As I chipped steps around another corner, I wondered rather dully just how long we could keep it up. Our original zest had now quite gone and it was turning more into a grim struggle. I then realised that the ridge ahead, instead of still monotonously rising, now dropped sharply away, and far below I could see the North Col and the Rongbuk glacier. I looked upwards to see a narrow snow ridge running up to the summit. A few more whacks of the ice-axe in the firm snow and we stood on top.
With all appropriate understatement, this is Edmund Hillary’s account of reaching the summit in John Hunt’s The Ascent of Everest. Note how he does not say whether he or Tenzing got there first, precipitating all the trouble that so diminished the event.
My initial feelings were of relief—relief that there were no more steps to cut—no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalize us with hopes of success. I looked at Tenzing and in spite of the balaclava, goggles and oxygen mask all encrusted with long icicles that concealed his face, there was no disguising his infectious grin of pure delight as he looked all around him. We shook hands and then Tenzing threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back until we were almost breathless. It was 11.30am. The ridge had taken us two and a half hours, but it seemed a lifetime. I turned off the oxygen and removed my set. I had a carried my camera, loaded with colour film, inside my shirt to keep it warm, so I now produced it and got Tenzing to pose on top for me, waving his axe on which was a string of flags—United Nations, British, Nepalese and Indian. Then I turned my attention to the great stretch of country lying below us in every direction.
It was that photo that caused the trouble—the picture of Tenzing at the summit. Proof to those who wished to believe it that he got there first. No one seemed to notice that for the picture to exist, there needed to be a photographer as well. Apparently, there was no picture of Hillary because Tenzing could not operate a camera. The who-got-there-first issue was squabbled over for decades—the story that Tenzing had hauled an exhausted Hillary to the summit on a rope gained strength as the empire faded. But, in the end, they both admitted the truth—they went together, Hillary stepped up and Tenzing was one step behind him.
Even unperceptive me noticed at the time that, although it was a British expedition, the summit had been gained by a Nepalese of Tibetan descent and a New Zealander. But that is the way of Empires—claiming everything that isn’t theirs.