Excerpted from The Call of Everest, published in May 2013 by National Geographic Books
When Tenzing Norgay heaved himself onto the top of the Hillary Step, “like a giant fish,” according to Edmund Hillary, they both knew they were about to reach the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. As they embraced on top on that historic day—May 29, 1953—their names became forever linked with Everest.
Ten years later, as Willi Unsoeld and Thomas Hornbein stood on top of Everest after having climbed up a couloir that would bear Hornbein’s name, Hornbein pondered the meaning of it all. “It is strange how, when a dream is fulfilled, there is little left but doubt.”
On May 8, 1979, Reinhold Messner admitted that when he and Peter Habeler stood atop Everest, having become the first to climb it without supplemental oxygen, he felt nothing special—just a sense of calm. Only when Habeler joined him on the summit did emotion overcome them both.
Less than a year later, on February 17, 1980, in the face of screaming winter winds, Polish climbers Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy reached the top, becoming the first to climb Everest—or any 8,000-meter peak—in winter. All the elements had been stacked against them, but they knew they had to perform. As Wielicki explained: “Poland was Poland, and Everest was Everest.”
British climber Alison Hargreaves wept and laughed simultaneously as she radioed from the summit of Everest in 1995: “Tell my children I’m on the summit of the world and I love them dearly.” After becoming the second woman to climb the mountain without supplemental oxygen and the first to solo the peak, Alison’s first thoughts were for her children.
Outstanding moments. Amazing achievements. History being made. But what led to these remarkable exploits? They weren’t accidental. Years of effort, decades of exploration, dozens of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations led to these summit moments. And it all began with a surprise measurement.
“Sir, I have discovered the highest mountain in the world,” exclaimed Radhanath Sikdar as he rushed into the office of Sir Andrew Waugh, the surveyor general of India. His announcement shaped the history of Himalayan climbing. Until then, Kangchenjunga had held the top spot. But once the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, under the leadership of Sir George Everest, was completed, the mountain known as Peak XV appeared higher, at around 29,000 feet (8,839 meters). Later measurements edged the total up a bit to 29,028 feet (8,848 meters).
Sir George’s successor thought it appropriate to name the mountain after this man who had initiated the survey in the first place. Everest’s name would never be forgotten, even though Chomolungma, which, according to Tenzing Norgay, means “The Mountain So High No Bird Can Fly Over It”—is a much more descriptive title.
The Alpine Club, started in London in 1857, soon became the incubator for forays into the greater ranges. One of its early explorers, Charles Bruce, was the first to propose climbing Everest. World War I put a stop to any efforts, but once the war ended, interest began anew.
In 1919 Capt. J. B. L. Noel, a photographer and filmmaker who had grown up in exotic locales from Switzerland to India and had barely escaped World War I alive, spoke to the Royal Geographical Society, claiming to have been within 40 miles of Everest in 1913, traveling in disguise. A year later Alexander Kellas, a chemistry professor interested in the effects of altitude on the human body, displayed photos he had taken from within ten miles of the glaciers on Everest. Kellas and Noel were soon hatching secret climbing plans.
After obtaining permission from the Dalai Lama to mount an expedition to Everest, the Alpine Club joined forces with the Royal Geographical Society. Their strategy: a reconnaissance in 1921 and a serious attempt the following year. The reconnaissance team of four included a young climber, George Leigh Mallory. A vicar’s son, Mallory was one of Britain’s finest mountaineers and almost impossibly handsome.
Mallory didn’t accept the offer immediately. He had a profession, and he was a married man with children. But he understood that climbing Everest could be advantageous for his career, so he accepted. The decision would make him famous, but it would also cost him his life.
In May 1921, because Nepal was closed to foreigners, the team left Darjeeling and headed north through Sikkim into Tibet, accompanied by Sherpas who carried their heavy loads. Less than a month later, Everest claimed its first victim. Still approaching but within view of the mountain, Kellas died, apparently from heart failure. This was a tragic blow, for Kellas was an experienced Asian explorer and had already climbed nine peaks over 20,000 feet. He had also predicted that Everest could be climbed without the assistance of supplementary oxygen. He was right. But more than 50 years would pass before anyone did it.
As the explorers emerged into the Rongbuk Valley, the stupendous mountain reared up in front of them. Mallory described it as “a single gesture of magnificence to be lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy.” More practically, what he saw was the 10,000-foot North Face, flanked on the left by the Northeast Ridge and on the right by the long West Ridge. An additional buttress descended in a northerly direction, completing the geometry.
For days they explored the terrain, navigating the Rongbuk Glacier, climbing small peaks in order to get better views, trying to piece together the topography, always in search of easy ground. But they missed a nondescript little stream that emerged from a narrow valley in the east onto the Rongbuk, a stream that would eventually provide the key to climbing the mountain. From a high col they called the Lho La, they could see the Khumbu Glacier and the upper basin, which they named the Western Cwm. After two months of searching, they found a way over the Lhakpa La and down onto the East Rongbuk Glacier. Not until September 24 did they finally reach the North Col, four months after starting out! Mallory was weary of the effort, vowing in a letter to his wife, “I wouldn’t go again next year, as the saying is, for all the gold in Arabia.” But three months later, he was on his way back.
The high point of the 1922 pre-monsoon attempt came when Geoffrey Bruce, together with George Finch, Britain’s best snow and ice specialist, reached 8,321 meters, both using supplemental oxygen. Amazingly, this was Bruce’s first mountain ascent. But the expedition ended in tragedy when a massive avalanche caught the team on the slopes of the North Col and killed seven Sherpas.
A newcomer joined the team in 1924—Andrew Comyn Irvine, known by all as Sandy. A superb athlete with powerful shoulders, he rowed for Oxford and had first-rate practical skills and a great attitude. As his great-niece, Julie Summers, remembered, “Sandy Irvine was born to be brave.” Early on, Mallory singled out Sandy as his preferred climbing partner, in part because of his physical abilities but more importantly because of his handiness with the oxygen apparatus.
