Our Antarctic trip had several objectives. We had a big scientific program in cooperation with the International Geophysical Year, and another major objective was for us to lay out depots across the polar plateau for Sir Vivian Fuchs's crossing party, who were planning to make the first complete crossing of the Antarctic. We did a great deal of mapping and geology, and I chose the site for our base, which is now Scott Base. Twenty-three members of my party stayed over during the long, dark winter, but we were so busy that we hardly noticed the time passing. When the sun returned, we started our long-distance traveling. With our tractors, we headed up the Skelton Glacier to the polar plateau, trundling over hundreds of crevasses and getting pretty nervous at times, all the while setting up depots. When we were 500 miles from the Pole, we established our last depot, and we made a dash for the Pole itself. We arrived with the bare minimum of fuel left in our tanks, but we made it. It was quite an exciting moment.
Traveling through crevasse country is a risky business, there's no doubt about that, but we did take as much care as we possibly could. We dropped tractors down a number of crevasses but always managed to pull them out again without anybody coming to any harm. I certainly had a very strong urge to try and reach the South Pole. This was the first trip by vehicles over land to the South Pole, so it was one of these firsts, which I rather enjoy.
And 20 years later, in 1977, you made a different kind of traverse. Starting at the Bay of Bengal, you took three jet boats 1,500 miles up the Ganges River into the Himalayas.
"From the ocean to the sky," we called it: going from the Bay of Bengal—the ocean, in other words—right up the Ganges River till we could go no further into the Himalayas. In many ways, it was one of the most satisfying expeditions that I've ever undertaken, not only the adventurous part of it—we were battling against fierce rapids and wild water—but because of the relationships we built with the millions of people and the Hindu priests who live along the banks of the Ganges. We were warmly welcomed, and everywhere we went our boats were blessed for the onward journey.
You've devoted much of your time and energy in recent decades to the welfare of the Himalayan people.
When I became friends with the Sherpas in the Himalayas, it was impossible not to realize all the things that they lacked. On one occasion, a group of Sherpas and myself were talking about their future. We all knew that tourism was going to have an impact on their lives, even though at that time no tourists were coming in, and I asked our head Sherpa, Urgen, who spoke very good English, "If there's something we can do for the Sherpas, what should it be?" Without hesitation he said, "We know that we are as strong as you are on the mountain, maybe stronger, but what we lack is education. What we would like is for our children in Khunde village to have a school."
That seemed a pretty reasonable idea to me, so I decided that I would get financial support and help with the building and establish a school in Khunde. I raised money in the United States and I got a building donated in Calcutta in India. We moved it in and erected the school.
I thought that establishing the Khunde school would be the beginning and end of my aid work in the Himalayas, but villagers from miles around came presenting petitions. They also wanted schools, and they wanted assistance with their health problems. So from then on my work continued. Now we have constructed over 30 schools, two hospitals, and a multitude of freshwater pipelines. And two years ago we instituted a teacher-training program.
You once said that you were wracked with guilt that one of the airstrips you'd helped to build in the Everest area is now used to fly in trekkers and tourists. Has this contributed to the commercialization of Mount Everest?
Yes, I guess it has. Our first airstrip was for a specific purpose. The United Nations wanted to fly in food for the hundreds of Tibetan refugees crossing over the border, but there was nowhere for aircraft to land. The pilot and I had a talk, and he said if I could find an airfield, he would fly in food for the Tibetan refugees and the building materials for our Khunde school. We found a place and made a superb landing site, and he flew in the food. However, that airfield was then condemned as being unsuitable, and that was when we built the airfield at Lukla, which is much lower down at just over 9,000 feet. It is now the busiest mountain airfield in the whole of Nepal, and thousands of trekkers and tourists fly in. I have sometimes wondered if establishing it has brought harm to the people of the Himalayas, but on the whole, when I think back, it has done quite a lot of good, too.
Is there something wrong with climbers who pay professional guides to take them up Everest?
People who are prepared to pay $65,000 to be conducted to the summit by a couple of experts don't in my view have the full sense of adventure that the true mountaineer has. We were the lucky ones. When we climbed Everest 46 years ago, we had to do everything. We had to pioneer the route. If we needed fixed ropes, we had to put in fixed ropes. We weren't walking in other people's footsteps, we were the ones making the footsteps.
Mount Everest is a great mountain, one that extends you to the utmost, and to have it made more or less a tourist trek to the top doesn't impress me at all. I admire those who climb it by a difficult route or by traditional fashions, but I have no great respect for those who are conducted to the summit by paying a very large sum of money.
What are the elements that make up the best and most successful expeditions?
Without a doubt our greatest strength on Everest in 1953 was our very strong team spirit. Individually, as mountaineers, we were not particularly expert people. We were competent climbers, but we worked together, and we were determined that someone should get to the top. All of us, of course, wanted to be that one, but it was even more important that someone in the group reach the summit. In modern-day climbing, this team spirit is not quite so common. There are many more prima donnas in the modern climbing fraternity, people who have great skills and a great individualism but who may not work together as enthusiastically as we did.
Whom do you admire among contemporary climbers?
There are many people that I admire in mountaineering—people like Reinhold Messner, who was the first to climb all of the 8,000-meter peaks. The thing I admire about Messner is not only that he is a great mountaineer, but that he had the courage to turn back when he thought the situation was too dangerous to continue.
Speaking of Reinhold Messner, he seems intent on solving the mystery of the yeti, and in 1960 you went on a mission in the Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet to attempt the same thing. Do you believe that the yeti exists?
My belief from the evidence that we found is that the yeti is probably a mythological creature, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong. There's no doubt that the monks in the monasteries and many others believe in its existence. There have been sightings of the very rare Himalayan blue bear, and we have found pelts from it. We've had them examined, and scientists tend to agree with us that the yeti is probably the blue bear.