"Mr. Everest" on 50th Anniversary of First Ascent

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I was definitely a lot more willing to take on the guide-client relationship before 1996. I had the same kind of ideals that Rob Hall, Scott Fischer, and a variety of other guides who I was working with at the time have. I just saw in 1996 people flouting their own rules. Flouting their own summit turnaround times. Basically, [just] totally pushing the envelope. Doing things that they might not even do with an experienced partner. It really gave me pause to reconsider my motives [and] try to find another line of work.

It's a very rare client and guide combination that can do the mountain safely and doesn't compromise either of those parties at some point. It's a difficult mountain to guide successfully. I don't think there are very many guides who really can do it. There are a lot of people out there saying that they can. I don't believe that they're really very good [or that] they have the same familiarity with the peak that they need to do their jobs well. I don't think that they always have the best relationship with the Sherpas who are doing the support for virtually any commercial summit team.

Sometimes I feel like a lot of commercial expeditions are really thrown together at the last minute. Oftentimes guide-client pairings are random, done at the last minute. The assignments are capricious. They don't always take in the strengths, or more importantly the weaknesses, of the clients who are involved as a result of commercial pressures. So I really don't think that it stacks up to a lot of opportunity for success. I think there is a lot of opportunity for misunderstandings, certainly on a number of occasions, and perhaps even worse—for injury or death.

Do you foresee a climbing retirement for yourself any time soon? When do you think you'll turn away from big mountains like Everest?

Every time I say I'm going to retire from Everest, within 18 months I'm on my way back. So I'm not hazarding any guesses. I'm trying to focus more on going to unclimbed ranges…to lower peaks where's there's not so much time required for acclimatization. The places that people haven't been that don't require much suffering.

For me, I'd like to get away from the 8,000-meter [26,000-foot] peaks for a while. Just look at some of these other areas that have lower peaks but are completely unexplored. That's what exploration is all about: Going to these [places] that have seen little or no exploration whatsoever. It's there for you to come back and to communicate to everyone what it's all about, tell them something that a satellite photo won't be able to tell them.

Fifty years ago, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first climbers to reach Everest's summit. What is the legacy of their accomplishment?

[They] were groundbreaking not only in the way they approached the mountain as climbers and as athletes, but also as humanists, as artists, as philosophers.

After the 1940s, Europe had been just bombed to the ground. We had been at war for a number of years. People needed some hope. People needed to be inspired. There on the scene was this incredible team of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay: Sir Ed a beekeeper and mountaineer from New Zealand; Tenzing essentially coming from a household of yak herders in Tibet and also in Nepal. This incredible, complimentary team was able to do this unbelievable thing…that only truly existed in their imaginations as a possibility. For so many years, the British had tried. The Swiss had tried. Finally, in 1953, [Hillary and Tenzing] were able to give what I believe was an incredible gift of hope to the world.

How about Barry Bishop who, as you well know, was among the first American climbers to summit Everest in 1963?

Barry [Bishop]…was able to bring back some of the best photographs [of Everest]…photographs that inspired me as a young man. I remember very clearly having his photograph of the West Ridge just showing two very tiny climbers underneath this awe-inspiring summit pyramid of Everest. For me, that just epitomized the mountaineering experience. That one photograph inspired me in many ways. The power of being able to tell a story like that can really change people's lives. I think that that's what's going to be remembered about these people. They really had something to contribute.

There are a lot of great technical mountaineers out there. But the people that will be remembered are the people who can communicate. The people who could show the average Joe on the street why we do what we do. We're not out there just because we are type-A or adrenaline personalities. We're people who have very deep hearts, big hearts. We're very philosophical. We do what we do when we take the risk. We do it because we feel like we get significant reward. We also want to be able to communicate those passions to anybody who's listening in and is willing to be moved by our stories.

More Mount Everest Stories From National Geographic News:
First Teams Summit as Everest Season Begins
Biographer: Legacy of Tenzing Norgay's Historic Everest Climb
Dark Side of Everest Awaits Climbers, TV Viewers
On TV: Surviving Everest Tells of Triumph, Tragedy
1963 Flashback: First Everest Summit by Americans
Everest Attempt Is Focus of New Reality TV Show
Everest Climber to Emcee Summit Attempt on Live TV
Everest: Now Just Another Tourist Trap?
Everest Clinic Tends Ills on High
Everest Time Line: 80 Years of Triumph and Tragedy
Making Movies on the Roof of the World
Everest Snowboarder Vanishes On Second Try
Altitude a Major Challenge to Climbers
The Sherpas of Mount Everest
Everest Melting? High Signs of Climate Change

Related Stories From National Geographic Magazine:
Everest: 50 Years and Counting
Sights & Sounds: The Sherpas
American Summit

Related Stories From National Geographic Adventure Magazine:
After the Storm: '96 Everest Survivors (Audio)
Romance on Everest: The Highest Taboo
The Everest Mess
Little Sister, Big Mountain: Climbing the Himalaya's Cho Oyu
Life on Assignment: Himalaya's Cho Oyu (Audio)
The Last Cairn: A Climber's Tragic Saga (Excerpt)
The Slipping Point: Disaster on Mount Hood
8,000-Meter Man: Ed Viesturs
Q&A: Eric Simonson, Everest Sleuth
Q&A With the Man Who Found Mallory

On Television:
National Geographic Channel: Surviving Everest

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