Amidst the 600 plus people summiting, and very sadly, the 17 dying this year on Everest, one, and only one climber, eschewed the traditional paths and set out alone for the top.
Foregoing oxygen or support, he simply set off solo from Camp 2 on the traditional South Col route, and climbed directly out the back door of his tent and up to the West Ridge.
Everest West Ridge, the route follows close to the crest, footsteps just visible in center. Then you move out left onto the North Face, into the couloir and then direct to the summit. Photo: Ed Webster
This is of course, the route made famous by Hornbein and Unsoeld on their ascent in 1963.
Since then, a number of intrepid explorers, from Peter Hillary to Conrad Anker, have headed up this way, but been thwarted either by snow conditions on high, or more recently, the brick hard ice just leading up to the ridge, which can stop an ascent almost before it gets started.
Looking out from Camp 2, gaining the west ridge has looked anything but hospitable in recent years. Loose, blocky rock, then bare ice, wind sculpted snow and finally, 1,000 meters higher, the actual ridge. Compared to simply walking up the CWM and following the ropes up the Lhotse Face on the South Col route, it is undeniably daunting.
This year Kilian Jornet was the lone person to try anything different, a solo ascent of Everest’s West Ridge – and one expects, he planned a traverse over the summit and down to the South Col?
Kilian reported starting out from Camp 2 with blue ice underneath, overladen with deep snow – not exactly a great start to any climb.
So while records were set by a host of climbers with firsts for this and firsts for that, and Everest seemingly shivers under another seasons garbage and waits for the monsoonal snows to cover what it may, it is heartening to see one climber virtually sneak in, climb high, climb down safely write one post and go quietly home.
Perhaps inspiration for another true adventurer to one year try the same, and complete that magnificent traverse over the top of the world.
Walking the crest of the West Ridge on the descent. Photo: Ed Webster
Following is Chapter One of my book Nine Lives – Expeditions to Everest about our own attempt on a similar route, the Direct West Ridge, with photographs from our own attempt on the route long ago.
The Direct West Ridge on Everest was first attempted by a French team in 1974, when 6 died in an avalanche. Its first ascent was by a strong Yugoslavian climbing team in 1979. Only a handful of people have ever summited the route, all part of large, talented and primarily Eastern European teams in an era when doing big hard new routes on Everest was the style.
Known for having its hardest climbing at the very top, the Direct West Ridge route has maintained its reputation as one of the longest and most difficult routes on Everest and hasn’t had a repeat ascent in over 30 years.
While it traces past of the original West Ridge route, the Direct starts from the Lho La in Tibet, ascend straight up to where the original route was, then goes direct up the summit pyramid, avoiding the traverse out onto the North Face and the Hornbein Couloir finish.
From Nine Lives – Expeditions to Everest, Chapter 1.
Or should you prefer French, Neuf vies – Expeditions A L’Everest. Both editions in print and for immediate download, in digital format.
The entrance to Camp 3 high on Everest’s remote West Ridge Direct in Tibet was a slot cut into the ice of the slope. The only way in was to twist sideways and squeeze through, kicking unseen crampon points into the thin icy ridge leading down into the subterranean darkness of the crevasse.
The crevasse had a thin ice roof, light snuck dimly through the doorway crack and then ran in splintered, snow-covered lines that snaked across the ceiling 5 metres above me. Nowhere was the snowy floor level, it pitched and heaved, then sloped off rapidly into a black hole behind our two tents. The nylon of the tents alternatively flopped and stretched tight above the uneven floor.
The tents should have been a haven, a place to call home, if only for one night. But the crevasse was already “home,” we were inside. However, it was plainly evident there wasn’t a home gene anywhere in this crevasse. Outside the tents would have been warding off elements. Here, the only element was ice; it was like pitching a tent in a sealed icebox.
A draft of frozen air blew in through the door, flowed over the tents, rustled the nylon, a noise of leaves dying in the fall, then swept off into the black hole behind us to nowhere. It was surreal, tents buried in a crevasse on a mountain. It was the darkest, shadowed corner part of a Dr. Seuss story of my youth.
The temperature was – 8 c (18 degrees f), never more, never less. It didn’t seem so cold at first, but the dim light, the ice walls, the flow of air, soon chilled the soul. We were here to make an attempt at life in the icebox.
Into this space, my rope-mate Randall Grandstaff and I stepped. Mid-afternoon, the haze of 7,315 meters (24,000 feet) of elevation, the wind rising, the sun falling, only enough day and energy left to get the stove going, inside the tent, inside the crevasse. The light, filtered by the crevasse, filtered by the tent, filtered by eyes seeing life through an altitude haze, created a fuzz of what should have been reality. When the stove boiled, the steam floated off it like smoke from a cremation, hazy, hanging, then catching in the wind flowing from the entrance and carrying itself off into the black hole behind us.
Randall and I had both been eating and sleeping on mountains for years; it was second nature, we needed no thought to know what we needed to do. Hanging off cliffs, sleeping in hammocks by night, balancing stoves and heating tea in the dark, we had done it all in wind and rain and snow until it was automatic. We had started young when it was all so exciting that difficulties were fun, mistakes were laughed at and we became very good at it without thinking about it. Randall hailed from of all places, Las Vegas, Nevada, but was one of the most active of first ascensionists at the nearby climbing area, Red Rocks, putting up 100’s of difficult new routes.
