[Reprinted by kind permission of the editor Mountain magazine]
For a public and press weaned on mountaineering success, this year’s failure on Everest was unacceptable. The extensive advance publicity (particularly in the U.K.) made it inevitable i hat there should be an extreme reaction to the project’s conclusion: scapegoats had to be found, and the expedition’s failure had to be accounted for in suitably sensational terms. When the failure was announced, many newspapers referred to the affair as a ‘fiasco’ while the procession of experts delivering instant criticism to press and television, added to the expedition’s poor image. Some of these pundits had expressed grave doubts before I he expedition’s departure, others had stayed silent however, just in case Whillans and Haston might have somehow spirited themselves to the summit over 1,800 ft. of hard climbing at extreme altitude. It was not until the reality of the expedition’s plight was finally revealed that they really let themselves go.
Inevitably, it was the whole idealistic basis of the expedition that was challenged: ‘informed’ commentators gathered like vultures to discuss the supposed futility of taking climbers from many nations and trying to mould them into a unified team. The fact that a spirit of international fraternity has always been considered to be one of the supreme qualities of the climbing world was overlooked. Instead, it was suggested that the expedition’s leadership lacked realism in expecting climbers from so many different countries to operate together effectively.
Of course, had the expedition been a success, eulogies as extreme as the present recriminations would have been showered on the stars. Whillans, no doubt, would now be polishing his top hat for a visit to the Palace, and Dougal cutting a disc; Dyhrenfurth might be under consideration for a United Nations appointment, and Madame Vaucher a hot favourite for the post of Switzerland’s first woman M.P.
Euphoric success or bitter failure—is such the coinage of the great mountaineering sagas of the ‘seventies?’ Perhaps the sport is taking on a cathartic role, providing an adventure-starved public with a source of vicarious excitement and sensation. If so, the future for mountaineering is bleak.
It would, of course, have been ironic if the 1971 Everest Expedition had really floundered due to national incompatibility. Fortunately, the truth is less bizarre. Stripped of all its press ballyhoo, the project’s chronicle sounds like that of many other failed expeditions. A large team of mountaineers from a number of nations went to climb a new route on a big Himalayan peak. There was an accident in which one of the party died. There was a long period of bad weather which triggered off a spate of illnesses. This necessitated a change of tactics which did not meet with unanimous approval. The dissenting members therefore left and went home. Eventually the expedition failed to reach its objective by about 1,500 ft. The majority of Himalayan expeditions in pre-monsoon 1971 also failed because of problems arising from the poor weather.
The details behind these rather ordinary facts happened to arouse more interest than usual, simply because the party was composed of many famous climbers, the mountain was Everest, and the sport had been put in the limelight by the expedition’s tremendous publicity, most of it bad. Like it or not, it remains a fact that, for mountaineer and layman, anything that happens on the world’s highest mountain is of compelling interest. Few of us would reject a chance to visit Everest, fewer still a chance to climb it. Couple this natural lure with the successful Everester’s more materialistic rewards of fame and fortune, and the total attraction is powerful. The International Expedition may have gathered climbers of more humble and subtle motivation, but it must be admitted that some of them stood to gain considerably from a successful conclusion, and success on a new route would have been sweeter than repetition of an old one. Indeed, it would appear that some went to the mountain with just one ambition—to get to the top by any route.
How, then, did this ill-starred event begin? Who devised it, and why in the end did it fail? These are a few of the questions that this article sets out to answer.
Early days: the germ of an idea
In 1965 a team of climbers from the Rimmon Club in Manchester made a magnificent new route on the North Face of the Trollryggen in Romsdal—Europe’s biggest rock face. In the same year a Norwegian team, led by Leif Patterson and including Jon Teigland and Odd Eliassen, also made a new route up the wall. Strong bonds of friendship were forged between the two groups, particularly between Patterson and John Amatt, one of the British party. Amatt, virtually unknown in Britain up to that time, flashed through the climbing firmament like a meteor. His success on the Trolltind Wall was followed by another on Sondre Trolltind, and he was a member of the expedition that climbed and filmed Alpamayo, in the Andes, in 1966. Patterson was also in the Andes that year, leading an expedition on Yerupaya ; on his return, Amatt contacted him, suggesting that they combine on an expedition somewhere.
At that time Patterson was planning a trip to Antarctica. With Amatt’s inclusion his half-formed team started to look rather international. Why not, he reasoned, get together a few more friends and make it really international? By January 1967 the team comprised Patterson, Teigland and Eliassen (Norwegians), Dudzinski and Peterek (Polish Argentinians), Dave Isles (American), and Amatt (British). Patterson knew all the members and was confident that they would be compatible. By then the Antarctica project had fallen through, so the team decided to concentrate on the Himalaya. Various ideas were considered, including the Rupal Flank of Nanga Parbat. Neither Amatt nor Patterson felt experienced enough to run such an expedition, so they asked Colonel James Roberts, a retired army officer who has a mountain travel firm in Kathmandu, to lead them and secure permission for the project. It was a good move, for Roberts is a highly experienced Himalayan climber, and the fact that he was domiciled in Nepal meant that he was well placed to get climbing permits, either in that country or in Pakistan.
Having decided on Nanga Parbat, the team resolved to make a reconnaissance a year before the main attempt. All these plans proved fruitless, however, when Roberts found that it would be impossible to obtain permission for Nanga Parbat. It was at this point that the team decided to go for the South-west Face of Everest. It was a crucially important decision, for whereas an expedition to Nanga Parbat could be limited to reasonable proportions, the sheer logistical problems presented by Everest meant a considerable increase both in the expedition’s budget and the size of the team. Furthermore, as the group had so little Himalayan experience, it was decided that a preliminary expedition was necessary. The unclimbed Dhaulagiri II was therefore chosen for an attempt in 1969.
