An Elegy Atop Everest

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Mount Everest. Photo by Wang Lama Humla, via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped.

What did the first few summiteers utter when they reached the top of Mount Everest?

We barely know, for the first three successful attempts between 1953 and 1963 were more focused on getting the climbers up there and back, alive, than fussing with what to say for posterity. The Brits were first, in 1953, followed by the Swiss in 1956, and the Americans in 1963. The Brits and the Americans received the bulk of the press coverage back then, and here’s what they said and did at the top of the world.

The 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition

There is no record of what Edmund Hillary, the tall New Zealander, spoke aloud while standing atop Mount Everest, though we do have a few words by his short companion, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa. Sir Edmund later described how surprised, and satisfied he was when they reached the top at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, May 29. Breathing bottled oxygen from bulky cylinders did not inspire much conversation, but from what they each later wrote, we know some of what occurred up there.

In his 1999 memoir, View from the Summit, Hillary describes how cold and tired they were while moving slowly upward, seeking “rather anxiously for signs of the summit.” They knew they were on top when they could see north out over the barren plateau of Tibet.

Afterward, as word flashed around the world, the international press groused loudly about Sir Edmund claiming the lead on the few last steps to the top. Hillary skillfully side-stepped all the colonialistic prattle. As they approached the summit dome, he recalls, they drew closer together as Tenzing brought in the slack on the rope. “Next moment,” he writes, “I had moved onto a flattish exposed area of snow with nothing but space in every direction. Tenzing quickly joined me and we looked around in wonder. To our immense satisfaction, we realized we had reached the top of the world!”

Then, In typical Anglo-Saxon fashion, I stretched out my arm for a handshake,” he goes on, “but this was not enough for Tenzing who threw his arms around my shoulders in a mighty hug.With a feeling of mild surprise, I realised that Tenzing was perhaps more excited at our success than I was.

In his memoir, Tiger of the Snows (1955), Tenzing describes his own euphoria. From the summit, he shouted out in triumph and thankfulness: Thuji chey, Chomolungma”—I am grateful, Goddess Mother of the World! At that moment, atop the holy of holies at 29,029 ft., Tenzing Norgay was the highest and happiest Sherpa in the world.

Tenzing and Hillary. Photo by Dirk Pons, via Wikimedia Commons.

During their 15 minutes on top, Hillary photographed Tenzing holding an ice ax with a small Union Jack and the flags of Nepal, India, and the United Nations tied to it. But, alas, they forgot to photograph Hillary on the summit, to prove he too had been there.

In anticipation of the world’s ultimate high, Hillary describes spending “a good part of the previous night quaffing copious quantities of hot lemon drink.” Both climbers were well aware that dehydration was one of the greatest risks at high altitude. After paying their respects to the highest mountain in the world, Hillary concludes that with a full bladder, “I then had no choice but to urinate on it.”

In the end, only seven words spoken aloud by Hillary were recorded from that day of fame. As they approached the South Col on their descent from the summit, Tenzing and Hillary were greeted by two other expedition members, George Lowe and Wilfrid Noyce. It was to Lowe that Hillary declared: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!”

The 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition

A decade later, six Americans became the third set of mountaineers to climb Everest, and now the search for words spoken on top takes on a whole new dimension.

On Wednesday, May 1, 1963, after ascending the same Southeast Ridge route the Brits pioneered in 1953 and the Swiss had taken in 1956, a tall American named Jim Whitaker topped Everest at 1 p.m. alongside Nawang Gombu, the nephew of Tenzing Sherpa. A year later in Americans on Everest, the official expedition account, author James Ramsey Ullman describes the scene: Jim, in the lead, stopped and waited for Nawang Gombu Sherpa to come up to him. ‘You first,’ he said. ‘No, you,’ said Gombu. Then, the dome being wide enough, they walked side by side to its top. Beyond, everything fell away. And they were there.”

Jim recalls slapping Gombu on the back and hugging each other, and how so “very, very cold” it was that their fingers and toes were numb. With the temperature hovering around minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit they didn’t tarry but planted the obligatory flags in the snow, then turned and started back down.