Randall was gregarious, outspoken, highly talented and had a great eye for the best way up a mountain. And he was a lot of fun to climb with, armed with both the enthusiasm and the experience to help get us up the hard leads on the West Ridge. We had been thrown together by chance, would climb hard and fast for but three days, and never climb together again. I would know a small part of who he really was, and after a rappelling accident some years later, he would die long before his time.
Our apprenticeship and comfort level in the mountains was essential, because altitude added a whole litany of new challenges. Instant soup boiled steadily for 10 minutes left noodles still crunchy. The noodles got stuck in the teeth, they went sideways in the throat, they weren’t nutrition in any sense of the word. Hot lemon followed, that never seemed more than lukewarm, packs of sugar and flavoring, biting at the throat. Then it was time to go to sleep. Randall took out his contacts, I wondered why he was wearing contacts and he assured me they worked, they didn’t fog. Snippets of civilized life below translated to the heights that seemed incongruous with our existence. Randall put the contacts in their case before they froze and zipped them into a small pocket in the top of his sleeping bag. Maybe they doubled as a pillow.
Then we were in our sleeping bags, the light went out of the roof, the temperature still hovered at, yes, still the same, an unmoving minus 8 c (18 f). Not so cold really, but the air outside the crevasse was not the same as the air inside. Inside it was fetid and cloying and was thick-laden with ice crystals. It preyed on us and because it had no life it was a dead weight of air. We had Everest ice below us, around us, above us.
Above 7,000 metres there is no thought of sleep, not without oxygen. Maybe later we hoped, but never the first night.
Being our first time on Everest, there was the thought that “oh, so this is Everest, this is what it is like.”
Yet in nine more expeditions spread over 18 years, I would never have a night anything like those two Randall and I spent at Camp 3 on Everest’s West Ridge Direct. Where we knew so little and had to act intuitively with so much, just to stay alive and ultimately to get down.
That night we lay for 12 hours, drifting in and out of semi-consciousness. The cold air penetrated the down of our sleeping bags as if they were threadbare cotton sheets. The ice underneath came up through the pads in jagged lumps that pushed and prodded our skinny high-altitude bodies.
The stars, the friendly stars and the connection to the heavens were gone. It was completely, absolutely pitch black. At least I thought so, until some time later, in the twisting and turning of the night, I looked out the tent door and spotted a hole in the crevasse roof through which a single star showed through, a single dim pinprick of light. But the earth turned and the star left and pitch-blackness was back. The crevasse was our coffin; it surrounded and covered us.
The sun never really came up; the cave just went from pitch black to kind of black, then mostly black. Then long after time should have woken the morning up, a little grey crept into our lives. The stove was a tangled metal mass of freezing parts. The water was frozen. The lighters wouldn’t spark and the little wheels spun and tore skin from our thumbs that fell white and frozen into the ice crystal and became the same.
This was Everest, that was all it was. This was to be expected, it wasn’t supposed to be easy after all. We were climbing and suffering in the footsteps of our heroes. We would persevere. Matches, plain old wooden matches soon torched the stove, overflowing with fuel and the fumes exploded and burst out across the tent then faded into a troubled low sputtering flame. It took an hour to melt a small bowl of ice chunks. We were climbers, we were meant to be out climbing, but any type of movement was oh-so-hard.
Hardest of all was the boots, the first generation of plastic climbing boots, the oh so shiny and oh so new and oh so cool looking white plastic mountaineering boots. When we had pulled them out of their boxes in our packing warehouse we felt like we were stomping the last few steps to the top of Everest just looking at them. Now they were ice chunks, in our ice world, stuck onto our iced up toes. Why did they have to make them white?
Lower legs and toes were wooden inside the boots, then the crampons, the strap on crampons, the almost like Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay wore on the first ascent. They were old fashioned goofiness taking half an hour a side to loop around and around the foot and snug up, either so tight that an hour later they had to come off and circulation restored with a slow, tide of blood coming in, with a wave of pain, or so loose the toes skidded sideways and the boot fell off them and they had to be retightened, the fingers leaving skin in the buckles, turning red and producing the headache jarring, throbbing pain from the fingers to the hands to the wrists pain, when stuffed back in the mittens.
Slamming the crampons into the ice, and thus the toes into the front of the boots, led up the mini-ridge and out of the crevasse slice in the ice. The head popped up, looking about from side to side, surveying the scene, very groundhog like. A blast of sunshine, of wind, of air, of life rushed across us. The first step out onto the slope induced vertigo. The light on the shining snow slope, the prickly points of the crampons grabbing at the ice like 12 magnetic connections back to earth, the far, far away glacier suspended below us.