The best laid schemes o’ mice and men . . .
How ambitious those plans seem today amid the wreckage of the 1971 attempt. It seems remarkable that a few men, with limited expedition experience, should enlarge their plans from the moderate proportions of an Antarctic expedition to the heady scale of an assault on Everest, with a warm-up on an unclimbed 25,000 ft. peak thrown in for good measure. The fact that the group’s members were spread all over the world also added enormously to the complications. Small wonder that as the project ground remorselessly on there were some who lost heart.
The planning rapidly became a nightmare. Amatt, a veritable glutton for paperwork, was churning out lists and statements by the score. But there were inordinate delays in communication: with Amatt in England, Roberts in Nepal, and Patterson by this time working in Uganda, postal exchanges were taking weeks. Already, the international aspect was producing problems. There were some new additions to the team: four experienced American climbers, Gary Colliver, Dave Isles, Barry Hagen (a medical doctor) and John Evans, one of the group who had climbed the Hummingbird Ridge on Mt. Logan ; and the Rhodesian climber, Rusty Baillie, who had been Amatt’s companion on the Sondre Trolltind climb. Amatt moved to Canada in 1968 and, with Patterson and Roberts both in far away places, he had to do the bulk of the administrative work. Permission had still to be gained from the Nepalese authorities, and the strain of working for so long on so vague a project was beginning to wear him down. In 1969 he resigned from the team.
Soon after this Roberts received a letter from the American climber, Norman Dyhrenfurth, inviting him to take part in an expedition that was being planned to the South-west Face of Everest! Dyhrenfurth had been working on his project in complete ignorance of the plans of the Roberts/Patterson party. His offer placed Roberts in a difficult position, for Roberts had been a member of Dyhrenfurth’s 1963 American Expedition to Everest, in which the original route had been climbed, and the mountain traversed from the West Ridge approach.
Roberts wrote to Dyhrenfurth telling him of his prior commitment and suggesting a merger of the two parties. Some of the Patterson group were unhappy about this. They reasoned that they had been first on the scene and that, with Roberts in Nepal, they stood a better chance than Dyhrenfurth of getting permission. But they were in no position to argue, for had the parties stayed separate there was nothing to stop Roberts resigning and going over to Dyhrenfurth. The proposed merger therefore took place and Dhyrenfurth, because of his central position from the administrative point of view, became the de facto leader, although the leadership was officially a joint affair between him and Roberts.
The new leader
Norman Dyhrenfurth was no new-comer to the Himalaya. He had been to the Everest massif three times—twice to climb Everest (1952 and 1963), and once to make an attempt on Lhotse (1955). Like John Hunt, he had carried loads high and distinguished himself as a tactful and diplomatic leader. There was also no doubt that he and Roberts were well matched. Dyhrenfurth, with his resourcefulness in getting financial support, his skill in public relations and his ability at handling the press, was the ideal front man, while Roberts, with his army background and his great rapport with the Sherpas, was perfectly suited for the job of dealing with the vast logistical backdrop to the expedition.
Not everyone, however, was happy with the merger. There were some who felt that Dyhrenfurth had been high-handed in his assumption of control. There were disagreements over planning and tactics, and resignations eventually followed. First Hagen and Patterson left because they failed to see eye to eye with Dyhrenfurth. This created a Utile unrest as Patterson had been one of the originators. It would be wrong, however, to apportion any blame for these developments, for the merger was bound to result in disputes and rationalization of one sort or another. Indeed, had the leaders displayed the same ruthlessness in dealing with incompatible elements later on, much of the trouble on the mountain might have been avoided. Later Rusty Baillie quit, ostensibly for personal reasons, though he had misgivings about some of the planning. However, Dyhrenfurth gave the project some much-needed sense of identity and started a series of chatty, informative newsletters as a forum in which the issues of planning, team selection and finance could be discussed by the whole expedition. This was a particularly sensible idea and one that might well be emulated by other large expeditions, particularly international ones.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the merger created weaknesses. Instead of consisting of a tight group of friends who happened to be of different nationalities, the party became basically Anglo-American, with the other nationalities tacked on.
The result was a large, amorphous group whose members were unfamiliar with one another.
Backing and publicity
Roberts was certainly justified in his belief that Dyhrenfurth would be able to raise the huge amounts of cash necessary for the project. Even so, Dhyrenfurth took a considerable risk in running the project himself without any backer. The expedition’s failure has left the balance sheet with an overall deficit, and the money will have to be found from his own pocket. Bearing in mind the two years of hard work he has sunk in the project, and the income he might have made during that period, it can be seen that running big expeditions can be a pretty expensive business. In all, the expedition balance sheet is still in the red by $27,000.
The commercial trappings of expeditionary projects are more overt today than they were in the past, simply because expeditions are now so numerous that money is harder to raise and financial backers are therefore able to demand closer and more obvious links. No backer will invest cash unless he stands to get value for money. Good expeditions have an organization capable of dealing with this problem soon after they return from the field. They will make the backers feel that they were part of the whole show, and that their contributions really did make a difference. They will also make sensible and useful comments on possible improvements to equipment contributed. The result is a legacy of goodwill which greatly benefits future expeditioners.
Such support is relatively harmless, although one can see that the pervasive aura of commercialism might one day lead to climbers being required to display the manufacturer’s name prominently on the equipment they are using, (Indeed on Everest many of the Expedition’s tents were decorated by advertisements).