Mallory had a strategy for Everest in 1924: two simultaneous attacks, one with oxygen and one without. He intended to use “gas” and make the ascent with Irvine. On this, his third trip to Everest, Mallory was the most motivated of the bunch, almost grim. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “It is almost unthinkable with this plan that I shan’t get to the top; I can’t see myself coming down defeated.” To a Cambridge friend, he was even more blunt: “This is going to be more like war than mountaineering. I don’t expect to come back.”
After weeks on the mountain, expedition leader E. F. Norton put in a remarkable effort. Without supplemental oxygen and seeing double, he turned back at 8,570 meters, just 900 feet below the summit. His oxygen-free record would last for 54 years. Four days later, Mallory and Irvine, using gas, set off from Camp VI at 26,800 feet (8,169 meters). Hours later, Noel Odell was scanning the slopes when the clouds parted to reveal a small object advancing upward quickly, approaching a rock step. A second object followed. They appeared to be moving. Then the clouds moved in.
Odell was confused. The pair had reached the top of the Second Step—a steep rock section of the ridge—but they were dangerously behind schedule. Concerned, he climbed even higher than Camp VI, calling and yodeling, trying to lure the climbers down. He descended to the North Col, and the next day he climbed farther beyond Camp VI, calling to no reply. Finally he dragged two sleeping bags from the tent and placed them in a T position, a signal for the teammates below that all was lost. Odell was convinced the two had reached the summit, based on his last sighting and his ardent desire that they had. For Ruth Mallory, it didn’t matter. Everest had claimed the life of her husband and the father of her children.
No other lost explorer in mountaineering history has generated more speculation than George Mallory. In 1933 an ice ax was found on a rock slab 250 yards below and east of a rock step now called the First Step. This was somewhat lower than Odell’s sighting, but it almost certainly belonged to one of the two climbers. Then, in 1975, Chinese climber Wang Hongbao reported that he had spotted the body of a climber he referred to as “an old English dead.” His grim discovery took place near Camp VI at about 27,000 feet. Unfortunately, he could not be questioned further because he died a day later on the mountain.
In 1986, American Tom Holzel engaged British Everest historian Audrey Salkeld for the first expedition specifically mounted to search for the pair. Their effort was unsuccessful. In 1999, a young German, Jochen Hemmleb, teamed up with Salkeld and an American team led by Eric Simonson to mount a second effort. Their discovery would shock the mountaineering world.
Nine years after the 1924 attempt, another team headed off. Among them was Eric Shipton. Born in 1907 in what was then Ceylon—today’s Sri Lanka—Shipton was brought to London at the age of eight in order to “settle down.” Yet school proved to be a disaster, for Shipton showed the classic signs of dyslexia. He eventually moved to East Africa to farm. Already a keen climber, he attracted the attention of another Briton farming in Africa—H. W. Tilman. Although he was older by ten years than Shipton, the two soon became climbing companions. The gregarious Shipton and reclusive Tilman seemed unlikely partners, but they are probably the most legendary pair in the history of mountaineering.
Shipton’s exploits earned him an invitation to climb in the Garhwal Himalaya, which in turn brought him to Everest. Although three climbers of the 1933 team equaled the height record set by Norton in 1924, they did not reach the top. Shipton was sure that a smaller, lightly equipped team, moving quickly, would have a much better chance.
The next year Maurice Wilson, a British aviator with no mountaineering experience, became convinced that he could climb the mountain. Armed only with his inflated self-confidence, he made his way through Sikkim and Tibet, traveling in disguise because he did not have a permit. An extreme ascetic, he planned to live on rice water, ascend the Rongbuk Glacier, and climb the peak in three or four days. Luckily, he came across the 1933 team’s food dump at Camp III, which he seems to have sampled. But what he ate wasn’t enough to get him to the summit, and he died not far from the dump. Even Eric Shipton, the master of minimalism, had to concede that Wilson had taken this approach too far. Still, he admired his conviction. “It was not mountaineering, yet it was magnificent,” he later wrote.
By contrast, the 1935 expedition was a cautious endeavor. The team was charged solely with finding a way onto the Western Cwm from the north side. Many felt disappointment that this group, led by none other than Shipton, wasn’t going all the way. Shipton had a horror of large-scale affairs and delighted in keeping expedition lean and mean, a “lightweight” approach that endeared him to future generations of climbers. His team managed to scale 26 peaks over 20,000 feet (6,000 meters), which he described as “a veritable orgy of mountain climbing.” On the team was a 19-year-old Tibetan Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay, hired by Shipton in Darjeeling. The 11th of 13 children, he was already smitten with Everest, and Shipton gave him his first chance.
The 1935 expedition collected a great deal of information that would contribute to future success on the mountain. It explored much of the surrounding area, gained a better understanding of the time window in which the mountain could be safely climbed, and proved the value of a small, nimble team. This expedition showcased Shipton as a model explorer.
A large expedition was defeated by storms in 1936, and in 1938 Tilman took charge. Like Shipton, he favored the lightweight approach. Tilman was not a tolerant man, particularly of teammate Noel Odell, who was attempting to conduct scientific experiments with a humidity machine. “The results were so unexpectedly various that one concluded the thing was only guessing,” Tilman concluded. He further criticized Odell for his lengthy field notes, which he characterized as a full-length tome. Even Shipton got on his nerves, carrying with him the “longest novel that had been published in recent years.”
Tilman was famously fussy about food supplies. He scoffed at jam, pointing out that the only valuable component was the sugar. Why not just take sugar, eliminating all that extra weight? Tinned food, commonly used at the time, was another waste of time in his opinion, since most of the weight was in the tin! He preferred real food: bacon, ham, cheese, butter, and eggs. In 1938 he managed to serve up a “full English breakfast”—bacon and eggs—all the way to the North Col. Despite the good food, the expedition was another failed attempt, one that Shipton referred to as a “vile waste of time.” Then World War II intervened and priorities shifted.