The West Ridge on Everest extends kilometers out from the mountain. So while you are climbing Everest, you are also on this immense exposed ridge that forms the border between Nepal and Tibet. It catches the wind, but it rewards with the views. Looking out, there is Pumori and Cho Oyu and Gyachung Kang and so many peaks you could climb something new every day of the year.. So on the rolling dinosaur tail of a ridge rolling down from the summit of Everest we climbed, brandishing axes and sticky, pointy boots and suits making us as big as snowmen.
We’d already put the ropes up this section, so advancing was simply a matter of putting the ascender on the rope, step up, slide, another step. Not steep, like an iced up double-black ski run only, but there was no rhythm, no real sense of movement, no glory. Only cold wooden feet, leaden thoughts, air, so little air and so much wind, rushing its madness over the ridge. No climbers below surfaced from Camp 2. On the Lho La at Camp 1, only distant black dots marked the tents. No movement could be seen. It was us and Everest. Last climbers on earth.
The ridge rolled off the right side into Nepal, down into the Khumbu Icefall, 1,220 meters (4,000 feet) below. This was where in 1963 Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld had climbed up out of the Khumbu and onto the ridge. Out here is where the iconic shot of one lone man climbing along the ridge was taken that graces the front cover of Tom’s book, the black summit pyramid rising in the background as the clouds welled up from below.
As much as the ridge was unbelievably long, we were stepping from the traditional 1953 Base Camp we had started from, onto a section of the original West Ridge route. Then, where Tom and Willi had gone left, across the North Face and out into the Hornbein Couloir, we would continue straight up along the crest of the ridge on our direct route to the summit.
The final black summit pyramid looked both touchable and unbearable, the plume streaming, the black rock sitting atop the snow. It was for dreamers and wasn’t connected to our reality. Yet some part of our brains was already there. With climbers it always is, otherwise you wouldn’t be there at all. There were 19 of us on this expedition, and every one of us was dreaming and hoping and swearing somewhere inside us that we were going to stand atop the top of the world.
From Jim Bridwell to Bill Forrest, Jay Smith to Pete Athans, Andy Politz to Ed Webster, we had a mix of personalities that spanned the spectrum from big walls to big mountains. It must be said, none of us really knew what we were up for.
1985 was the beginning of the end of an era for Everest. The forces that would shape Everest’s future were being put in place. It was the last year the Nepalese allowed only one team on each route on Everest. So while there might be a few teams in Base Camp, we were each headed up in a different direction. Base Camp was still very much a small, friendly village of less than 50 people, everyone knowing and interacting with everyone else.
Expeditions were still largely nationalistic, and we mirrored that, with the Norwegians on the South Col and our team, the 1985 American Expedition, on the West Ridge Direct. We weren’t on our route by choice, as the Norwegians had the permit for the South Col, and our leader, Dave Saas, took what he thought was the next best option. That it was a long, torturous climb with a dangerous, loose, rocky cliff to just get to the route, a central section with a traverse of 2 kilometers at over 7,000 meters and then a final 1,000 meters up a steep technical rocky ridge to the summit didn’t deter him.
The West Ridge Direct on Everest had first been attempted by a French team in 1974, when 6 died in an avalanche. Its first ascent was by a strong Yugoslavian climbing team in 1979. It had a second ascent and then has never been successfully repeated ever since. These days no-one even seems to attempt it, despite being a natural and beautiful route, one of only three prominent ridges on Everest.
Climbing teams were also still expected to really climb, so we were out in front, fixing ropes, putting in anchors and carrying our own gear. Our Sherpas were in support, carrying supplies up to our established camps. When I fixed ropes for a week above Camp 4 at 7,500 meters up to our Camp 5 at 8,100 meters, I did all the leading and my Sherpa Lakpa climbed along behind with extra ropes, always encouraging me to climb faster.
We spent a fantastic week up high, climbers coming up in support of our camp, with just myself and Lhakpa starting early, climbing high and dropping back to the windy camp for noodles every night.
By night our tent was picked up by the wind and dropped back onto the ice with us both inside. By day we climbed with Russian MIG oxygen masks and tanks weighing 4 kilos. (9 pounds) each. We shared intense and beautiful moments of climbing on Everest high over the Tibetan plateau, with hard snow and fractured but friendly stair-cased vertical rock on the ridge.
Our overall team had been built in a ramshackle fashion. Our leader Dave Saas had recruited Jim Bridwell as a climbing leader, as iconic and polarizing a figure as could be found in the world of American climbing. Jim in turn had recruited his Yosemite climbing partners, hard men from the granite walls. Jim had also invited Bill Forrest whom I’d worked and climbed with in Colorado.
Then Bill Forrest in turn had called me up in my far flung post at Ogilvy advertising in New Zealand and invited me along. I accepted immediately. Who wouldn’t? I was a climber and it was Everest, it seemed a completely natural thing to do.
The team was an admittedly rag-tag bunch, but what we lacked in expedition experience, we made up for in enthusiasm and that incredibly rare opportunity to touch the top of the world.
Alongside us in Base Camp were the Norwegian team, attempting to become the first from their country up Everest. Led by the shipping magnate Arne Naess, he had recruited Chris Bonington to focus on logistics and organization. Chris had yet to summit, so had the added advantage of joining a phenomenally talented team and having his own shot at the top.
