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If you like Edmund Hillary's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Roger Bannister,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Richard Leakey,
Greg Mortenson,
Alan Shepard and
Chuck Yeager

Edmund Hillary's recommended reading: The Warlord of Mars

Related Links:
New Zealand Edge
Hillary Foundation
Himalayan Trust

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Sir Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund Hillary
Profile of Sir Edmund Hillary Biography of Sir Edmund Hillary Interview with Sir Edmund Hillary Sir Edmund Hillary Photo Gallery

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview

Conqueror of Mt. Everest

November 16, 1991
San Francisco, California

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  Sir Edmund Hillary

Where did you get the vision to climb Mt. Everest?

Sir Edmund Hillary: I never had a vision to climb Mt. Everest. As with everything else, it just more or less grew. I started in the New Zealand Alps and I got more competent, and I climbed harder mountains there, and I made a number of first ascents, and I had a year in the European Alps and I climbed there. Then we decided we'd like to go off to the Himalayas. Not Everest -- we went off to the Indian Gahwal Himalayas and we were pretty successful. We climbed a half-a-dozen new peaks of well over 20,000 feet, and it really wasn't until then that we read in the paper that the British had got permission to do a reconnaissance to the south side of Mt. Everest through Nepal which, up until those days, had been completely closed to foreigners. The idea that, "Gee it would be fun to go along on that reconnaissance," certainly entered my mind, and we contacted the organizers in London and two of us were invited from that expedition to join up with the party and go into the south side of Mt. Everest. You know, it's almost like a football team, even a team of climbers. If you're pretty competent and if you don't make any grave errors, once you're in, you're in. You're sort of appointed next time. So on the Everest reconnaissance, we had a successful expedition. We came back next year and we had some more successful climbs, and then in '53 we were invited to join the summit attempt. It was a growing process and a learning process. Never, in my early days, did I ever think of attempting to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview Photo

Let's talk about the climb up Everest, one step at a time.

Sir Edmund Hillary: I never climbed up anything one step at a time. You read so much about how, at extreme altitudes, you take one step and then you stop and pant and puff for a while, and then take one more step. I don't ever remember doing that. You're much slower in higher altitudes because of the lack of oxygen, but I used to keep moving pretty steadily most of the time and I didn't have to stop too often for panting and puffing. I think I was pretty well adapted and acclimatized to altitude and I was very fit in those days, so I could keep moving very freely.

Can you tell us about any specific challenges along the way as you were ascending?

Sir Edmund Hillary: Well there were lots of challenges. Even the route we were climbing Mt. Everest was one of the two easiest routes on the mountain as we know now. Of course, nobody had climbed it then. But even so, there are demanding parts of it. At the bottom of the mountain, there's the ice fall, where it's a great tumbled ruin of ice that's all pouring down and filled with crevasses and ice walls. It's under slow but constant movement. It's a dangerous place because things are always tumbling down. So you have to establish a route up through that which you can get with reasonable safety. But over the years, literally dozens of people have died in the crevasses. They've been engulfed by ice walls falling down and things of that nature. I had one experience on the ice fall with Tenzing. We were actually descending after having been further up the mountain and it was getting close towards dark so we wanted to get through the ice fall before darkness fell. We were roped together, but I was rushing down ahead in the lead. About half-way down there was a narrow crevasse, I guess it was about four feet wide, but just a bit too wide to step across. On the lower lip was a great chunk of ice stuck against the ice wall, and we'd used that as sort of a stepping stone to get over the gap. I came rushing down the hill without thinking too carefully, I just leapt in the air and landed on the chunk of ice, whereupon the chunk of ice broke off and dropped into the crevasse with me on top of it. It was interesting how everything seemed to start going slowly, even though I was free-falling into the crevasse. My mind, obviously, was working very quickly indeed. The great chunk of ice started tipping over and I realized, if I wasn't careful, I'd be crushed between the ice and the wall of the crevasse. So I just sort of bent my knees and leapt in the air. I was still falling, but now I was a couple of feet clear of the chunk of ice. Time really seemed to pass even though I was falling clear and I realized that unless the rope came tight fairly soon, I would come to a rather sticky end on the bottom of the crevasse. Up top, Tenzing had acted very quickly. He had thrust his ice axe into the snow, whipped the rope around it, and the rope came tight with a twang and I was stopped and swung in against the ice wall. The great chunk of ice just carried on and smashed to smithereens at the bottom of the crevasse. Then really the rest was what I would have called a routine mountaineering matter. I had my ice axe and my crampons on my feet, so I chipped steps in the side, I was able to bridge the crevasse, and I worked my way up to the top and got safely out. I wouldn't have said at any stage, because it all happened so quickly, fear really didn't have much opportunity to emerge. My only idea was to get safely out of this unfortunate predicament. And of course, without Tenzing's very competent mountaineer's response, I certainly wouldn't have made it. But once he had stopped me, then I was able to, using the techniques of mountaineering, to get myself safely to the top, again. When you've been going as long as I have, many of them have happened during the course of your life, but you tend to forget them, really. I think nature tricks us a little bit because you tend to remember the good moments rather than the uncomfortable ones. So when you leave the mountain, you remember the great moments on the mountain, and as soon as you leave the mountain, you want to go back again.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Could you describe the point when you realized you were going to make it to the top of Everest?