Nepal Opens Its Doors
In 1949, the Kingdom of Nepal opened its doors to foreigners. The following year, American climber Charles Houston and his father, Oscar, gained permission to travel into the Solukhumbu region to survey the south side of Mount Everest. They invited Tilman, and despite his misogynous attitude, he accepted, even though a woman was coming along. “Hitherto I had not regarded a woman as an indispensable part of the equipage of a Himalaya journey but one lives and learns. Anyhow, with a doctor to heal us, a woman to feed us, and a priest to pray for us, I felt we could face the future with some confidence.” Their assessment of the south approach to Everest was gloomy. Houston thought the icefall might be “forced” but admitted it didn’t look promising. Tilman was more succinct: “Impossible. No route.”
The Everest reconnaissance was Tilman’s last foray into the world’s highest peaks. A practical man, he assessed his years in the Himalaya, his current physical condition, and his level of motivation and determined that it was time to move on. Long and dangerous voyages to Patagonia and Greenland brought him many more years of adventure, and, perhaps fittingly, on November 1, 1977, he sailed with a crew in the direction of the Falkland Islands. He was never heard from again.
In 1951, Shipton was invited to lead another reconnaissance trip to the south side of Mount Everest. Accompanying a stellar group of Britons were several Kiwis, including Edmund Hillary. Almost immediately they were confronted with the dangerously unstable tangled mass of snow and ice known as the Khumbu Icefall. Shipton felt the way was too dangerous, but Hillary disagreed, saying, “I knew the only way to attempt this mountain was to modify the old standards of safety and justifiable risk and to meet the dangers as they came; to drive through regardless. Care and caution would never make a route through the Icefall.” They managed to cross the icefall to the Western Cwm, but a huge crevasse spanning the entire valley turned them back.
Returning to Kathmandu, Shipton learned that the Swiss had secured a permit for the following year, meaning he would have to wait his turn. While the Swiss attempted Everest in 1952, Shipton had to be content with nearby Cho Oyu, which he and his team did not summit. The Swiss, meanwhile, very nearly reached the top of Everest. Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay ascended the Southeast Ridge to within 800 feet of the summit. Shipton set off for an exploratory visit of the Barun and Arun valleys, rather than returning home to take charge for the attempt the next year, and that decision would prove to be his undoing.
The Brits were determined more than ever to put someone on top in 1953. At headquarters, the committee fussed and fumed. They just had to get up this thing. What was wrong? After all these attempts, some key ingredient must be missing. Aha! It must be leadership. Perhaps a military man could organize the effort properly. They offered joint leadership to Shipton and Colonel John Hunt, a man with limited high-altitude experience. Shipton resigned on the spot. It was clearly a slight—even an insult. But maybe the committee had a point. Charles Warren wrote that, despite his undying respect for Shipton, the decision was probably the right one. “I for one can understand why he was not eventually chosen to do so—the truth of the matter is that, by that time, his heart was not truly in it. Having discovered the route to the top by way of the South Col, he had really played his part, as the great explorer he was. For him it was the discovery that counted, not the conquest.”
Tenzing and Hillary
When the British team requested the services of Tenzing Norgay the following year, he was initially reluctant to go, so loyal was he to Lambert. But the Swiss climber urged him: “Take the chance. It doesn’t matter who it is with.” Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon came close to succeeding in 1953, reaching the South Summit at 8,750 meters, but their oxygen tanks were unreliable. The prize was left to the oddly matched couple: Edmund Hillary at six foot three and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay at five foot eight. They reached the top of Everest for the first time on May 29, 1953.
What a team effort it was. The day before, George Lowe, Alf Gregory, and Ang Nyima carried more than 40 pounds each, cutting steps all the way to the last camp at around 8,500 meters in support of Hillary and Tenzing. After dumping their loads, they left the two for their last night of preparation. At 6:30 the next morning, Hillary and Tenzing crawled out of their tent, hoisted their 30 pounds of oxygen gear, connected their masks, and started up. Things went smoothly until they reached a formidable-looking obstacle—the Hillary Step, as it would later be called. Hillary led the way and Tenzing followed. From there they just had to continue up the ridge until there was no place left to climb.
When the British reporter assigned to the team, James Morris, realized that the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II would take place three days later, he scrambled to get the news back to London in time. What a gift for the young queen! Written in code, the telegram transmitted the amazing news: “Summit of Everest reached on 29 May by Hillary and Tenzing.” As the crowds gathered in the streets of London during the night of June 1, in eager anticipation of the royal parades the next day, the newspaper headlines screamed, EVEREST CLIMBED.
Morris called it the “last innocent adventure,” but the international wrangling that occurred afterward almost destroyed the special relationship between Hillary and Tenzing. The Nepalese government tried to convince Tenzing to claim he was the first to reach the summit. They even tricked him into signing a document stating that fact, though it was untrue. (The pair maintained their “reaching the summit together” message up until 1993, when Hillary announced that he had stepped up first.)
Three countries then claimed Tenzing as their own. He recalled that for the first 38 years of his life, nobody cared what nationality he was: Tibetan, Indian, or Nepali. Suddenly everyone wanted him. “But now everything was pushing and pulling. I was no longer a man, but some sort of doll to be hung from a string. It must be I who reached the top first—a yard, a foot, an inch, ahead of Hillary. For some I must be Indian, for others Nepali. The truth did not matter”
Everest had an enormous impact on the lives of its first summiteers. Of all that reached the top, Hillary gave back the most to the country that made him famous. His creation of, and commitment to, the Himalayan Trust was ongoing, generous, and meaningful. Schools, monasteries, and hospitals were constructed throughout the Khumbu region. That’s because his fame after Everest provided him a comfortable jet-set life that brought him into the boardrooms and palaces of the rich and famous around the world.
