Ever since the morning of May 29, 1953, when Tenzing Norgay and I became the first climbers to step onto the summit of Mount Everest, I’ve been called a great adventurer. The truth is, I’m just a rough old New Zealander who has enjoyed many challenges in his life. In fact, as I look back after 50 years, getting to the top of Everest seems less important, in many ways, than other steps I’ve taken along the way—steps to improve the lives of my Sherpa friends in Nepal and to protect the culture and beauty of the Himalaya.
Not that I wasn’t excited to reach the top of the world. I remember when Tenzing and I faced the icy, narrow final ridge to the summit. Some on our team had predicted the ridge would be impossible to climb, but it didn’t look so bad to us. After attaching fresh oxygen bottles to our masks, we set off. I led the way, hacking a line of steps with my ice ax. After about an hour we came to a 40-foot-high rock buttress barring our path—quite a problem at nearly 29,000 feet. An ice cornice was overhanging the rock on the right with a long crack inside it. Beneath the cornice the mountain fell away at least 10,000 feet to the Kangshung Glacier. Would the cornice hold if I tried to go up? There was only one way to find out.
Jamming my crampons into the ice behind me, I somehow wriggled my way to the top of the crack, using every handhold I could find. For the first time I felt confident that we were going to make it all the way. To the right I saw a rounded snow dome and kept cutting steps upward. In less than an hour I reached the crest of the ridge, with nothing but space in every direction. Tenzing joined me, and to our great delight and relief we stood on top of Mount Everest.