Originally slated to join the Norwegian team was my climbing partner from Romsdal, Norway, Hans-Christian Doseth. I had met Hans when I’d moved to Norway, bouldering along the fjords and putting up new routes in the Romsdal Valley together. As fluid, powerful and enthusiastic as anyone I’d climbed with, Hans had subsequently visited me in the U.S. and climbed the routes I’d grown up with in Eldorado Springs, Colorado before going on to ascents of the big walls in Yosemite.
After living in Norway, I had returned with my climbing friend and artist Steve Sanford, for another summer climbing together while staying with Hans in Andalsnes and climbing new routes in Romsdal. A year later when he had already been picked for the Everest team he went to Pakistan. There he completed a new route on Trango Tower, but so sadly died on the descent.
Chris Bonington had shared the news with me as we passed through Bangkok en-route to Kathmandu. Suddenly the light-heartedness of climbing faded, I sat in my hotel room that night thinking of Han’s enthusiasm, his power, the joy of climbing that had emanated from him. He didn’t seem to get anywhere near nine lives, he had barely had one life and it seemed to have come and gone so quickly. It was an ominous start to our expedition.
1985 was also the year Dick Bass, having worked a deal to tag along on the Norwegian permit, came in with David Breashears and finished off the Seven Summits, creating an adventure legacy that now attracts thousands of people a year to the tallest peak on each of the seven continents. Base Camp was a place where a card game with Arne, Dick, Chris and David in the evening hours was as much a part of the experience as climbing Everest itself. There was no real competition, and even amongst this group of legendary personalities, very little ego. We were off on a climbing holiday, an Everest climbing holiday.
This was in many ways to be the closing year of this era on Everest. Nepal realized that they could sell multiple permits for one route, and soon began to reap the financial benefits that drive today’s business. And with David Breashears guiding Dick Bass to the summit, people realized that Everest was actually within reach of people who weren’t lifelong climbers.
Meanwhile, everyone on our own team were Everest virgins. As our promotional brochure stated, more Americans had been on the moon than on the top of Everest. It was still a very rarified experience. As much as we all had read of Everest history, of Everest maladies, of Everest advice, nothing had prepared Randall and I for the realities of really living and climbing on Everest.
While the words HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) were somewhere in our heads, the reality of them was a mystery. Fluids building up in our lungs or our brains just weren’t yet part of what we expected. We knew Everest would be hard, but where was the line between fatigue and not getting enough oxygen because our lungs were bubbling? When did a headache, then become a crushing headache, then destroy your ability to think coherently or even walk straight?
Soon after arriving at Camp 3, Randall’s and I’s minds began to be taken by the mountain. Our reaction was more believing that we were perhaps weak, and must really toughen up. This was Everest and we needed to be strong.
Only today, right now, climbing out of Camp 3, Randall and I realized we were going nowhere and doing it slowly. We were not being strong, we really weren’t being much of anything. The dream of Everest and the reality of Everest were separated by a bodily pain that made progress impossibly slow and mentally painful. Our crampons crunched the ice and it crackled and broke underfoot in painful snaps of the ice. Heat and smells quickly rose inside the down suit, while the fingers on the axe burned as they touched metal.
There had been a toothbrush at some point, but the bristles all fell out one night in the cold so it would be a long furry month of a mouth until a new brush could be called on from Base Camp. All this western induced wimpiness would be exorcised later in the expedition, but now, the simple comforts were still assumed they were needed. When in reality little of it helped one get to the top.
The only thing that gets one to the top is climbing until you get there, and too much thought about even that just gets in the way.
It was already 10:30 in the morning, the sun was blazing, the wind was rising, clouds were moving up from Nepal. It wasn’t really bad weather, but it never is really good weather on the ridges of Everest, just calms between the winds and the storms. There was always an excuse for not climbing, for not reaching our objective of Camp 4 another 2 kilometers along the ridge. I guess Randall and I talked, I guess we both knew it was hopeless, but I also guess we didn’t really want to give up on reaching the next camp. We weren’t quitters. We were Everest climbers. So we weren’t really going to give up on climbing higher.
Climbing was in our thickened high altitude blood, the natural thing to do, to go up until we could go no further, and then go down. So we rationalized that we would just retreat for the day, we would hang at Camp 3, we would climb higher tomorrow. This had a sense of logic, avoiding the defeatism floating around us. So back we went, down to the crevasse, back into the hole, to “rest”, to plan, to scheme and to climb higher on Everest tomorrow.
The second coming was worse than the first.
We knew what to expect. The crevasse had no romance; no lighthearted “we are sleeping in the bowels of Everest, ” comments passed our lips. We beat and coerced the stove into action. It sputtered and fumed and didn’t do a stove like job at all. We gave up and dove deeper into our sleeping bags to face the night, a night blacker than the last. Blacker because I kept my eyes closed, blacker because there was no space in my head for thought, it was only black. Time was a lifetime of shivering, hard ice below, icy air above, us the ice cubes in the middle. It went on forever until the gray of morning arrived. But even then we didn’t really move, we just muttered, we rolled over.
