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.
In the years that followed our climb, I returned many times to the Everest region with my mountaineering friends and built up a close relationship with the Sherpas, spending a great deal of time in their homes and with their families. I admired their courage and strength, but I quickly realized that there were many things they lacked in their society that we just took for granted back in New Zealand such as schools or medical facilities.
One day in 1960 our group of climbers and Sherpas was camped on a glacier not far from Everest. Shivering in the cold, we huddled around a smoky scrub fire. For hours we had been talking about the fortunes of the Sherpa people in a mix of Nepali and English. The flames sank lower, and the cold crept in around us. A Sherpa by the name of Urkien tossed a handful of stunted azalea on the fire, making it flare with a crackle of sparks.
”Tell us, Urkien,” I said. “If there were one thing we could do for your village, what should it be?”
“We would like our children to go to school, sahib!” he said. “Of all the things you have, learning is the one we most desire for our children.”Urkien’s words hit home. The next year I persuaded a company in Calcutta to donate a prefabricated aluminum building. The Swiss Red Cross flew the building in parts from Kathmandu to a mountain airstrip at 15,500 feet in the Mingbo Valley. From there the Sherpas carried the building materials a day’s march to Khumjung, and we constructed the school.
We invited the head lama of Tengboche monastery to carry out the opening ceremony in June 1961. He arrived with a number of monks who brought trumpets, drums, and cymbals. There was much chanting of prayers, and finally the head lama circled the building twice with us all trailing along behind him. As he went, he cast handfuls of rice in every direction. Khumjung’s school was duly blessed.
As I got older, my wife, June, and I traveled around the world, raising funds for new projects for the Himalayan people. At the request of Sherpa residents, we helped establish 27 schools, two hospitals, and a dozen medical clinics—plus quite a few bridges over wild rivers. We constructed several airfields and rebuilt Buddhist monasteries and cultural centers. We planted a million seedlings in Sagarmatha National Park to replace the vast number of trees destroyed for firewood and used to build the small hotels that came with the growth of tourism.
So over the years I’ve done lots of expeditions and projects in remote parts of the world—some big ones and many small ones. I’ve stood at both the North and South Poles as well as on the world’s highest peak. When I look back over my life, though, I have little doubt that the most worthwhile things I have done have not been getting to the summits of great mountains or to the extremes of the Earth. My most important projects have been the building and maintaining of schools and medical clinics for my dear friends in the Himalaya and helping restore their beautiful monasteries too.
I clearly remember the happy day when we first opened the Khumjung school with only 47 children in scruffy Sherpa clothes—but with rosy cheeks and beaming smiles. Now one of them is a pilot of a Boeing 767 and others are important executives in travel, business, and nonprofit organizations.
These are the memories I will carry with me always.