Published online: Thursday, 21 October 2010
Sir Edmund Hillary
20 July 1919 - 11 Jan 2008
First man to climb Mount Everest
I can visualize it very clearly indeed. Once I reached the south summit and we had the final challenge before us, I don’t remember any particular fear until halfway up along, there was this rock step now called Hillary’s Step. The only way to climb it seemed a crack in the ice where it was stuck to the rock and I wasn’t at all sure the ice would remain in place while I was wriggling my way up, so I was a bit nervous about that. I think I have a deep feeling of urging myself on. I felt that in a dangerous situation if you do a bit of praying you’re chickening out of the deal. It’s really up to you to make the decision and carry on. I had no conception of the impact this was going to have on my life, or the media, or the world in general.
I can remember standing on the summit and looking across at another mountain... Mukaloo... across the valley and I actually picked out a route on the Mukaloo that was unclimbed at that stage and I mapped out a way to do it by which it was climbed later. So, even on the top of Everest I was still thinking ahead to the next challenge.
Tenzing was definitely more emotionally affected. He dug a little hole in the snow and put in a little chocolate and some sweets, which was a gift to the gods, he believed. He was definitely delighted and quite emotional about it. Fifteen minutes on top can be quite a long time.
I had the good fortune to be the first to climb Hillary’s Steps. I think our big motivation was a bog challenge. ...hadn’t been done. We thought we were capable of handling most problems. But on early stages on the mountain I wasn’t confident, lots of people had tried and hadn’t been able to get up top. But we were going to give it everything we had. That was our attitude, and it wasn’t till I got to the top of Hillary’s Steps, quite close to the summit that I realised or was confident we were going to get to the summit, so I hacked my line of steps 40 feet or so and we were on the top of the mountain. My first feeling was not of exultation, I didn’t jump around or throw my hands in the air, but I think the feeling was one of considerable satisfaction, cause people had tried and here Tenzing and I were standing on top of the world. It was a pretty good feeling actually, but sort of subdued because I was aware we still had to get down and Tenzing was aware too.
I put my hand out to shake with Tenzing in a god old Anglo-Saxon way but that wasn’t enough for Tenzing and he threw his arms around me and gave me a hug and I gave him a hug, so we had a warm moment as it were on the summit of the mountain. I think he was more excited about getting there than I was.
The news flashed round the world, they got my name wrong, which didn’t matter and said British not New Zealander, but I was happy to be part of the British team and such a great team. I wasn’t all that happy about the knighthood to tell you the truth... I was just a rough old country boy... a beekeeper.
I couldn’t see me wandering around the farms of South Auckland and doing the bees with a knighthood... the plain simple things I’d been doing for years and years.
They are meant to ask you first if you wish to accept a knighthood and I was away up in the mountains. The Prime Minister of New Zealand who was quite a determined gentleman anyway... took it upon himself to accept on my behalf, so I had nothing to do with it.
There’s no photograph of me actually on the summit of the mountain, but I took photographs of Tenzing standing on the summit and I took photos down all the leading ridges of the mountain to give complete evidence all the team was there. Well obviously someone had to take the photos. I never even thought of taking a photo of myself, but I assure you I was there. Tenzing didn’t have a camera and as far as I knew he had never taken a photo in his life. But I didn’t even think of a need of a photo of me. A little different from the modern day climber, who makes good and sure there’s a photo of him on the summit. The thought never really entered my mind. I had a number of shots of Tenzing with the flags flowing and that satisfied me. I didn’t even think of myself. I knew someone had to have taken the photograph and it was me!
I was a little bit... well I was a country boy really and a little bit innocent perhaps and when we stood on top I realised that mountaineers would be interested in our success, but I had no idea the media and the public would find it so great.
Follow Mick on Twitter to keep up with future interviews.
Since the early 1970s, Mick Joffe's passion has been to caricature and record endangered characters of Australia, and the world. As of 2015, the majority of these interviews exist only in manuscript form.