Maybe we should just rest another day?
The gray was punctuated by Jay Smith’s arrival, having stomped up the hill from Camp 2, to climb to Camp 4 with us. He edged down into the crevasse, he tried to make light conversation, he quickly saw we weren’t really up to climbing higher on Everest that day. We were zombies.
I put on my climbing suit, I put on my boots, I put on my pack. That took me an hour. Then Jay and I helped Randall put his boots on and lace them up. Randall was fun, he was joking, but he really wasn’t making sense. But I wasn’t that good a judge. Yes, I could dress myself, but only barely and it was a lot of work.
Jay was looking at us intently. He’d figured out we weren’t really well. I finally fitted my crampons and pointed them up and out of the hole. Surfacing, the air and the sun were twice as intense as the previous day, as if we had become cave dwellers. I looked up; I took a few steps in the upward direction. The lethargy was something I’d never experienced before, the inability to physically move forward, to control my mind and get my body moving.
A step, then a stand there, a look at the view, a look around some more. Maybe a story would start in my head. Then more breathing, then an “oh yeah, I’m climbing, should take a step.” Then some thought about what that step might take, the work it would entail. The mind fighting the mind. I was going nowhere. I certainly wasn’t going up to Camp 4.
I turned and started down the ropes. It was now a down day, even under an intensely blue sky. Clip the carabiner into the rope, careful but clown like steps, bringing the legs under control, feeling the ease and speed of down while still a fatigue, a muscle lethargy pervaded. Crampons give your feet no play; there is no slipping or sliding. Those 12 points go into hard snow and that is where they stay. And movement, torquing or slide is all taken up by the foot in the boot, and in a hard plastic boot that isn’t much. So the movement ricochets up into your leg, twisting and turning until the muscles calm most of it down, but sometimes the twist goes right up into your spine and reaches up and gives your head a good shake, shaking it on its stem. With the inevitable high altitude headache already, that is an unfriendly sensation.
Randall came out of the cave and I looked back up at him, set large against the sky and the ridge above. He took one normal step, then one very big step, then one wild, drunken swinging sideways spinning step and flew face first into the snow. Oh no. What to do?
Jay helped Randall up. He repeated his performance. Then again, but with a few extra steps in between. They came up to me.
“We just need to get him down,” said Jay. “Keep going.”
I went. I felt like a strange stick man, but my body was obeying commands. Randall’s body was doing none of the sort. We kept going, myself in front, Randall in the middle, Jay bringing up the rear, clipping Randall though the anchors. We traversed across the moonscape of sliding ice slabs and sun cups, dished out ice pockets and snowy drifts, snow going to ice, to sugar, to powder, all in one foot. We moved, we stopped, we yelled back and forth, we moved again.
We stepped onto the ledge outside the snow cave that was Camp 2. I don’t remember either reaching it or passing it, but we did as it was on the way and that is what altitude does. Then we dropped off into the steep snow gullies leading to the rock cliffs.
This part of the wall I’d climbed with Randall a week previously, swapping leads as we led up through rock and ice bands, escaping the steep ground below and eventually breaking into the upper slopes. I’d led one steep pitch up through the stacked blocks rocks set like shaky library book atop each other and then I’d belayed Randall as he led up an even steeper rock band, climbing out over an overhang of rock at 6,553 metre, (21,500 feet) that would have been challenging at sea level. Randall had gone up into the cliff and stemmed his legs out and climbed through it in a single 100 metre (328 foot) lead that took us up out of the cliffs and into the broad snow slopes above, opening the way to the upper ridge.
Now we just had to rappel down through this, down the cliff and then into the 457 metres (1,500 feet) of gully and then the ice face and we’d be back to the reassuring horizontal, air rich plateau of the Lho La, where we had our Camp 2.
The ropes tightened up in the steep sections, making it hard to transition from anchor to anchor. It was so steep the ropes swung free over the rock cliffs. At the anchors I could lean in and the ice was right in front of me, it was climbing a big wall on Everest with no horizontal relief.
It was hard to help Randall on the rappels, Jay just had to send him off and I would watch below, ready to pull the rope tight and slow his rappel and then catch him to make sure he didn’t unclip from the rope. Then I’d take off again and Jay would slide down to transition anchors for Randall and send him off to me. I wasn’t really being much help, it was more of a false crutch. When I went first at least the ropes were straight to the next anchor. I reassured myself that it was some help. And that if Randall actually fell I could tighten up enough on the rope to slow his descent. I knew Jay was doing the hard work. Jay was tough, he quietly taught and guided for the Navy Seals, this was just Everest.
Steep ice gullies curved away and then spread out into broad swaths of ice once we descended over the largest of the rock cliffs. I reached the end of the first rappel over the cliffs leading into them and stepped sideways onto a footstep of ice that had been cut into the slope. It held a half of a fat high altitude boot. The anchor above disappeared into the snow, no real way to tell what it was, but one advantage of being on Everest with a bunch of Yosemite big wall climbers is you could pretty much trust they all knew how to put anchors in. I looked up and saw Randall start down through the cliff bands above.