Still, no accolades could approach those given to Tenzing Norgay. For millions, he became almost the manifestation of a god. His name became mythical, resonating as a talisman for future hope. When Hillary attended the unveiling of a statue honoring Tenzing’s life in Darjeeling in 1997, he said, “I have never regarded myself as much of a hero but Tenzing, I believe, undoubtedly was. From humble beginnings he had achieved the summit of the world.”
The next big breakthrough occurred in 1960, when the Chinese/Tibetans embarked on a massive 214-member expedition whose leader was none other than Mao Tse-tung. They chose the North Ridge, featuring the notoriously difficult rock steps where Mallory and Irvine were last sighted. The Chinese apparently solved the problem with a human ladder arrangement that, when they dispensed with boots and crampons, actually worked. But they were still a long ways from the summit. Not until 4:25 a.m. on May 25 did Wang Fuzhou and Qu Yinhua (Chinese) claim the summit with Gongbu (Tibetan). Their ascent wasn’t acknowledged for years, a fact that Everest historian Audrey Salkeld chastised Western climbers for doubting. Skepticism was so entrenched that the Chinese felt compelled to do it again—in 1975. This time they brought a ladder for the steps, a feature that remains on the mountain to this day.
By the time the Americans arrived in 1963, Everest had been explored on two of its three main ridges: Only the West Ridge remained. But what the Americans needed most of all was to make the ascent. No American had done that, and it was high time. They were led by Norman Dyhrenfurth, a Swiss filmmaker with the looks of a film star and a personality to match, who had been the official photographer on the 1952 Swiss attempt. Sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the American Mount Everest Expedition (AMEE) team included Jim Whittaker, Barry Bishop, Lute Jerstad, Willi Unsoeld, and Thomas Hornbein. Logistics were handled by Nepal veteran Jimmy Roberts. This was an expedition destined for success. Victory was expected, not only from fellow Americans but also from the expedition’s sponsors.
Dyhrenfurth’s initial plan was to do the grand slam: Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse. But early on Hornbein, an anesthesiologist from Seattle, and Unsoeld, deputy director of the Peace Corps in Nepal, began to imagine a grander plan—a new route on Everest.
Their dream presented daunting challenges for the team. Their discussions went on endlessly about where, and how, and when, and with what support. Democracy is a wonderful concept, but not necessarily when climbing a big mountain. Reaching the summit was imperative, so the South Col route, they decided, was the first priority. The West Ridge team would have to be content with what was left over. Once the summit was reached by the South Col route, the West Ridgers would get their moment.
Which they did. What made Hornbein and Unsoeld’s such an iconic climb was that they reached a point of no return. They had only each other. Even after they had summitted via what became known as the Hornbein Couloir, they then had to assist their teammates on the south side of the mountain in a frighteningly cold 28,000-foot (8,535-meter) open bivouac.
They weren’t the first Americans to reach the summit. That honor was achieved by the South Col team, led by Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu. The two were followed by Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, who ended up sharing that desperate bivouac with the West Ridge boys near the top. They all survived, but the cost in digits was high: Unsoeld lost nine toes and Bishop lost all ten.
Everest changed the destiny of those 1963 climbers—certainly for Whittaker, whose social circle revolved around the Kennedy clan following his Everest triumph. Tragedy followed Unsoeld, who would lose not only his own life in the mountains, but also that of his daughter, Nanda Devi Unsoeld. Perhaps more reflective, Hornbein continued to search for the meaning of his Everest success: “Why was I here? I seemed to be hunting for answers to questions I couldn’t even ask. What difference could Everest make even if I got to the top? What was up there to make me any wiser?” It would take him years to begin to discover the answers.
The Last Great Problem
Not until 1975 was another major route claimed on Everest, when Chris Bonington’s Southwest Face expedition placed Dougal Haston, Doug Scott, Peter Boardman, and Sherpa Pertemba on the summit. But that landmark ascent was not accomplished on the first try. An earlier attempt to tackle this “last great problem” took place in 1971 under the leadership of Norman Dyhrenfurth, a two-time Everest veteran. It ended in defeat and interpersonal warfare. The second assault took place in 1972, this time led by Dr. Karl Herrligkoffer, who invited along British climbers Don Whillans, Hamish MacInnes, and Doug Scott. The three Brits managed to function under Herrligkoffer’s famously authoritative style, but none of them was able to find a way to the top.
Chris Bonington led an unsuccessful attempt later that fall and returned in 1975 with a carefully chosen team. Dougal Haston, a Scotsman living in Switzerland, was a driven, ambitious alpinist. Martin Boysen was an old climbing friend of Bonington’s, and Doug Scott had already made an attempt. Nick Estcourt, Tut Braithwaite, and Mick Burke filled out the roster of this well-financed and superbly organized team. Peter Boardman described the effort best: “For a mountaineer, surely a Bonington Everest Expedition is one of the last great Imperial experiences that life can offer!” The key to their success occurred high up on the face. Previous teams had been defeated by the rock band when they had chosen a right-slanting ramp that dead-ended. This time they went left.
Dougal Haston and Doug Scott reached the summit at 6 p.m. on September 24, almost sixteen hours after leaving their Camp VI. The photographs show a lovely—and ominous—sunset. Doug Scott enthused: “The view was so staggering, the disappearing sun so full of colour that the setting held us in awe.” “Disappearing” is the pertinent adjective: It was much too late to return to their camp, so they ended up spending the night on the South Summit at 28,700 feet (8,750 meters), a new record for the highest bivouac.
Two days later Martin Boysen, Mick Burke, Peter Boardman, and Pertemba Sherpa headed up. Boardman and Pertemba reached the top. While Boysen turned back, teammate Burke continued on alone. He was last seen by Boardman and Pertemba resting just a few hundred yards from the summit. He seemed confident, but then the weather closed in, and Mick Burke disappeared forever.