At present, however, it is the popular press that is responsible for the more blatant ballyhoo that surrounds expeditions. Even a heavyweight paper such as the Sunday Times (which backed both Annapuma and Everest) is bound to report on mountaineering projects m the simple terms required by its lay readers. In the event this paper did as good a job at reporting the climbing as anyone could expect, given that a certain amount of sensationalism was inevitable. But the fact remains that, in accepting the presence of a reporter, the Everest expedition was effectively trading its privacy; when the rows started to flare up, they were described m dramatic detail, giving an overall impression of strife and chaos.
The media’s concern with material of interest to a popular audience was particularly evident last year when one expedition felt obliged to concentrate its attention on a relatively unimportant though unclimbed peak (largely because it was supposed to have a crashed plane full of bullion on its slopes), instead of on the more important face climb that had been the original objective and on which success seemed less certain. The same expedition also changed its leader, in order to satisfy commercial criteria. Such encroachments have so far been slight, but the experience of the Everest team has shown just how much a thorough media coverage can magnify the problems of an expedition, particularly when things go wrong.
The invasion of television into the climbing scene presents even greater problems. In the case of Everest, the TV stake was so large that public interest had to be roused weeks before the expedition got to the mountain, simply to justify the investment. It will be interesting to see whether the B.B.C. display the same restraint in using their Everest material as the independents did with the Annapurna film. The temptation to over-sensationalize will be much greater in the wake of this expedition.
Distasteful though this popular coverage may be, it is a price that must be paid if financial support is to be obtained. Climbers must learn to ignore the superficial coverage of the mass media.
That the International Everest Expedition was to find itself swept up by a world-wide press coverage when things started to go wrong was merely a reflection of the amount of privacy it had traded to its backers, the international status of its members, and the fact that it had chosen the highest mountain in the world as the scene of its activities. Stripped of their public notoriety, the events on the mountain were not particularly exceptional. If Kathmandu had not been full of journalists, attracted by the publicity already generated, Mazeaud would not have had the luxury of a press conference at which to air his grievances. The press had a field day and when the expedition finally had to admit failure, the headlines on some of the British newspapers, reached a pitch of hysteria rarely experienced by mountaineers.
The choice of route
Besides disapproving of the publicity generated by the project, some Himalayan pundits were very sceptical about the wisdom of running an international expedition, and doubtful about the value of the route that was planned.
These misgivings were guarded and polite, but no less real because of that. The comments of the Mount Everest Foundation, when they turned down an initial request for support, provide a clear indication of the waryness of the climbing establishment: We have come to the view that the whole affair is really outside the range to which M.E.F. grants, within the limits in which we have to work, are relevant.’
They went on to say that the B.B.C.’s contribution was money enough from the U.K. One can imagine that Roberts, who had played a large part in the 1953 expedition which resulted in the formation of the M.E.F., found this a particularly difficult bone to swallow. In the event the M.E.F. changed their minds, when the expedition was under way, and contributed about £1,000 to the funds.
The merger had placed Dyhrenfurth in a commanding position, so not unnaturally his opinions were reflected in many of the decisions that were made. Patterson had had a project that was international more by chance than design, but Dyhrenfurth was highly idealistic in this respect. His father, the distinguished Swiss climber and Himalayan pundit, G. O. Dyhrenfurth had run two international expeditions in the ‘thirties, and Norman himself had run the 1955 Lhotse expedition on similar lines, so the family was no stranger to the problems of international expedition management.
From as early as 1952, before the mountain had even been climbed, Dyhrenfurth had nursed the idea of taking a strong international team to attempt the South-west Face of Everest. During the expedition on Lhotse (via the Western Cwm) he had scanned the face again; and in 1963, when he reached 28,200 ft. supporting the summit team on the ordinary route, he was able to gain an even better appreciation of the feasibility of the project.
He became a strong advocate of the idea of a direttissima, reasoning that even if the Japanese climbed the face in 1970 (they seemed to favour an indirect line), the International Expedition could still do the direct line. His adherence to this concept seems a little outdated, as the direttissima is already a rather unfashionable aim for the modern climber as it so rarely coincides with a natural route. Ironically, however, if a direct line on the Southwest Face were possible it would probably be the best route, for when the climbers veered off it, they were led off to easier ground.
Few others, however, were so enthusiastic about the climb. It is neither as big nor as elegant as either the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat or the South Face of Annapuma, both of which present tempting, classic routes to challenge the climber. The Everest Face is rather ugly, and often devoid of thick snow cover, so that camps are hard to place. The lower section is a long and somewhat exposed slope set at an easy angle. Above, barring the whole Face, is a steep rock wall. This was thought to contain some tempting continuation couloirs, which would have certainly improved on the monotonous nature of the lower part of the route. But the climbers in fact found none, and were forced up to the right towards the edge of the Face. Above the rock barrier is another easier angled section, followed by the Yellow Band. This is steeper and is likely to be quite hard. Again, it presents no obvious line, and such features as there are tend to veer towards the edge of the Face, away from the direct line.
A fine route is usually regarded as one that finds an easier line up generally difficult terrain, whereas an inferior one is an artificial search for difficulty up generally easy ground. Thus Annapurna’s magnificent ice ridge, and the intricately interlinked snow slopes up the rock band, would be a route to conjure with on any mountain, whereas Whillans’s discovery that he could easily traverse off the Everest Face to the original route merely confirmed some of the general scepticism about the value of the project. Perhaps Dyhrenfurth insisted on the direttissima because he, too, knew the route’s shortcomings but hoped that the more direct the line, the better and more relevant it would appear. It is probably true to say that, had the expedition’s misfortunes taken place on a route that excited the imagination, there would have been less talk of personalities and more about the matter in hand. As it is, few people have even mentioned the climbing—which is perhaps a measure of its importance.