Three weeks later to the day, four more Americans summitted Everest in pairs. Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad ascended the same Southeast Ridge route up from the South Col, while Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld pioneered the challenging West Ridge. In his 1964 book, Everest: The West Ridge, Hornbein quotes a brief noontime radio chat with Base Camp, during which Willi describes the West Ridge as (abbreviated here): “a real bearcat! … too damned tough to try to go back … too dangerous … absolutely no rappel points … nothing to secure a rope to.” Talking into the mike while clinging precariously to the rock face, he looked down and up and concluded, “it’s up and over for us today … we’re headed for the summit.”

Willi Unsoeld. Photo by Oregon State University, via Wikimedia Commons. 

The West Ridge ascent made mountaineering history. It had never before been attempted and never successfully repeated. And, leave it to the Americans, everything said in radio chit-chat that day was recorded.

Both teams hoped to meet up on top at midday to celebrate their achievement together, but that didn’t happen. Instead, according to Hornbein’s tersely encapsulated summit chronology: “May 22: Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad reach summit of Everest via South Col route at 3:30 p.m. Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein arrive three hours later up the West Ridge, then descend toward South Col. The two parties unite after dark and spend night out at 28,000 feet.”

When Barry and Lute found no sign of the West Ridge duo on top, they started wearily back down toward the South Col. When Tom and Willi topped out around 6:30 p.m.—dangerously late so far into the high altitude ‘death zone’ (above 26,000 feet)—they found only fresh boot prints and the tattered, wind-whipped flag Jim Whitaker had put on the summit earlier. It was midnight before the two teams finally met up. Because it was too precarious to stumble on in the dark with dead flashlights, the four men huddled together in the snow in what was hailed, at the time, as the highest bivouac in mountaineering history.

Reflecting on their top-most moments, Hornbein later described “the lonely beauty of the evening, the immense roaring silence of the wind, the tenuousness of our tie to all below. There was a hint of fear, not for our lives, but of a vast unknown which pressed in upon us …”

During the day, support team members at Advanced Base camp scanned the summit with binoculars and kept the walkie-talkie radio on for any sound from above. At about 5:30 p.m. they caught a glimpse of Lute and Barry, but they neither saw nor heard from Willi and Tom. It wasn’t until late, around 7 o’clock, while Maynard Miller (one of the expedition scientists) was listening, that quite suddenly—“electrifyingly,” he later told Ullman for the record, “the radio came alive with Willi Unsoeld’s voice. He and Tom had just come off the summit, he said. They were a few feet below it. They were about to descend the Southeast Ridge.”

Willi’s words faded away in the static and howling wind, then drifted back “Faintly, very faintly. And it seemed to the incredulous Maynard that what he was hearing from up there was poetry….” Willi was reciting the last lines of ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by the American poet Robert Frost:

…I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before we sleep,

And miles to go before we sleep.

“Ever the gentleman, even at 29,000 feet,” writes Ullman, Willi changed Frost’s original “I sleep” to “we sleep” to include Tom; and those “promises to keep” were to his wife Jolene, that Everest would be his last big mountain.

Like an elegy, ‘Stopping by Woods…’ has been described as “one of America’s most revered and recited poems,” known for its “moody pondering of mortality.”

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost, 1923

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.


He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Sometime later, during one of Willi Unsoeld’s lectures about climbing the West Ridge, a member of the audience suggested he might also have quoted the last three lines of another Frost poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Note: Chomolungma, ‘Goddess Mother of the World’, is the Sherpa and Tibetan name for Mount Everest. To date, over 4,000 people have reached the top, though few have done it with the same panache as their earliest predecessors. Frost’s poem described as a “moody pondering of mortality” is from a January 1, 2019 article in The Washington Post, entitled ‘Robert Frost Wrote This Masterpiece…’ by Steve Hendrix.

This essay was originally published in the print edition of ECS Nepal magazine (a Kathmandu monthly) in May 2019.

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