As we’d gotten lower, Randall’s feet had started to descend in a more mannerly fashion. They weren’t really under control, but moving downward, or maybe the vertical, direct nature of the rappels, gave him little choice but to move straight down, one foot falling naturally below the other.
I hung on the anchor 100 metres (328 feet) below him as he started through the rock bands. His feet splayed wide high above me, then he suddenly pitched sideways, his feet crashing about on the cliff, crampons grating and crashing against the rock. First I was worried he was falling down the rope and pulled it tighter. Then the rocks below him caved in and started falling away, rattling and cracking over the bottom of the cliff before falling free onto the ice and tumbling into the ice gully leading to my stance.
The rocks were part of an outcrop composed of blocks set upon blocks and when the lower ones were kicked the entire tower suddenly plummeted down. They didn’t start slowly; they didn’t topple or need time to gather speed. They just cut loose and went from being part of Everest, to flying down, hailing out of the sky straight towards me
I leapt sideways, tugging the rope even tighter. There was just enough rope at the anchor for me to pull myself off to the right of a thin ridge as the rocks flew towards me.
Rocks shooting overhead sound like missiles, hard edges catching and spinning and whistling in the air as they fall. They were big head sized and bowling ball rolling and sharp spiky shooting past. A few small ones hit my jacket, bigger ones crashed into my pack. It was a whole garden full of rocks cut loose and sprouting and tumbling down the ice, over me, around me, into me. Then they rushed off down the gully, following on their merry way, before disappearing in puffs of rock and ice dust another half a kilometer below.
I hung twisted sideways and pushed out on the ropes, pulled as far off around the little ridge as I could, frontpoints pushing out from the lone foothold, the other foot stemmed out on the ice to the side as far from the direct path as I had been able to reach. Death had roared down, missed and carried on its way. No noise was left behind, no revelation, just simple knowledge that if I hadn’t leapt to the far side of the ledge, the bigger rocks and main mass would have hit me, and that would have been it. No drama, no fear, nothing to think about, just dying very quickly and simply and silently as that.
I eased myself back over onto the ice slope. Around me, grooves and minefields and furrows cut the ice where the swath of rocks had cut into the ledge where I had been standing before I’d jumped sideways. Everything had been hit except me. The ice ledge was shattered and had gone down the mountain in a puff of air, dissolved off the mountain. The smell, the peculiar smell of rock hitting rock, a smoke like essence hung in the air. I was shaking, but only a bit. It was still a long way down. It wasn’t about fear, it was simply about getting through it, then carrying on. Randall rappelled down to the anchor and I clipped him in.
We were out of the rock cliffs, the ice was unlikely to break free, just one long rappel after another now with too tight of ropes, tiny steps, endless clipping and unclipping of the rope, always the rope, the connection back to earth leading us down. There really wasn’t much to think of, just the line leading us down, the slide, the feet, fatigue, the deep breathing for no reason except there was no air.
We would get back to the base of the ice eventually, but for now it was just good not to have been taken out by the rocks. It was all that simple. We’d gotten up because we loved to climb, I’d gotten down because I didn’t pause to think, just act. After all, it was Everest; it was all to be expected.
A month later, Jay Smith and I stuttered to a halt in the Gray Band at 8,600 metres (28,200 feet) on the West Ridge Direct. Oxygen problems, cylinders hissing air uselessly, vertical climbing on frayed ropes, brought us to a point where going up may have gained us the summit, but getting down again wasn’t at all likely. Jay had more oxygen, he may have made it, but we decided to go down together. It would be five years before Jay and I would be back to climb together on Everest again.
After my return to flat ground from the expedition, I had no real sense of what was next, but I knew I wanted to go back to Everest. We had not made it because we really didn’t know what we were doing. The climbing I had done up high with Lakpa had been some of the most fun I’d ever had in the mountains.
There was nothing as good as climbing on Everest.
And sometimes nothing as bad I had to admit. I’d had the chance to see what a successful expedition really looked like. Arne Naess’s strong lead from the front style on his Norwegian Expedition, the funding he had and how he had managed his team made them one of the most successful expeditions ever, summiting in the end of April before the mountain even warmed up. Being Norwegian certainly didn’t hurt in the cold conditions and they were the most successful expedition to date, with 17 people on top.
I’d also had the chance to look over Chris Boningtons shoulder at his ever so new Apple Computer as he took me through the lists and charts he put together to orchestrate a smooth ascent that put them on the summit so efficiently. Anyone who had taken the time to read Bonington’s Everest Southwest Face book and worked their way all the way through to the appendix, would have seen his chart movement spreadsheets and his projected vs. actual ascents. They were a work of art to me.
An expedition could be a freewheeling mix of climbing partners, ice axes and food stashes carried up and stashed in small tents. But to be successful it also had to be meticulously planned and well funded so you could arrive on the mountain and then execute on the plan. That was the key to really putting together a successful Everest expedition, long before the climbing ever started.
I’d also seen David Breashears climb to the top with Dick Bass in their minimalist two man team that seemed to simply scamper unencumbered up the mountain. They skipped Camp 3 and climbed unroped from the South Col. If you were climbing from the South Col, that was certainly the best way to do it.
