60 years on, climbing challenges remain

NICOLE PRYOR
Last updated 07:27 29/05/2013
Ed hillary
ON TOP: Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary after their triumph.

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No fancy new gear can take away the "man versus mountain" element of climbing, says one of Sir Edmund Hillary's climbing contemporaries on the 60th anniversary of the climbing great's conquest of Everest.

Wellingtonian Brian Wilkins, 88, was part of a New Zealand Alpine Club expedition to the Himalayas, led by Hillary in 1954, which tackled a series of mountains – Mr Wilkins himself summited six and survived a fall into a crevasse on one of the climbs with Hillary. He also made the first ascent of the northeast ridge of Mt Aspiring, in the Southern Alps.

The Himalaya climbs were made using the very best of equipment.

On his feet were specially designed boots from Britain, and at night he slept in down-filled sleeping bags.

"The sleeping bags were very good actually, they were made in New Zealand by Arthur Ellis down in Dunedin," he says now. Climbers in the 1950s "had very good, strong tents, good primer stoves, and the ropes were nylon".

Wilkins said contrary to what people think, he also had top-of-the-line crampons (boot attachments used for climbing ice).

"We had actually changed over to very light ones which were the same as the ones that are used nowadays."

Wilkins, who wore double-nylon clothing, says today's clothing may have made life easier. "I'm sure there are certain advances that have been made in the clothing, but basically it's very similar.

"I think the use of polypropylene clothing has come in a lot since then. But they could still die from cold out on Everest."

He does not think climbers today have it easy compared to him, and when it comes to ice axes, he would stick to what he used 60 years ago.

"They tend to have shorter ice axes now, although that's something that's a bit controversial," he says.

"It's impossible to cut steps down hill with short ice axes, which can create safety problems."

If he could have done his 1954 climb with a piece of equipment from 2013, he would just choose braided nylon ropes – the twisted rope he used in 1954 could get "a bit stiff" when it froze.

Wilkins this year will publish a book on his climbing exploits. He survived a fall into a crevasse on his Himalaya expedition with Hillary, knocking himself out.

THE JOURNEY UP THE MOUNTAIN:

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