Sir Edmund Hillary: We reached the south summit of Everest, which is 28,700 feet, and then we looked along the summit ridge, which is quite an impressive narrow ridge. It's corniced on one side, which is overhanging with snow and ice, so you can't keep on the crest of the ridge. We had to keep down on the steep left-hand side on the snow and ice. But half way along the ridge there's a rock step. It's about 40 feet high, and I cut steps along the side of the ridge until we reached the bottom of the rock step. And looking up at the rock step at 29,000 feet, it really did look extremely difficult to overcome. But then I noticed that out to the right of the rock step, where the ice was plastered onto the wall, there was a crack maybe two feet wide, but just large enough to crawl inside, where the ice was breaking away from the rock. I sort of crawled inside that, and then I wriggled and jammed my way up the crack with rock on one side and ice on the other and then finally pulled myself out onto the top of the rock step. That was really the first moment during the whole of the expedition that I was confident that we were going to get to the top. But overcoming that rock step, which we knew existed -- we had seen it from far below -- made me feel the confidence that we were going to succeed. And sure enough, on we went, and we ultimately reached the top. Funnily enough, that step is now called the Hillary Step. Any climber who climbs Everest from that south side, at some stage has to go up the Hillary Step.

Was there any point when you felt that you might not make it and might have to give up?

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview Photo
Sir Edmund Hillary: Never, at any stage, until we actually got up the rock step, was I confident that we were going to be successful. My feeling was that we would give it everything we had, but we had no surety that we were going to reach the top. In fact, I believe that if someone starts out on a challenging activity, completely confident that they're going to succeed, why bother starting? It's not much of a challenge. I think it's much better to start out on something that you're not at all sure that you can do. If you overcome and you manage to defeat the obstacles, the satisfaction is so much greater.

What did you do when you got to the top? Did I read somewhere that you ate a chocolate bar?

Sir Edmund Hillary: No. We didn't eat anything on top, but Tenzing buried a little bit of chocolate and some sweets in the snow, which are really a gesture to the gods which the Sherpas believe flit around Everest on all occasions.

Do you ever dream about it?

Sir Edmund Hillary: No. There've been so many other things in between. I still remember it pretty clearly.

What do you think about when you're climbing up a mountain and you know that your goal is to get to the top, whether it's Everest or another mountain? What goes through your mind?

Sir Edmund Hillary: My mind concentrates rather firmly on the job in hand. Certainly, on Everest for instance, we were using oxygen and I was constantly doing mental arithmetic, checking the pressure of the oxygen bottles. I had to convert that pressure over to the number of liters of oxygen that remained in the bottle, and then work out how many hours or minutes of activity we still had left. So constantly, we were dealing with the problems of the slopes and soft snow and crevasses that we have to deal with, but at the same time, constantly ticking over in my mind was the usage of oxygen and how much time we had to get there and get down again.

So it takes a tremendous amount of concentration. It isn't like driving on the freeway and doing it automatically.

Sir Edmund Hillary: No, there's a lot of concentration.

Certainly, in those days. I think a lot of the modern mountaineers, with their very good technical equipment and their very accomplished techniques, can climb more naturally and easily than we did in our day. But, of course, we had one problem that the modern mountaineer doesn't have. That is, this psychological barrier. We really didn't know whether it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt. Everest. And even using oxygen as we were, if we did get to the top, we weren't at all sure whether we wouldn't drop dead or something of that nature. All the physiologists had warned us that the altitude at the summit of Everest was a very marginal altitude and might be extremely dangerous. So, one had this feeling in your mind all the time that maybe you were pushing things a bit beyond what humans were meant to do and you couldn't ignore that feeling. But, because of strong motivation, you keep plugging on and you seem to be going okay and nothing seems to be going wrong, so you persist. And we persisted, of course, and ultimately, set foot on the summit.

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview Photo
Sir Edmund Hillary Interview Photo

Was it a balance of fear and excitement?

Sir Edmund Hillary: No.

It was more a feeling of quiet satisfaction, I'd have said and, almost a little bit of surprise. So many really tough expeditions had tried the mountain before and not been successful, and here Tenzing and I were standing on the summit. It almost seemed remarkable that we were there where others had failed before. I think I kept my more exciting moments for when we finally got down to the bottom of the mountain again, and all the dangers were behind us, safely off the mountain. We did have a little radio at base camp and somebody tuned into the BBC in London and the BBC announcer was just describing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and then he broke into the coronation and said, "We have great pleasure in announcing that the British Everest expedition has finally reached the summit of Mt. Everest." And then, almost for the first time, I felt, "My God! We've climbed the thing and we've had authoritative support from the BBC in London that we've done it!" I think at that moment, more the excitement of it came into my mind. Whereas before, it had been satisfaction, but we still had the problem of getting safely off the mountain again, and we were very much aware of this too.

We have this romantic idea that when you reach the top, it's some kind of glorious, conquering feeling, and yet there must always have been in your mind, "Gee, we've got to get back down again."

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview Photo
Sir Edmund Hillary: In lower mountains and Alpine areas, I have had a great sense of excitement and achievement at reaching the top of a difficult peak.

On Everest, due to the lack of oxygen, life is at a low level as it were. I certainly did not have that tremendous feeling of wanting to jump around with joy or anything of that nature. I was just very happy to be there and felt very satisfied that we'd finally succeeded in getting there.

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