Securing the finance
Once Roberts had obtained permission for the project, Dyhrenfurth set about raising money with a crusader s zeal. The portentous note-paper was headed: International Himalayan Expedition 1971; MOUNT EVEREST, S.W. FACE, DIRETTISSIMA. It was an attractive formula. Most of the financial backers were not worried about the niceties of the route; they were just attracted to Mount Everest like moths to a lamp. ‘Face route’ and direttissima sounded nice and trendy and, to the uninformed, gave the expedition a suitably modern image.
The international make-up of the Everest team helped to enlarge the range of potential financial support, although it also made it more difficult to tap big sources of cash in any one country. It was decided to hold on to the book rights, in the hope of making a better deal if the expedition succeeded. Following the failure however, these have been difficult to dispose of. All in all, the expedition was denied thousands of dollars which a national team might well have secured in advance. Dyhrenfurth managed to get small grants from the M.E.F., the Austrian Alpine Club, the German Alpine Club and the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research, but the total was a paltry sum compared to the £10,000 guaranteed to the Annapurna expedition by the M.E.F.
The less lucrative magazine and newspaper rights proved easier to sell: publications in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Norway and Japan contributed to the expeditions finances. Various equipment manufacturers added to the kitty. Trans- World Airlines coughed up $12,000, and the sales of the now obligatory expedition postcards, together with other donations, brought in $20,000.
Nevertheless, Dyhrenfurth was still well short of his target until he managed to sell the crucial TV rights to the B.B.C. After some haggling, the B.B.C. secured the British newspaper rights and agreed to contribute to the tune of $48,000, about two- thirds of the sum requested by Dyhrenfurth. Here was Auntie’s answer to Annapurna. Thames TV and I.T.N., who had cornered that particular market, had made a fine film and were well satisfied with their investment. The B.B.C. had to go one better. $48,000 may sound a lot, but it was nothing compared to the cost of sending the film team on the expedition. The Independents sent a modest group of four to Annapurna, and only one of them had any pretensions towards climbing. The B.B.C., on the other hand, assembled a team of seven, including four strong climbers: Ned Kelly, who was largely responsible for the prize-winning Alpamayo film; John Cleare and Ian Howell, two strong alpinists, who were the camera team for the hard climbing on the Face ; and the Polish film-maker, Jerzy Surdel, who, like Kelly, had won a major award at the Trento Film Festival. Ian Stuart, Anthony Thomas and Bill Kurban, completed the team. Thomas was their leader and all except Stuart and Kelly were free-lance. On paper it was certainly a strong line up. The whole team went to Austria for a dress rehearsal during the winter. When this proved successful, the B.B.C.’s publicity machine ground into action, promoting the project and the expedition in general. With climbers like Cleare and Howell on the payroll, the Corporation was justified in hoping to get a camera to the summit of the highest mountain in the world. If that happened, their total investment of about $110,000 would look very rosy. Furthermore, Cleare and Howell even looked good on the overall expedition line up, and Dyhrenfurth must have been happy to know that he had a reserve climbing team to draw on if the going got really tough.
The British newspaper rights were eventually sold by the B.B.C. to the Sunday Times. In some ways this was surprising, as the paper had already had one good mountaineering story out of Annapurna. They sent along Murray Sayle, one of their more adventurous journalists. Sayle is no climber, but he had assisted Bonington in producing the Annapurna story and could thus claim a little knowledge of the sport.
Following the B.B.C.’s lead, the Sunday Times announced the expedition with all the promotional skill at its disposal.
Fortunately, this advance material was not as bad as the atrocious Ultimate Mountain article with which the paper prepared an eager public for success on Annapurna. Even so, it appeared that the climbing was a mere formality and that we would soon be hailing Whillans as the first Briton and Yvette Vaucher as the first woman to reach the summit of Everest.
The B.B.C. and the Sunday Times were, of course, merely exploiting their investments to the best of their ability, and it must be admitted that their opening campaigns were serious and informed in content. But the tub-thumping atmosphere still gave the impression that the climb was as good as done, and it was this that was probably responsible for generating widespread cynicism among British climbers before the event, and for the later press vendetta when the project failed. Future expedition leaders would do well to tone down the wilder forecasts made by their backers in the advance publicity.
Choosing the team
While all this economic horse-trading had been going on, Dyhrenfurth and Roberts had also been assembling their team. Its composition is extremely interesting, and it is obvious in hindsight that in this field they made their biggest errors in advance planning. Basically they ended up with the wrong team for all the wrong reasons. It may be that their anxieties about finance left them with less time to devote to the subtleties of team selection. In this respect leaders backed by strong influential management committees are more fortunate, and are able to spend far more time on team selection and tactical planning. Hopefully future expeditioners will benefit by noting the mistakes that were made on this occasion.
It had been hoped to run a training camp in the Alps during the winter of 1970-71. This would have allowed the team to get to know one another, and might have revealed potential problems. The tight finances of the expedition prevented this however so the leaders decided to solve any such problems in Nepal.
One weakness was the leaders assumption that they could count on a bonus in the way of discipline and loyalty, believing that team members would want to give a good impression in international company. If anything, the opposite was the case. Perhaps the leaders were a little naive in thinking that their team were the dedicated idealists that they were themselves, for there is no doubt that their worries would have been immeasurably eased had they taken more care to investigate the climbing and personal credentials of some of the team members during the later stages of the selection process.