Over on the Southeast Ridge, a diminutive piano teacher, only five feet tall and weighing well under 100 pounds, Japanese climber Junko Tabei became the first woman to climb the mountain. Just 11 days later, Phantog, a Tibetan mother of three, reached the summit with a Chinese expedition. Two women in two weeks! Another woman would not grace the summit of Everest for another five years.
Rumor has it that when Italian alpinist Reinhold Messner and an Austrian, Peter Habeler, were flying home in 1975 after climbing Pakistan’s Gasherbrum I (26,470 feet, 8,068 meters) without supplemental oxygen, they toasted their success with a gin and tonic and declared, “To Everest—without oxygen!” Three years later, they trained hard in order to climb quickly and efficiently on Everest, spending as little time as possible above 8,000 meters. Although Habeler expressed misgivings about dispensing with the O2 while on the actual climb, Messner remained adamant. To save their breath, they scratched messages to each other in the snow rather than talk. At one point, Habeler’s etched arrow pointed down. Messner’s pointed up.
Messner recalled the Herculean effort later in his Expedition to the Ultimate: “I am nothing more than a single, narrow, gasping lung, floating over the mists and the summits.” Habeler was terrifyingly near the end of his limit when they reached the top: “It was a very personal, lonely victory in a struggle which each of us fought alone . . . In spite of my euphoria, I was physically completely finished.”
Many believed their brains would be fried by the lack of oxygen, but they appeared quite lucid upon their descent. The Sherpas at Base Camp were astonished that they had done it. In fact, a strange situation arose in Kathmandu following the climb when a group of Sherpas called a press conference to denounce Messner as a liar. They didn’t believe his claim to have climbed without oxygen, asserting that he had hidden tiny bottles of oxygen under his down jacket. If they couldn’t do it, nobody could.
That same year, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Poland’s first lady of climbing—and role model for the entire community of female Himalayan climbers—became the first European woman and the first Polish mountaineer to climb Everest. This beautiful, charismatic, and eagerly ambitious alpinist hated almost every moment of the climb due to some nasty interactions with her fellow climbers, something she attributed to male chauvinism. But her triumphant summit moment made up for the hardship, and her historic ascent coincided with Pope John Paul II’s ordination day, Poland’s greatest moment in the history of the Catholic Church.
A year later another Eastern Bloc victory occurred: A strong Yugoslavian team led by Tone Škarja, the Chris Bonington of Yugoslavia, made a breakthrough on Everest when it climbed the entire West Ridge Direct. Never varying from the actual ridge, the team climbed overhanging rock above 8,000 meters—the hardest technical climbing on Everest to this point. Andrej Štremfelj and Nejc Zaplotnik finished the historic route and descended by the Hornbein Couloir. Their climb signaled the emergence of Yugoslavia (and later Slovenia) as a Himalayan powerhouse.
Everest in Winter
From time to time, a visionary turns his attention to Everest. In the winter of 1979-80, that visionary was Andrzej Zawada, Poland’s most charismatic expedition leader. Zawada had already established himself as a high-altitude winter specialist in the Hindu Kush as well as nearly ascending Lhotse in winter. Yet no 8,000-meter peak had yet been climbed in winter, and Zawada set his sights on Everest. With welding goggles to protect their eyes and homemade equipment to protect against the crippling cold and the screaming winds, his team had still not placed a climber on the summit when its permit was scheduled to run out in mid-February. Then Zawada managed to negotiate two more days, and two of the youngest, Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy, reached the top on February 17. All of Poland rejoiced.
One of Poland’s finest climbers, Jerzy Kukuczka, had missed the expedition because he had stayed home for the birth of his first son. Luckily, the insatiable Zawada had negotiated not one but two permits for Everest, and the second took place in the spring of 1980. Not content to repeat an earlier route, he plotted a new line on the South Face between the South Pillar and the Southeast Ridge. High on the mountain, above 8,000 meters, a formidable rock band tested the very best: Jerzy Kukuczka and Andrzej Czok. Kukuczka recalled: “To climb this at that altitude took so much out of me that at one stage the effort made me simply wet my pants. At times my vision blurred.”
Achieving the Impossible
Reinhold Messner chose a spell of calm weather following the monsoon of 1980 to launch himself onto the North Face—alone. But the weather wasn’t the only reason he opted for this particular time. In a casual conversation with Himalayan chronicler Elizabeth Hawley back in Kathmandu, he had learned that Japanese climber Naomi Uemura had plans for a solo climb of Everest. Messner advanced his schedule to ensure he would be there first.
He spent a month on the Tibetan plateau, training his body to be content with little oxygen. But within several hours of setting off from his advance base camp at 6,500 meters, he almost lost his life when he fell into a crevasse. After extricating himself, he continued up the North Ridge and the next day traversed the massive, avalanche-prone North Face to gain the Great Couloir, where he bivouacked one more time. At 1 p.m. the following day he collapsed in the snow beside the Chinese tripod on the summit. He made the entire ascent without bottled oxygen, and this time alone. Dreadfully, frighteningly, alone. On his way down to his Canadian girlfriend, Nena Holguin, who was waiting at advance base, Messner realized that he had reached an apex in his career that none of the remaining 8,000-meter peaks that he would climb would ever match.
The Essential Sherpas
By now everyone realized that Sherpas were integral to most people’s success on Everest. They were incredibly strong at altitude and seemed capable of withstanding intense cold, large loads, and long days. Jim Whittaker, the first American to the top, joked about their capacity at altitude: “You don’t notice them until they take a deep breath. Then their lungs fill up, and they block the view.”
