He explains: "We had an expedition in 1951 just four of us and we went of to another part of the Himalayas and we were pretty successful in what we climbed - half a dozen peaks of over 20,000 feet. This information got back to London. Eric Shipton had just got permission to reconnoitre the south side of Mount Everest. "Whereas the people Eric had from the UK were good rock climbers they weren't that experienced on snow and ice." Sir Edmund joined the reconnaissance and on the climb identified a way to the summit.
He recalls: "A little to our surprise that there was a route through up to the South Col maybe even towards the summit. But we weren't equipped to even attempt the summit then, though but we did climb up the ice wall, which was quite demanding and then descended."
But time was against the British attempt. Sir Edmund explains: "When we got back to Kathmandu, determined to capture the mountain the next year, we discovered, a little bit to our horror that the Nepalese government had given permission to two Swiss expeditions to attempt the summit. I had nothing against the Swiss, but we were a bit disappointed. "They were very strong. In 1952 they battled with the mountain but they didn't get up. Then in 1953 we had permission and that really started our attempt on the mountain."
"I was very determined"
Yet joining British Brigadier John Hunt's expedition in 1953 Sir Edmund says he still wasn't sure that they'd make it. He says: "I was initially never completely confident that we were going to get to the top. "My feeling was that we were going to give it a really good push and if all went well and we overcame the problems we would get to the summit, so I didn't really have this feeling of confidence that we were going to be successful. But I was very determined.
"One or two of the members I think, not too many of them, were confident that we would reach the top but there had been a lot of good expeditions on the mountain and they hadn't succeeded so it was all a bit of a gamble really."
"We might get to the top and just collapse"
And along with the physical challenges there was another problem facing the team. Sir Edmund says: "There was this big psychological problem which hung over our heads all the time which was that the physiologists were all very doubtful that if the could reach the top and survive. They didn't know whether, even with oxygen, we might get to the top and just collapse.
"So we had this psychological barrier. I never used to worry much about it but some of the others did. Of course once we had climbed Everest all the other expeditions haven't had to worry about that."
During May 1953 the expedition began their assault. Says Sir Edmund: "It was John Hunt's decision who would be first up. We carried all our loads up to the South Col then we returned back down to Base Camp for a little breather and to talk about what we would do. "I can remember John Hunt typing away down at the base camp all night and early in the morning he asked Charles Evans and me to join him in his tent and he wanted to discuss the various jobs for the members of the expedition."
Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon were given the objective of reaching the South Summit - which was higher than anybody had been before. Sir Edmund adds: "John said that if they managed it they could have a crack for the top"
"But the summit team would be Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and myself who were unquestionably the fittest.
"I definitely regarded Tenzing and me as the assault couple even though we were classified as the second team in a way."
Sir Edmund is still able to vividly recount the dramatic final push. He says: "We climbed up to the South Summit which Tom and Charles had already reached but their oxygen wasn't working at all well and they were very tired"
"Tom wanted to go on - he was determined. But Charles knew they were very tired and he said to Tom, 'if you go on you will never see your wife again.' It was the most convincing thing he could have said. "So they turned back and they really had quite a struggle getting down the mountain".
Meanwhile, Tenzing and Sir Edmund prepared to take on the summit.
Sir Edmund says: "We got up to the South Col and we looked along the narrow summit ridge and there was a rock step, on the way to the top of the mountain. I never really thought about suggesting it to Tenzing that he should lead along there. I was a very experienced ice climber and this was just the place for me".
"We were roped together and I descended down on to the ridge. I cut steps all the way along for about forty feet and would delay while Tenzing joined me. I kept doing this all the way along until we came to the step in the ridge, which is now called the Hillary Step, and it was pretty steep and quite hard to climb"
"But on the right hand side there was an ice cornice which was hanging over and it had sort of moved away a bit from the rock so there was a crack between the rock and the ice. It was a crack that I felt I could crawl inside but I didn't know whether the ice would remain in place or not".