Another drawback was that most of the members had very little work to do in preparation for the expedition. All that most of them had to do was pay $500 and turn up on the day. As a result they had very little contact with one another, and clearly lacked involvement with the project. Language difficulties contributed in this respect: although Dhyrenfurth issued all his newsletters in both English and German, there is some doubt as to whether Mazeaud, Mauri and the Vauchers, for example, ever felt themselves to be part of the project, and they may even have failed to understand the real motivation of the party.
It is also possible (although it would be sad to have to admit the fact) that it was the team’s inherent internationalism that led to the inertia, jealousy and lack of loyalty that later occurred on the mountain. But whether or not this was so, leaders of future international expeditions would do well to note that Dyhrenfurth’s diplomatic, low-key leadership, while it worked brilliantly with a national team in 1963, was wholly unsuited to a venture of the present type. It is true to say (admittedly, after the event) that many leadership decisions encouraged a ‘prima donna’ attitude among the team.
These remarks must not be taken to mean that all the team displayed such lamentable failings, for most were keen and worked very hard.
Another problem stemmed from the magic word ‘Everest’. Each climber whose country had not previously put a man on the summit was under some pressure to get there himself. To the press and public of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Norway, this was far more important than the prospect of a new route. It was therefore greatly to the credit of Whillans and Haston that they resisted the temptation to try the easier way when the opportunity presented itself, preferring instead to strike a blow for mountaineering values against the hollow rewards of ill-informed public acclaim. But despite this, enough members of the team had sufficient summit ambition to form a seriously disruptive force. Indeed, much of the reluctance to join in load- carrying may have stemmed from a fear on the part of some of the summit aspirants that they would burn themselves out.
The team members
Following the merger and the subsequent resignations, only Roberts, Isles, Colliver, Teigland, Eliassen and Evans remained from the Patterson team.
In addition to these climbers, Dhyrenfurth had his own selection. Top of the list was the crack Swiss alpinist, Michel Vaucher, who had greatly impressed Dyhrenfurth during the Dhaulagiri expedition of 1960 (of which they had both been members). Vaucher’s Alpine record was certainly outstanding, and he and Haston were undoubtedly the strongest climbers in the team.
Dyhrenfurth also invited Vaucher’s wife, Yvette. Although she was a strong climber and was reputed to have a charming personality, her inclusion proved to be a mistake in the end. She was, apparently very concerned with the prospect of being the first woman to reach the mountain’s summit, and press interest certainly encouraged her in this ambition. Had she been free of such pressure, and of the temptations of fame and fortune, she might not have been so enraged when the expedition decided to concentrate all its attention on the Face route.
Mountaineers have yet to come to terms with the growing financial potential and kudos commanded by their sport. Just as m other spectator sports, the encroachment of large financial interests is bound to create abberrations. The experiences of the present expedition were instructive in revealing just how disruptive such commercial strains can be, and how they can undermine the cohesion of what, twenty years ago, might have been a perfectly happy team. Madame Vaucher’s bitterness was symptomatic of the pressures that are beginning to typify the expeditionary scene.
Dyhrenfurth’s West German choice was Toni Hiebeler, the editor of the prestigious mountaineering monthly, Alpinismus. Although he put in some work before the expedition left, particularly in securing cheap or free equipment, his performance on the mountain was disappointing. His charm and his infectiously friendly nature were invaluable to the party, but his unsuitability to high altitude, his sickness, his uxorious nature, and his deep grief after Bahuguna’s death, all contributed to his early departure from the expedition.
Another Dyhrenfurth nominee was the fine Austrian ice climber and expeditioner, Wolfgang Axt. Although he did well in the early stages of the expedition he faded a little towards the end, and was never a really happy member of the team. Axt is not what one might term 6 one of the boys’, being somewhat eccentric in his fetish about health and the details of his diet. A little prior investigation in Austria might have indicated that Axt would remain the odd man out, despite his great willingness to work. As he was so concerned about food, Dyhrenfurth asked for his assistance in the job of organizing it. Again, a lot of hard and unenviable work was done, but in the end, despite the Anna- purna warning that too much exotica becomes boring, the food left much to be desired. A vast Pumpernickel dump remains at the Base Camp site—a permanent reminder of Axt’s food policy.
Almost the antithesis of Axt was his fellow Austrian, Leo Schlommer. Dyhrenfurth had been advised that Schlommer was unsuitable, but the Austrian found his own sponsorship to the tune of $8,500 and pleaded so hard that in the end he was allowed to join. There was no dispute about Schlommer’s mountaineering credentials ; what was in question was his known tendency towards sloth and complaint—two qualities that were frequently displayed on the mountain, by all accounts.
Quite early on, Chris Bonington accepted an invitation to join the expedition. He played quite a large part in the planning of the project, particularly with regard to routes and tactics. His position was to be that of climbing leader with special responsibility for the Face route. It is probably true to say that, if Bonington had been in the pivotal command position at or above Camp 2 during the crucial period of the expedition, the leadership vacuum and the resultant loss of morale might never have occurred.
Indeed, much of the tactical planning was done on the assumption of his presence. In the event, during the Annapurna expedition, Bonington had second thoughts about his position in the team.
Eventually he decided to quit the project. This came as a bombshell to the leaders less than nine months before they were due to depart. They asked him to reconsider, and after a brief period he decided to rejoin the expedition, only to quit again after further consideration.