Sherpas are inextricably interwoven into Everest history, and the record of their accomplishments on the mountain is legendary, although not often celebrated. Everyone knows of Tenzing Norgay, but hundreds of others could justifiably be called Tigers of the Snows. Dawa Tenzing was still carrying loads to the South Col at age 56 for the Americans in 1963. Nawang Gombu, who reached the top with Jim Whittaker in 1963, later replaced Tenzing Norgay as the director of field training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. Pertemba Sherpa climbed the Southwest Face with Pete Boardman on Chris Bonington’s landmark 1975 expedition. Dorjee Sherpa climbed the mountain eight times, and Apa Sherpa, nicknamed “Super Sherpa,” has reached the top 21 times. Babu Chiri Sherpa, who climbed the mountain by several routes and summited ten times—twice within a 14-day period—once spent the night on top just because he wanted to, and climbed it once in 16 hours and 56 minutes. The list goes on and on.
But not every team climbed with Sherpas. The Poles couldn’t afford them. Nor did a small British team of eight led by Alan Rouse that tried Everest in the winter of 1980-81, this time by the West Ridge, with no supplemental oxygen. It was an incredibly ambitious undertaking, and they were turned back by the cruel winter. Though nobody died on this expedition, three of the eight would make the ultimate sacrifice in the Himalaya in the coming years: Joe Tasker on Everest in 1982, Pete Thexton on Broad Peak in 1983, and Al Rouse on K2 in 1986.
Bonington returned in 1982 with an all-star team of six, intending to climb the Northeast Ridge. Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker, well-known in Britain not just for their climbing prowess but also their writing and filmmaking talents, were among them. The pair headed up the Northeast Ridge to an area called the Pinnacles at about 27,000 feet (8,250 meters). They were last sighted around 9 p.m. on the night of May 17, silhouetted just below the Second Pinnacle. The British casualty rate in the Himalaya was mounting. As historian Elizabeth Hawley observed, “A whole generation of British climbing has been decimated . . . Bonington is alive, but most of his friends are gone.” Only in 1995 would the entire Northeast Ridge be climbed by a Japanese team from Nihon University, using full siege tactics, including 13 climbers and 31 Sherpas.
At the same time that Bonington’s team ascended the Northeast Ridge, a Soviet team of 17 forced a bold, new, and difficult line on the buttress to the east of the British Southwest Face route. Eleven climbers reached the summit, heralding the Russian style of big-wall, Himalayan climbing.
Finally, in 1983, the last of Everest’s faces was climbed—perhaps the most intimidating and dangerous one—the East (Kangshung) Face. It was so hazardous that the American team chose not to use Sherpas, reasoning that it wasn’t right to expose them to so much danger. Using supplemental oxygen, six climbers summited: It was the second new route on Everest pioneered by Americans. With this ascent, all three of Everest’s great faces—North, Southwest, and East—had been climbed.
Two years later, another Everest first took place, and it presaged the future of climbing on the mountain. When Snowbird Ski Resort owner Dick Bass summited Mount Everest on April 30, 1985, he could fairly be classified as the first fully guided Everest client. It was his fourth try at the mountain, and he had David Breashears to thank for his success. “You got me up—and I know you’ll get me down,” he gasped to Breashears on the summit. Breashears did just that, for he fully understood the relationship. “He’s my responsibility: I have to get him down.”
With the explosion of guided climbs that followed, many have criticized the business of guiding clients on the highest mountain on Earth. Guiding is an honorable profession with a long and illustrious history, particularly in the Alps. But it’s a different story above 8,000 meters. There are so many additional factors: the massive scale, the crippling altitude, the fierce storms and the huge costs. Perhaps most important, the guide has higher stakes as well. Each is granted only one summit per season, not like in the Alps. It’s important to make each season count.
Climbing Night Naked
In the summer of 1986, possibly the most impressive ascent of Everest was made by Swiss climbers Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet. After acclimating for five weeks, they left their advance base camp together with French climber Pierre Béghin. They began at 11 p.m. on August 28 and struck out for the Japanese couloir on the north side. Climbing through the night, they stopped at 11 a.m. at 7,848 meters to relax and rehydrate in the warmth of the day. As the evening cooled, they started up the Hornbein Couloir. After four hours of climbing, they stopped to wait for dawn’s light. Béghin turned around at this point, but the other two resumed their climb, reaching the summit at 2 p.m. After 90 minutes they started down, and since the snow conditions were superb, they chose to descend the entire face in a sitting glissade that took a mere four and a half hours, for a total of 39 hours round trip. They took no tents, ropes, harnesses, or bottled oxygen. Polish climber Voytek Kurtyka (and frequent climbing partner of Loretan) called it “night naked” climbing. When the author asked Loretan, years later in 2010, what his most memorable climb was, he cocked his head, flashed a lopsided grin, and answered, “The Everest climb was very good . . . it was such a straight line.”
The year 1988 was a conflicted one on Everest. Several amazing ascents were made, but in very different styles. A massive undertaking called the Japanese-Chinese-Nepalese Friendship expedition, 254 members strong and costing seven million dollars, sent climbers up the Southeast and Northeast ridges simultaneously, broadcasting live from the summit.
In contrast, a small four-man international team was attempting a fierce new route on the East (Kangshung) Face via the Southeast Rib. Britain’s Stephen Venables, Americans Ed Webster and Robert Anderson, and Canadian Paul Teare hardly knew each other, yet they hoped to make the ascent without fixed ropes, without supplemental oxygen, and without Sherpa support. When Charlie Houston first heard of the plan, he bellowed: “Four against the Kangshung Face? You’re mad!” Judging by the features on their route, which they eventually called the “Neverest Buttress,” Houston was probably right. Filled with horrific overhanging snow and ice mushrooms, vertical ice walls, and gaping bergschrunds (where a glacier splits off from its base), the route was dangerous, steep, and sustained.
They worked their way up through the desperate terrain all the way to the South Col. Then fatigue began to take its toll and Venables pulled ahead, alone. As he climbed through the night on May 11, he first assumed the others would soon catch up to him. Eventually it became clear that he was on his own: either break trail to the summit—all the way—or admit defeat. He made the summit but failed to reach the shelter of the tent on the South Col on his return. Instead he bivouacked, hallucinating wildly, with visions of Eric Shipton warming his feet and Tibetan yak herders beckoning him to their fire. At dawn he staggered down to the tent, where two of his three mates huddled.