Climbing high on the mountain, with Andy Politz, who reached over 8,000 meters at Camp 5 without oxygen I’d seen how a bit more determination could get you a whole lot higher than you might think. Then climbing with Pete Athans above Camp 5 on our first summit attempt, in the dark vertical couloir leading up to the Gray Band, just how hard climbing was still possible at high altitude, with down suits, big boots and heavy antiquated oxygen systems notwithstanding.
While I had first met Ed Webster in our rock climbing days years before in Arizona, it would be the friendship we formed on Everest in 1985, continued with a new route on the Diamond in Colorado in 1986, and then meeting again the following year in Beijing that would form the core of our climbing team on the Kangshung Face when I returned to Everest.
I was working in New Zealand, had just started my own advertising agency with my partner Daryl Hughes in Auckland, yet thoughts of Everest still filled my head. We had made so many beginners mistakes on the West Ridge Direct. From how we funded it, to the equipment we had, to the members of the team. All the basics were wrong.
It isn’t like we should have known any better, but it seemed like there could be a good climb to be done on Everest if I just worked it out and led it myself. I liked to do first ascents and new climbs that were challenging. Everest by an established route, with a big team, and using oxygen didn’t have that appeal anymore. I poured over maps and Everest history.
I liked the idea of Tibet, it seemed remote and wild and adventurous just to go there. The North Face was very interesting, but then I started looking at the East Face, the really remote Kangshung Face. Only one climb of it ever made. And it was huge, the biggest face on the mountain.
What could be more challenging, more exciting than a new route up the biggest face on Everest? And I didn’t want a whole host of people, of climbers who weren’t the best. All I wanted was a small team of the very best climbers in the world. And certainly no oxygen. I felt oxygen was cheating, was just making Everest easier and taking away the biggest part of the challenge. Why take the tallest mountain in the world and make it shorter?
Corresponding back and forth to the Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA) was so slow and I didn’t think they were taking me seriously. So following a business meeting in Sydney, Australia, I flew up to Beijing. I met with the Director of the CMA, Ying Dao Shui. We drank jasmine tea and talked Chinese mountaineering, yaks and rules. Lots of rules. And money, lots of money. But we formed a grudging respect and eventually a friendship that would serve me well over my next decade of climbing in Tibet.
On my fourth day in Beijing we were pretty much done. I had a permit for the whole of the Kangshung Face, any route I wanted. I had a Liaison Officer and an Interpreter, I had dates set and I had yaks, 60 yaks. We went out for the day, with Mr Ying, our driver, and an Interpreter, who was just along for the ride. We visited and chanted at monasteries and finished up with Peking Duck and Maotai in a banquet hall where I was the only Westerner in 100’s of people. The next day I had my official permit.
Ed Webster showed up in Beijing that day, having accompanied Roger Marshall on his solo attempt on the North Face of Everest. Ed had taken the opportunity to solo a new route on Changtze and was buzzing with energy.
“What are you doing here Robert, why are you in Beijing?”
I showed him my permit – “This is it,” I said. “This is what I wanted. My own Everest permit, the side of the mountain where no-one goes.”
“Can I go,” Ed asked, full of expectation.
It seemed serendipitous, climbing on the West Ridge together with Ed and now meeting in Beijing, it seemed he should go along. And he desperately wanted to go I could tell, even when I outlined my plans.
For my climbing team, I wanted them all to want to summit fiercely. And I had to feel they too could climb Everest by a new route without oxygen. That was it. I didn’t expect them to raise money, I could do that. I just wanted them to be able to climb hard stuff and go high without oxygen. And to do that they would need to want it very badly.
Ed and I had climbed in Colorado together after Everest, doing a new route on the Diamond. Ed had the talent to find and do new routes, a whole different challenge in climbing. You don’t have a guide book, or something or someone to follow. You don’t know how hard it might be.
You have to look at the mountain, you have to be able to read it, you have to know what it will take to get up, picking a way that makes sense and is as safe as it can be. Very few climbers had that decision making ability. It was much more art than science. It was the most challenging and exciting part about climbing.
The not knowing, the discovery, and then finding passage.
Doing new routes was a whole, much bigger world before you ever challenged yourself physically. It was the purest form of the art of climbing. I’d done a host of new routes, starting with a few in Colorado and then many in Norway. Ed had climbed in the Northeast, the desert and in the remote Black Canyon of the Gunnison. He had the mindset to make countless decisions on route and on gear that we would need to make over and over again on something as big as Everest. And Ed could really climb – I had seen that on the Diamond on our new route – the natural dedication and talent needed to get up something never done before, in good style. And now we had both been to Everest, we were tested on the heights and knew what it was like. He was my first team-mate.
When I got back from Beijing I talked to Jay Smith. We had been up high on the West Ridge Direct, and his level of experience on new routes was immense, on ice and snow and rock. He wasn’t interested in being well known, he was interested in climbing, it was all he really seemed to do. But Everest had been too much sitting around for him, and even though we had done some good climbing, it was as he repeated, “two weeks climbing crammed into two months.”