Bonington’s departure left Dougal Haston as the main British climbing presence. Haston had applied to join the expedition before his Annapurna success, and his fine performance there can only have further convinced the leaders of their wisdom in accepting him in the first place. It is interesting to note that Haston, who is of a somewhat taciturn nature, has kept himself aloof from the controversies on Everest and Annapurna. As a result he has emerged from both expeditions with everyone’s respect. Climbing with Whillans clearly has its advantages if one keeps one’s silence, for much of the odium that might have been aimed at Haston for hogging the lead on Everest was diverted on to the fiery figure of Whillans, who emerged as the evil genius of the whole so-called Anglo-American plot, as far as the dissidents were concerned.
Whillans himself was asked to join the expedition shortly after Annapurna, and after Bonington had decided to quit. This created something of a difficulty, for Whillans was thought to be too controversial to take over the job of climbing leader, and it was anyway fairly certain that he would be more concerned with being in front than smoothing fevered brows in Advance Base. The leaders were therefore left with the problem of deciding who should lead the Face attempt, and who would have the necessary authority to control the pugnacious Lancastrian.
Eventually, the problem was solved by avoiding the appointment of any leader. Instead, John Evans was asked to ‘coordinate ‘ on the Face, and Wolfgang Axt to ‘co-ordinate’ on the the West Ridge. Again this was symptomatic of the democratic atmosphere Dyhrenfurth was trying to create, but in the event neither climber was suitable, as Evans was ill and Axt lost his authority after the accident. Nothing demoralizes a team more than hesitation or vacillation on the part of the leaders. Bonington had problems on Annapurna when he changed his plans, and Dyhrenfurth ran into trouble on Everest when he appeared to be wavering.
The leaders were confident that in Haston and Whillans they had a tried and competent pair, bent on success—a prediction that was more than justified on the mountain. And so, with three linglishmen, a Scot, five Americans, a German, two Austrians, two Swiss and two Norwegians, they started to cast around for other nationalities. This not only enabled them to make the expedition truly international, but also allowed them to tap new sources of finance, for their bank balance was still far from healthy.
On Dyhrenfurth’s request, the Japanese Alpine Club nominated two climbers—Konishi and Uemura. Konishi, who sustained severe frost-bite injuries during a gruelling winter ascent of the Walker Spur, was later replaced by Reizo Ito. Uemura and Ito were backed by the Japanese newspaper group, Mainichi, and Uemura had the task of securing TV photographs and writing an article.
Quite by chance, for the leaders had no personal knowledge of the pair, the Japanese proved to be another effective team. Naomi Uemura is something of a Japanese Bonington—an adventurer who makes a living by doing exciting things for newspapers. His climbs include Everest, a solo ascent of Mt. McKinley and a winter ascent of the Walker Spur. He also has the distinction of being the first man in the world to have reached the summits of the highest mountains in all five continents (Dolf Reist was the second). He is certainly a redoubtable performer, and remarkably good company.
Reizo Ito was less well known. He had been the leader of the previous Japanese attempts on the face, and his knowledge was invaluable to the International Expedition. His chief handicap was his inability to speak anything but Japanese, which meant that he was forced to rely heavily on Uemura.
Although the Japanese joined the party at a late stage, they were always among the keenest supporters of the Face climb, and were constantly out in front with the British pair.
Dyhrenfurth had also hoped to include Barmasse and Herin, two young Italian guides. They had been proposed by the Italian millionaire climber, Guido Monzino, who was planning his own Everest expedition and wanted the two men to go along as ‘spies’. However, Monzino later revoked his promise of financial support for the pair, and Dyhrenfurth was left without Italian representation. Later, two of Italy’s finest young climbers, Allesandro Gogna and Gianni Rusponi, both applied, but unfortunately they were unable to find backers.
In the end the Italian place went to the veteran expeditioner and adventurer, Carlo Mauri, who had just returned from Heyerdahl’s Ra II voyage. Mauri, another Bonington figure who rushes round the world taking nice pictures for coloured magazines, easily secured a commission from the newspaper group, Corriere della Sera. His credentials were impressive: he had been on numerous expeditions, some to very hard peaks, and had also climbed at high altitude. He and Walter Bonatti reached the summit of Gasherbrum IV, which is widely regarded as one of the most difficult Himalayan peaks yet climbed. The leaders therefore had every reason to think that here they had another Whillans, a tough experienced heavyweight. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be the case: Mauri turned out to be past his prime as far as hard climbing was concerned ; and a bad limp, the result of a ski-ing accident, did not help matters. But this does not account for his subsequent defection, which is difficult to understand. Of all the members of the party, he was the one whom one might have expected to be mild and flexible, lacking the jealousies and suspicions that always tend to flourish on big expeditions and at high altitude. Perhaps his motivation was similar to Madame Vaucher’s—the desire to reach the summit by any route, though until the expedition reached the mountain he had claimed interest in the Face route. Being the first Italian to get to the summit would have been a fitting climax to his career. This desire, coupled with the handicap of his limp, and the possible commercial exploitation of a successful summit climb, may have prompted his support of the South Col route and his actions during the crucial phase of the expedition.
Mauri’s inclusion in the team provides a typical example of the way in which the expedition’s weak financial status led to the acceptance of candidates who might otherwise have been passed over in favour of younger and more dynamic climbers. Given that financial backing was essential, the organizers would have done better to adopt the technique they used with the Japanese Alpine Club: invite the national club to nominate a candidate and provide him with financial support. Had this method been used from the start, the team might have been far stronger, with more suitable climbers representing France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and even America. Nominated with the full pressure of their national clubs, the climbers might have been more amenable to discipline. As it was, however, the haphazard method of team selection added greatly to its weakness and its eventual failure.