But the story didn’t end there. After a frightening night, crammed together at the South Col and Venables half frozen, the climbers had to decide which route to descend: back down the Kangshung Face, or the easier South Col route. Despite its ferocious difficulty, they chose the face because they knew the way. After a series of wild free-falling glissades and miraculous recoveries, all but one had lost their ice axes. The story of their three-day descent, so completely out of control, is not a model to be repeated. Nevertheless they survived, garnering acclaim. Reinhold Messner called it the “best ascent of Everest in terms and style of pure adventure.” Chris Bonington was more specific: “Amongst the most remarkable examples of survival in the history of Himalayan mountaineering.” Survival it was, but not without cost. Webster lost the tips of seven fingers and a thumb, and Venables lost three and a half toes.
That autumn, on the south side of the mountain, a small team of Slovakia’s best climbers tried to make the first alpine-style ascent of the Southwest Face, initially climbed in 1975 by Chris Bonington’s team. They used no fixed ropes, supplemental oxygen, or Sherpa support. The Slovaks succeeded on the face, but all four died on the descent. Because of the devastating loss, many began to question just what defined “success.”
At the same time, Lydia Bradey, a flamboyant young New Zealand climber, was climbing with a New Zealand team that shared the Southwest Face permit with the tragic Slovak group. The New Zealand team, led by Rob Hall, did not reach the summit and returned to Kathmandu. All except Lydia. She climbed to the summit illegally via the Southeast Ridge without supplemental oxygen—making her the first woman to do so. The problem was that she had no watch to record the time, and her frozen camera had malfunctioned. She had no proof. Rob Hall dismissed her claim, stating that it was simply not possible. Yet he had an ulterior motive: Her illegal ascent might jeopardize his ability to guide in Nepal in the future. The summit claim was listed as “disputed,” thereby depriving Lydia the accolades for what should have been a monumental achievement. Only years later, after confirmation by a Spanish climber on the mountain, was Lydia Bradey finally credited with the first female ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen. Lydia was one of the few “firsts” on Everest for whom the accomplishment did little to change her life. She was a mountain guide when she climbed the mountain, and a guide she remained.
The Recent Past
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Almost every decade has offered up unique and creative advances on Everest: The 1920s and ’30s were devoted to exploration; the first summit successes came in the ’50s; new ridge routes began in the ’60s; the ’80s saw new routes and oxygen-free ascents. But what about the ’90s? According to American climber Ed Webster, “In the early 1990s the years of wonder on Everest seemingly ended.”
Part of the reason is the vast increase in the number of climbers. The Nepal Ministry of Tourism sells more and more permits for the Southeast Ridge each year—a veritable gold mine. China has followed suit for the North Ridge. These are granted to climbers chasing the Seven Summits. Climbers chasing the 14 8,000-ers. Climbers chasing Everest. Many, including Messner, feel that Everest is no longer a true mountaineering experience. British author Ed Douglas called it “Himalaya Horribilis.” Thousands now throng the mountain via its most popular routes, and the vast majority of them are guided. Hundreds reach the summit each year feeling triumphant, for Everest has been their dream, their ambition, their obsession. Yet many others continue to die trying, some from falls, others from hypoxia, and most from sheer exhaustion.
The Year of Disaster
The year 1996 was when too many died. The highly publicized disaster that killed a total of 11 people has sadly defined Everest in the 1990s. Many have analyzed the sequence of events that led to the tragic night. Fingers have been pointed. But as with most mountain tragedies, many factors contributed. Certainly, there were too many people crowding the route on summit day, creating gridlock and terrible delays. Communication problems created confusion about who was supposed to do what, and at what time. Some guided clients weren’t as experienced as they should have been, for they would have relied less on fixed lines and hand-holding on the epic descent. The rivalry between the leaders of the two commercial expeditions—Rob Hall, a New Zealand guide and owner of Adventure Consultants, and American Scott Fischer, head of Mountain Madness—probably also played a role. Fischer was the new guy on the hill, and Hall, the well-established Everest guide, had succeeded in getting his clients to the summit every year, except for the previous year. The pressure must have been fierce. Hall disobeyed his own rules of survival when he and his clients stayed too long above 8,000 meters. The year before he had followed those rules and, although nobody reached the summit, everyone had returned from the climb. In 1996 four of his team, including Hall himself, perished on their descent.
Fischer was ill on the day his group summited, compromising his ability to look after his clients and bringing into question the strategy that he had developed with his Russian guide, Anatoli Boukreev. Boukreev was to guide from the front, and Fischer from behind. That strategy couldn’t succeed with an ailing Fisher. The clients needed more support.
Other climbers on the mountain observed that all the guides were clad in relatively lightweight clothing, indicating perhaps overconfidence in their ability to get up and down the mountain quickly.
The costs associated with guided climbs of Everest probably influenced some clients to climb beyond the point of exhaustion. They couldn’t afford to return.
The most significant factor was, of course, the storm. According to some, it was the storm of the century. Others rated it just another storm on Everest. No matter how fierce, it combined with all of the individual elements leading up to summit day—illness, broken rules, miscommunication, lack of skills, exhaustion—to become the perfect storm. Nine people lost their lives that night. Even more would have perished had Boukreev not gone out into the night, again and again, to rescue climbers huddled in the blizzard on the South Col. Rob Hall was not so fortunate. After he helped a climber reach the summit, his oxygen tank froze, and he died in the blizzard.
Despite the tragedy that sadly dominates this decade, many others took on the challenge of Everest and succeeded, sometimes in very original ways. At the beginning of the decade, Australian Tim Macartney-Snape began his journey at the Bay of Bengal and continued, walking (and sometimes swimming) the entire distance to the mountain’s base, and then to the summit.
