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Classic Adventures

Listen to National Public Radio’s story on Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s Everest ascent.

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1963 October National Geographic
How We Climbed Everest

In May 1963 a National Geographic Society-sponsored expedition put American climbers on top of Mount Everest for the first time. Among them was Geographic photographer Barry C. Bishop. In the following excerpts adapted from the October 1963 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, Bishop recounts his harrowing descent with ropemate Lute Jerstad.

e had fallen into the same crevasse. During the two hours we guide [teammates] down by voice, Lute and I hang exhausted over our ice axes. I feel what little strength remains in me drain away. My feet, warm and comfortable throughout the entire climb, now begin to freeze. I stamp ponderously in the snow. No help. The pain in my toes sharpens. Then, as it skirts the edge of agony, it dies in a merciful numbness. I recognize the classic sequence of frostbite. Our plight is precarious and we know it. With oxygen all but exhausted, and with Tom’s expiring flashlight our sole illumination, we join forces to head down the mountain.

We feel our way with cramponed feet and ice axes down the knife ridge of snow that Lute and I had ascended 11 hours before. In our weakened condition we can barely tell one side of the ridge from the other. Yet amazingly, while each of us tumbles frequently, no serious mishap mars the descent. At 12:30 on the morning of May 23, we decide to bivouac until dawn.

We plunk down on a sloping outcrop of rock, too tired to prepare ourselves with any care for the coming ordeal. Our site is nearly 2,000 feet [610 meters] above the highest previous bivouac in history.

By this time Lute and I have slipped into a stupefied fatigue. My feet have lost all feeling and the tips of my fingers are following them into numbness. We curl up in our down jackets as best we can. With his frozen fingers, Lute cannot even close his jacket. He wraps it tightly and hopes for the best.

For the next five and a half hours we remain anchored to that rock. [Our teammates] Willi [Unsoeld] and Tom [Hornbein] occupy a spot where they can move a bit. Tom struggles out of his crampons. Then, with typical selflessness, Willi removes Tom’s overboots, boots, and socks and warms the feet by rubbing them against his own belly.

I lie dazedly on my back, my feet propped up like two antennae. Almost too weary to care, I wonder how badly they are damaged. I try to wriggle my toes. I feel nothing.

Then suddenly the sun is up. The swift, magic kaleidoscope of dawn hardens into the stark colors of day.

Stiff but rested, we treat ourselves to the luxury of waiting until the sun actually touches us on our rocky perch. Warmed, and with the renewed optimism that every dawn seems to evoke, we commence our descent with a few wry jokes.

We reel down the mountain as much by feel as by sight. Lute cannot focus either eye. I can use only my right one. Still, we have no trouble finding the spot on the snow where we turn east and traverse over the Southeast Ridge into Camp VI.

As Lute belays me around a rock corner, I experience a surge of joy. Two figures struggle up to meet us—Dave Dingman and Girmi Dorje [our support party], laden with fresh oxygen tanks. The rock still screens them from Lute. I turn to him: “Do you want some oxygen?”

Lute thinks I have finally and unequivocally lost my senses. He just looks at me. Then I add, “Because here’s Dave.”

During the night Dave and Girmi had climbed to 27,600 feet [8,410 meters] in a futile search for us. Girmi had elected not to use oxygen—a tremendous sacrifice at that altitude, as we well knew—to conserve the precious gas for us.

Dave and Girmi, scheduled to try for the summit that day, unhesitatingly gave up their chance in order to search for us. Now they escort us back down to Camp VI.

Willi had already radioed from on top, but now our teammates learn that all four of us have succeeded—and that all four are alive. I strip off my down-filled boots and for the first time examine my frostbitten feet. The toes are dead white, hard, and icy to the touch.

When the last of the expedition moves out of Base Camp, Willi Unsoeld, Lute Jerstad, and I travel on the backs of Sherpas. Four porters spell each other in carrying each man. By the end of the first day, a fierce rivalry springs up between the four carrying me and the four carrying Willi. Every suitable stretch of trail inspires a foot race.

I awaken at 6 o’clock the following morning and note that the sky is overcast. Surely today will bring no helicopter. I close my eyes and drowse. But 25 minutes later, the whirr of chopper blades snaps me rudely into consciousness. The copter had come, weather notwithstanding. I feel a pang of regret. The expedition is breaking up. Never again will we all be together on a mountain.

Read the complete story—and more classic adventures—in The Complete NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: 112 Years of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Magazine on CD-ROM.

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Mitten and ice ax used by Barry Bishop during his 1963 Everest climb. Photographs by Robin Siegel.

© 2001 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.

Special Report - 2002 National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition (Made possible in part by the generous support of American International Group, Inc.)