Perhaps the leaders’ most disastrous choice was that of the French member. Various climbers were considered, with Yannick Seigneur and Rene Desmaison topping the list. But these two were already committed to an expedition to Makalu, although in fact Desmaison finally stayed at home. Seigneur, or someone similar of the Haston/Gogna generation, would have been ideal. But that, of course, was not to happen.
The curious way in which the leaders came to be landed with Mazeaud is another small but telling illustration of their general flabbiness in team selection. Mazeaud’s account runs: 6 A letter arrived from Dyhrenfurth to ask me whether the highest peak in the world interested me… my reply was a definite affirmative’. Dyhrenfurth however, claims that he asked Mazeaud whether the direttissima interested him and whether he could raise financial support from France. When Mazeaud took his letter to be an invitation, and immediately accepted, Dyhrenfurth was surprised: 61 had not formally invited him as yet’. This appears to be more than a little naive: if Dyhrenfurth was unhappy about Mazeaud, why did he write the letter in the first place, and why did he not reject Mazeaud’s premature acceptance? The answer lies in Dyhrenfurth’s character. A charming man, he seems reluctant to hurt people’s feelings or to lay down the law. This generousness of personality seems to have led him to wilt in the face of Mazeaud’s forthright acceptance. Mazeaud, however, was hoist by his own petard: having accepted the direttissima, he later opposed that route most violently. Furthermore, he failed to comply with the leader’s request for financial support from France—surely not an insuperable task for such a famous climber. Had Dyhrenfurth’s initial enquiry been to the C.A.F., the story might well have been different.
There is little doubt that the responsibility for Mazeaud’s inclusion lay entirely with Dhyrenfurth, who appears to have invited him, on the advice of Vaucher, Axt and Hiebeler, without any enquiry in France. A little prior investigation might easily have revealed his volatile temperament.
During the crisis, Mazeaud was certainly the most militant dissenter. In this he could be said to have been disloyal in the extreme, particularly in view of the leader’s earlier generosity towards him. But the question is: who was let down by whom? The leaders claim, with some justification, that they had the right to expect a high degree of loyalty from their team. They also insist that the direttissima was well established as the expedition’s main purpose—as was indicated by the heading on the official note-paper. The dissidents, they say, were guilty of the grossest ingratitude towards those who had provided them with a highly subsidized trip to Everest. Mazeaud, on the other hand, as leader of the dissenters, seems to have believed in the existence of some secret plan wherby the 6 Anglo Saxons’ were to be thrust to the top first. That such and odd ideal could have developed and even gained strength in Mazeaud’s mind is indicative firstly, of Mazeaud’s chronic Gaulist suspicions of perfidious Albion; secondly, of his own admitted ambition to reach the summit (for which one cannot really blame him) ; thirdly, of the leaders’ failure to retain the team’s cohesiveness and its faith in their impartiality ; and, fourthly, their failure to entrench the South-west Face as the expedition’s main objective.
In his forthcoming book, Mazeaud reveals a long-standing resentment against Whillans for making the first ascent of the Freney Pillar: ‘Whilst changing planes in Frankfurt I met Don Whillans. It was a cold meeting. Although it was ten years since the dramatic outcome of our attempt on the Freney Pillar had incited him to reach for the top quickly, I could not forget it.’ (Mazeaud was in the team that forced that epic retreat from the Pillar in a blizzard—a tragic episode during which four members of a team of seven died. Whillans and his friends came over from Chamonix a short time afterwards and made the first ascent, closely pursued by a strong French party, not including Mazeaud, but led by his friend Rene Desmaison. This has always rankled the French, who still claim that their climbers also made the first ascent.) There can be little doubt that Mazeaud’s feelings in this respect contributed to his later behaviour on Everest.
As a Gaulist deputy, Mazeaud might have made considerable political gains by becoming the first Frenchman to reach Everest’s summit. It is said that he had his eyes on Maurice Herzog’s old job as Minister of Sport. That his rage at having possibility of an easy summit climb removed stemmed from burning political ambition, as did his later 6 anti-Anglo-Saxon’ press conference in Kathmandu. But his political ambitions can hardly have been advanced by his indiscreet and impassioned outbursts to the press —good reading in Paris Match, maybe, but hardly designed to impress the meticulously diplomatic French Government. His political ends would have been better served if he had restrained his hurt pride and remained with the expedition. He might then have emerged either as the perpetrator of a glorious and successful summit bid, or as a cynical commentator on the shortcomings of Anglo-American leadership. It is difficult to believe that his actual response was prompted by any such worldly ambitions. His actions were certainly emotional but that is his character. He is however a highly intelligent person and a very experienced climber of great drive, factors that seem to point to a more serious reason for his dissent.
One very successful Dyhrenfurth appointee was the oxygen expert, Duane Blume. Before the expedition, the question of whether to incorporate scientific projects in the party’s programme was thoroughly discussed. The advantages of having some scientific activity on an expedition are mainly financial: fund-raising is facilitated, particularly where bodies such as the M.E.F. or the Geographical organizations are concerned. But the inclusion of pseudo or even bona fide scientific projects, with this end in view, has lately been meeting with growing opposition from expeditioners, more of whom are stating frankly that they are solely interested in climbing. In the main, this seems to have been the policy adopted by the International Expedition, and Tilman’s famous dictum, no damn science was the keyword from the start. But in the field of oxygen equipment technology, the expedition had a science that might not only bring in some funds (from N.A.S.A. it was hoped), but also benefit climbing in the future. Furthermore, when Hagen departed there was nobody with the knowledge to continue improving the oxygen equipment that the team hoped to use. Unfortunately, N.A.S.A.’s promised $30,000 was eventually refused because the expedition ‘was neither a corporation nor based in the U.S.A.’. Nevertheless, Blume’s inclusion paid dividends: the oxygen equipment was unanimously voted superb, and a number of important administrative tasks owed their completion to Blume’s efficiency.