In 1990 Jim Whittaker led the Peace Climb, a joint venture between the Chinese, Americans, and Soviets that placed 20 climbers on the summit. Also that year, the first married couple climbed to the summit when Maria and Andrej Štremfelj, two veteran Slovenian climbers, barely beat a rival team, American Cathy Gibson and her Russian husband, Aleksei Krasnokutsky.
In 1991, British filmmaker Leo Dickinson ballooned over Everest, taking some of the most superb photographs ever seen of the mountain. On April 22 of the following year Pasang Lhamu became the first Nepali woman to climb Everest—on her fourth attempt at the mountain. But her story did not turn out happily. While she became a national hero, she died on her descent and took a Sherpa with her—Sonam Tshering, father of three children and an unborn fourth. A somewhat similar fate greeted British climber Alison Hargreaves, who in 1995 climbed the mountain alone without supplemental oxygen. Sadly, she would lose her life in August of that year as she descended from the summit of K2.
The same year as the 1996 Into Thin Air disaster, veteran Everest climber and award-winning filmmaker David Breashears made the first IMAX film on Everest. That same year, a South African team, including Bruce Herrod, Cathy O’Dowd, and Ian Woodall, placed the South African flag on the summit for the first time. Sadly, Bruce Herrod lost his life in the process.
Everyone on the mountain stopped to listen when President Nelson Mandela called their base camp to offer congratulations to the summit climbers. When he learned they were still high on the mountain, he asked that they call him back, and even began to give his telephone number, over national radio! Luckily, their base camp manager cut that particular transmission short, to the amusement of the entire mountain.
Also in 1996, a strong Russian team from Siberia led by Sergei Antipine climbed a bold new line straight up between the North and Northeast ridges of the mountain, succeeding on their very first attempt. The slopes varied from 65 to 90 degrees of steepness.
In the same year Swedish climber Göran Kropp rode a specially designed bicycle, groaning with its 240 pounds of equipment, 7,000 miles from Stockholm to Kathmandu, then carried on to the summit of Everest. He survived the deadliest Everest season only to die rock climbing near his Seattle home.
Near the end of the 1990s—on May 1, 1999—American climber Conrad Anker discovered a body high on the mountain, clad in old-fashioned clothing. Stunned, he realized he had found Sandy Irvine. When the other team members arrived, they discovered a name tag sewn to the collar of one of the shirts: G. MALLORY. So convinced were they that this was Irvine that teammate Jake Norton commented, “That’s weird. Why would Irvine be wearing Mallory’s shirt?” Anker had found the body of George Mallory.
The following year, Slovenian skier Davo Karničar made the first ski descent of the mountain, taking less than five hours from the summit to Base Camp.
Sherpa Babu Chiri rang in the new millennium when he raced up the normal route in just 16 hours. A ten-time veteran of Everest’s summit, including one night’s bivouac (planned, and without supplemental oxygen) on the summit in 1999, Babu Chiri died a year later when he fell into a crevasse at Camp II in the Western Cwm while out on an innocent jaunt to take photographs.
French snowboarder Marco Siffredi made the first successful snowboard descent, on the Tibetan side of the mountain the following year. Sadly, he was killed one year later while trying to snowboard the Hornbein Couloir.
The same year, Erik Weihenmayer defied his naysayers when he became the first blind man to climb the mountain. Despite what some might classify a “stunt,” he brought hope to disabled people numbering in the tens of thousands around the world.
Three years later, a Russian team sieged a line to the left of the Japanese Couloir on the North Side, fixing more than 3,000 meters of rope in the process, most of which remained on the mountain after they summited and left.
The Impact of Everest
Climbing Everest remains for most a life-changing experience. Whether they are guided clients or trailblazing explorers, many climbers have seen their life stories dramatically affected by Everest. At the very beginning, Ed Hillary was convinced that nobody’s life had changed as dramatically as that of Tenzing Norgay’s after his ascent of the mountain. All the fame he gained as a result in the end humiliated him: “Everest did not matter. Only politics mattered. And I was ashamed.” His Everest triumph became an albatross for Tenzing, who spent his later years as a tragically lonely figure.
Fifty years after his climb, the doubts that Tom Hornbein felt on the summit began to make some sense: “Dreams are the beginning, and doubt simply a catalyst to creativity,” he said. “My life is still rich with adventure and its attendant uncertainties. Precious are those people with whom I share it.” Many of those precious relationships came to Hornbein because of Everest.
Reinhold Messner treasured his two Everest climbs: the first supplemental-oxygen-free ascent with Peter Habeler and the lonely solo of the North Face. But his anger over the subsequent developments on Everest eventually overshadowed these feelings. He scoffed with anger that Everest, by 2012, had become a “Disneyland.” Instead he turned to smaller peaks. “When I was a small child, I began on small mountains,” he said. “Now, as I am getting older, the small peaks are getting bigger. If I am lucky, some day I will end on a small peak.”
Everest in winter was Krzysztof Wielicki’s first Himalayan climb. It wasn’t his last. Like Messner, he climbed all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks. But for Krzysztof, Everest remained his best memory, not because it was highest, but because of the atmosphere, the team effort, and the strong leadership from Andrzej Zawada. For Krzysztof, Everest cemented a deep and meaningful friendship with the man who helped shape his dreams of winter climbing on the highest mountains.
Everest was Alison Hargreaves’s last Himalayan peak from which she would return. Just three months later, she was blown off the slopes of K2 after summiting. Almost as violent as her death was the reaction to it, as many vilified her—a mother—for risking so much. The woman whose first words on the top of Everest were for her son and daughter was maligned for not loving them as much as her own ambition.
Friendship, shame, anger, fame, joy. Despite the disparity in the aftermath of their Everest ascents, for each of these climbers the mountain gave a unique, exalted feeling of reaching the top of the world.
Legendary Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev expresses that rapture well: “Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion . . . I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment . . . my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.”
Excerpted from The Call of Everest, published in May 2013 by National Geographic Books