Original mountain man Hillary recalls Everest conquest nearly 5

Sunday, May 26, 2002

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- When climbers scramble to the summit of the world's highest peak, their last obstacle is a 40-foot rock face covered in ice -- the Hillary Step.

Before May 29, 1953, it had no name. Nobody had ever seen it up close, let alone scaled it.

But on that day, a 33-year-old New Zealand beekeeper and his Nepalese Sherpa guide cut a line of footholds into the icy wall and dragged their exhausted, oxygen-starved bodies the final feet to glory.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had become the first climbers to reach the 29,035-foot summit of Mount Everest.

Since then more than 1,000 people have climbed to the peak and the path blazed by Hillary and Tenzing is well worn.

On May 16, 54 people made it there -- a record number for a single day. Among them was Tenzing Norgay's grandson, Tashi Wangchuk Tenzing -- who first climbed it in 1997. Hillary's son, Peter, who scaled Everest in 1990, also is climbing the mountain.

Forty-nine years after his triumph, Hillary, now 82 and semiretired, recalls the endeavor was shrouded in doubt almost to the very end.

"It had really all been supposition. I didn't know whether we were going to be successful or not," Hillary said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I knew we were going to give it everything we had. But it wasn't until we climbed up the Hillary Step that I knew we were going to do it."

'Plenty of room'

They stood together on the summit's rounded dome. "There was plenty of room for Tenzing and me," Hillary said. "I had a very strong feeling of satisfaction that Tenzing and I had finally reached the summit when many had tried before unsuccessfully. And here we were."

He talked in an office at his home in Auckland. A wall holds the wooden-handled, steel-headed ice ax he used -- a tangible reminder not only of the feat itself, but of the difference in the equipment Hillary and Tenzing used and the high-tech gear carried by today's mountaineers.

Everest climbers now have ultralight, weatherproof clothes and boots and specially developed axes and ropes. Hillary and Tenzing had heavy woolen underclothes and trousers stuffed with feather down. They had soft leather boots and three pairs of gloves.

Hillary says he was the first to set foot on the summit, climbing ahead of Tenzing, who died in 1986. It doesn't seem to matter to him. Neither could have done it without the other, he says.

After picking their way up the Himalayan peak, a stoic Hillary stood in the clear, cold air at the top of the world and solemnly shook Tenzing's hand.

"But that wasn't enough for Tenzing," Hillary said. "He threw his arms around my shoulders. So I threw my arms around his shoulders, and we gave each other a hug."

After the initial euphoria, Hillary began snapping photographs -- mostly of Tenzing waving Nepalese and British flags -- as proof they had reached their goal. There is no image of Hillary at the top.

"Tenzing didn't have a camera ... and the thought of getting him to take a photograph of me never really entered my mind."

Hillary said he vividly remembers "many occasions" when he doubted the pair would reach the top. Deep ravines and crevasses, avalanches, extreme ice faces and rock walls stood in the way as they struggled upward.

"That's what it's all about really, overcoming those problems even though you may have a sense of fear. I think fear can be a stimulating factor and can help make you drive yourself really to overcome dangerous problems," he said.

Tenzing and Hillary agreed long ago they had no desire to climb Everest again.

"It's become a bit commercially orientated. I think we were the lucky ones way back in 1953," Hillary said.

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