“But I have a friend, he can really climb, you should talk to Paul Teare.”
Coming from Jay no one got a higher recommendation. So Paul came out for a visit to Colorado on one of my sojourns home. Paul was witty, taciturn, talented and egoless. His list of climbs was incredible and on a good day with good ice he would sneak off into Yosemite Valley and quietly solo the routes that scared most of us to death even with a rope on. He had done big new routes with Jay in Alaska and Canada. Now there were three.
Living in New Zealand I felt too far removed from the centre of commerce and the sponsors I wanted to talk to were primarily in the U.S., so I’d hired a Public Relations Director in New York city to help me with fundraising, Wendy Davis.
“Robert, we need something to actually talk about, something new to say. This Kangshung Face people can’t even pronounce. It’s the 35th anniversary of the Everest first ascent, how about something around that?” It wasn’t actually the catchist of anniversaries, but it was a start.
Wendy tracked down Lord John Hunt in London, Expedition Leader of the first successful Everest Expedition in 1953 and called me:
“Ok Robert, he wants to see you. Don’t screw this up.”
What does one say to a Lord? What does one call a Lord? My American upbringing hadn’t prepared me for this. I went to London to find out.
A minute after meeting him he said, “Just call me John.” That was easy. And after a slow and rather uncomfortable cup of tea, John said, “I don’t have to be back to the House of Lords until 4, perhaps we should move to the bar for a pint.”
We retired to the bar. We talked climbing, we talked logistics. I was no longer sitting with a Lord but with a talented climber who had carried gear above the South Col for Hillary and Tenzings ascent. John had stepped in and taken over leadership of a disparate and opinionated team with nothing but strong personalities. He was one of the few people on earth who had looked down the East Face from the South Col.
Emotionally, John’s support gave me far more confidence than I had had before. He had led the first successful expedition to Everest and now he was lending his support to our expedition after meeting me and hearing of our plans. He had a level of deep experience and then the personal input that would help shape our approach and our team. He wrote me a letter following our meeting, a mix of enthusiasm, diplomacy, advice and support that read:
My dear Robert,
It was a great pleasure to meet you yesterday and to hear more about your plans for Everest ‘88, as well as learning about the promotional background to the expedition. I feel honoured to be associated with the project and I am sure that my teammates of the 1953 expedition will be delighted to know that you wish to celebrate our first ascent of the mountain.
In view of the fact that ours was a British Expedition, I venture to suggest that, if it is not too late, you might invite one or two of our leading British mountaineers to join your team; I will do my best to recommend a few and will let you know.
I am glad that your own plans will be imbued with the same spirit of adventure with which we were motivated 35 years ago. We succeeded because we were such a united team and I feel sure that your own success will depend on this vital need.
I am sorry that it will not be possible for me to join you, but please know that I will be following your progress with great interest. Please keep me posted from time to time.
With every possible good wish,
He had added some notes on as a P.S. on potential team members, with a final line that would drastically change someone’s life:
Steve Venables would be my choice!
I had a team meeting and sponsorship events planned in New York and invited Stephen over to meet our fledgling team.
Back in New York, Wendy Davis was an endless whirl of energy and enthusiasm, full of ideas, press connections and contacts. With my business connections and clients, my work with Ogivly and in particular their CEO and avid outdoorsman Bill Phillips, I could get her in to see the executives that understood a good challenge and had the power and the access to the funding we needed.
Wendy pounded the streets and knocked on doors and by the time I showed up in New York, she had meetings set up with a host of potential sponsors, ensuring we climbers could buy the gear we needed to climb and not worry about money.
I went out to JFK airport to pick up Stephen, it being his first time to the Big Apple. In the long throngs of people I will always remember recognizing him immediately by his confident stride, his climbers ruksak, his sense of energy. I didn’t even have to speak to him. I felt he would be right for our team just by the way he strode so enthusiastically across the earth.
When I flew back from New York, we had the climbing team in place, Ed Webster, Paul Teare, Stephen Venables and myself. We had Wendy coordinating a great line-up of sponsors, from American Express to Rolex Watch. We had a professional photographer who had trained with Ansel Adams in Yosemite, Joseph Blackburn. Our food selection, ever a topic of interest, would be honed, refined and perfected by Rob Dorival.
Miriam Zieman would join us, as a medical student and what I commonly referred to as our Doctor, fully qualified or not. I’d met Mimi on our walk out from Everest two years before, and while still a medical student, she had the talents and sensibility to deal with our eclectic team, as well as undoubtedly the more difficult task of putting up with me as her partner. With Miklos Pinther, the Chief Cartographer doing our maps, and Norbu Tenzing, eldest son of Tenzing Norgay in support, I could feel confident that as crazy as my plan was do a new route on the Kangshung Face, without oxygen and with just 4 people, they were absolutely the best people possible.
In my first expedition to Everest, only my intuition had saved me when the rocks came down on me.
Then I took that intuition to fuel the inspiration for a new route on Everest, to choose a team and set off for the remote Kangshung Face. After all, I had only really used one life up on Everest so far, I had plenty to go.
Read Chapter 2 of Nine Lives, Everest Kangshung Face