"There was only one way to find out!"
"I knew there was only one way to find out and that was to get in it and scramble up! So I duly did and wriggled and jammed my way up to the top and pulled myself out on the top of the rock step".
Sir Edmund says that, for him, this was the turning point - the moment he realised the mountain could be beaten.
He says: "That was the first time on the whole expedition that I was really confident that we were going to get to the top. We had overcome the step and we were very close to the summit and then Tenzing wriggled his way up and joined me and I kept cutting steps along the icy part of the ridge, quite a long way, until I could see the Tibetan Plateau spread out in front of me below"
"We knocked the bastard off!"
"Up to the right was a rounded snowy dome and I cut steps up to this dome and Tenzing was fairly close behind and I stepped on to the top. Tenzing joined me and we realised we were on top of the mountain."
Sir Edmund says that there has always been a lot of controversy about who actually stepped on top of the mountain first. He is keen to reveal the truth behind the myths. He says: "There was quite a lot of conflict about it. There were quite a lot of communist elements in Nepal at that stage and they were very keen on claiming that Tenzing got to the summit first. So John Hunt, Tenzing and I had a little discussion because it was getting embarrassing and we agreed that we would say that we reached the summit almost together. I have always been asked the question and until recently that's the answer I gave"
"But I was dodging the question really. I suppose you could say that I actually set foot on the summit first but this is completely unimportant to the mountaineer - who reaches the summit first means nothing. We were a team together. In the European Alps in the old days it was very common for the guide who was leading an inexperienced person up to step aside and say 'after you,' even though the guide had done all the work."
Sir Edmund is also keen to put the record straight on another legend about the climb - that it was timed to coincide with Queen Elizabeth's coronation. The mountain was conquered just four days before.
He says: "As far as I was concerned there was no truth in it whatsoever. I think John Hunt had an idea that it would be very nice if it happened that way but I didn't think at any stage did we organise things so that we could get to the top to coincide with the Coronation. We just wanted to get up."
After the ascent Hillary became a hero, quickly knighted for his services. But he never forgot his humble roots. Even at the celebrations at Buckingham Palace which followed, where he met the Queen, he recalls having to borrow a morning suit and wore a shirt ripped down the back. And though he says his parents were proud of his achievements his mother ticked him off for his legendary comment on coming down Everest, that he had "knocked the bastard off." "When I came down the mountain to the South Col George Lowe gave me a thermos flask and he said 'how did it go Ed?' I forgot myself and said, 'well, George we knocked the bastard off!'
"I had quite a strict upbringing and when I got back my mother said, "Edmund, you didn't say that word, did you?"
Today Sir Edmund is modest about his achievement. He says: "I'm sure some of the modern day climbers could have done it with the equipment we had. There are some very good modern climbers and they could do it if they had a good expedition like we did and good organisation, good motivation and the right people."
Since climbing Everest Sir Edmund, whose wife and daughter were killed in a plane crash, has continued to live in New Zealand. He has devoted himself to the Sherpa people setting up the Himalayan Trust to help improve education and health services in Nepal. He explains: "My father didn't approve of a lot of the things I did and used to take me over the woodshed and give me a good beating. But my parents also instilled in me a strong sense of our responsibility to help out people in the developing world."
And, rather than spend the anniversary at celebrations in London, Sir Edmund spent May 29 in Kathmandu with the Sherpas.
He says: "I think the anniversary was an important occasion. I had been very fortunate to meet the queen on a number of occasions. But I had quite a strong discussion with the other expedition members in the UK because on the 29th they are holding a big event. But on the other hand I have had very close relationships with the Sherpas and they're very keen to celebrate in Katmandhu".
So, on the 50th anniversary, Sir Edmund was once again celebrating in the shadow of the mountain which made him a household name.
Sir Edmund was interviewed by Tony Buckingham and the interview was written up by Laurie Stone.