The Indian mountaineer, nominated by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, also proved to be a good choice. Harsh Bahuguna worked hard and made many friends during the expedition. Like many Indian climbers, however, he was relatively unfamiliar with high standard technical climbing, and this seems to have been a factor in the events that led to his tragic death. But the fact that he was good company, hard working, and proven at high altitude, made him an ideal choice for an expedition such as this.
Hagen’s departure left the team without a doctor so Dyhrenfurth appointed Dr. Peter Steele, a young English doctor with some Himalayan experience. As the party had grown so large another doctor was clearly desirable. Accordingly Dr. David Peterson an American, was invited to join the expedition.
Hagen had seen himself as the climbing doctor; not wishing to be locked in Base Camp, he had urged the leaders to appoint another doctor to handle things there. In the event, that was how things turned out: Steele took responsibility for the major medical work at Base, while Peterson, a strong climber, remained at Advance Base as the medical presence on the mountain.
The doctors had their disagreements, but these were by no means serious. It is said that Steele erred on the side of caution in keeping climbers down at Base to recover from minor ailments, but whether or not this was true it is certain that Steele’s prudence led him to detect some very real and dangerous conditions. Colliver, for instance, might easily have lost his eyesight if Steele’s diagnoses had proved faulty.
Peterson had only recently qualified so Steele as the older and more experienced man, emerged as the leading medical expert, and few doctors can have been as hard-worked on an expedition. The almost unprecedented level of illness amongst the expedition members was supplemented by the ailments (mostly of the dangerous high-altitude type) manifest among the visitors who imprudently galloped up to Base from the valley. Without careful medical supervision, two of them might easily have died.
The second route
By the time the selection process was over, the expedition had reached almost ludicrous proportions. From a small group of friends, committed to a single project, there had developed an enormous party comprising twenty-two climbers, seven television men and a Sunday Times reporter, all with widely different aims and ambitions. The escalation arose partly because of the merger, partly because of Dyhrenfurth’s desire to make the team truly international, and partly because of the peculiar way in which financial support was obtained. Had Dyhrenfurth started from scratch and invited one representative from each major climbing nation (with financial support arranged accordingly), the team might have been smaller, stronger, and a good deal more manugcable.
As it was, the unwieldly size of the party forced the leaders to look for a second project in order to keep the climbers fully occupied. They chose the West Ridge, not by the rather circuitous Horbein Couloir, but by the direct route. This crucial decision, which affected the whole course of the expedition, was made for reasons of expediency. Bonington had advised that the maximum number that could be employed on the Face route was twelve The West Ridge Direct was therefore incorporated into the programme as a sort of ‘super’ support route; the idea being that it provided an easy way off the mountain for fatigued Face climbers, and at the same time gave the support climbers a worthwhile project of their own.
In fact, from the support point of view, a lightweight attempt on the ‘Easy’ (South Col) route might have been better than the West Ridge Direct, for it would have consumed less of the expedition s resources while satisfying the latent summit ambitions of the continental members. But the latter’s interests do not seem to have been considered when the West Ridge decision was made, and the ‘Easy’ route was dismissed as a worthless project, a point of view that seems to have been heavily influenced by Anglo-American thinking. The leaders and many of the members, were disinterested in the South Col route, probably because of the activities of previous expeditions from their countries. Advice (completely predictable) was sought from such Everest veterans as Barry Corbet and Barry Bishop who also dismissed the easy route as non-worthwhile. Those who objected to the West Ridge idea (in particular Baillie and Colliver) did so because they thought the expedition should concentrate on only one objective. There was no later reappraisal of the decision in the light of increasing continental membership. Efforts were made to stimulate enthusiasm for the West Ridge, by magnifying the route’s importance until it apparently equalled that of the Face. There was, however, no basis for this: the majority of the expedition and its financial backers (most notably the B.B.C.) were solely concerned with the latter project.
This train of events indicates some very muddled thinking on the part of both the leaders and their advisers. It is remarkable that Dyhrenfurth’s penchant for democratic action did not lead him to ascertain more clearly the views of the party’s newer members. Some confused thinking lay behind the West Ridge decision, and one can sympathize with the dissidents (particularly Mauri and Mazeaud) who had not been involved in any of the democratic decision-making in the early stages. Rusty Baillie was one of the few people who seemed to see the thing clearly when he wrote, as early as January 1970:
‘Regarding the West Ridge and the West Ridge Direct: the former has been done and the latter is splitting hairs. To my way of thinking, the time will come in Himalayan history when variants will be climbed. But it is not now. Thus I would want to attempt the Face. Also I think that the Face will need the utmost, not only from every member, but also from the expedition as an entity. All expeditions are a strain on interrelation-ships, an International one even more so… am International one with a divided aim may well spend its energy solving problems of personality rather than of mountaineering. I therefore respectfully submit that we all put our efforts into one route. I can appreciate that our sponsors and commercial interests may expect a route by any way, but hopefully we will not have to be ruled by them in mountaineering decisions.’
As events showed, Baillie’s advice could hardly have been bettered. Nevertheless, the leaders—backed, they thought, by the others—rejected it. A two-pronged assault appeared to them to be eminently prudent: it would occupy the large team; provide a support route and a possible retreat in the case of the Face party reaching the summit without being, able to fix ropes ; and it would also ensure (as some cynical observers were quick to point out) that there was a newsworthy alternative route to the summit if the Face attempt failed. This last factor was important because of two possibilities that were worrying the leaders at the time: lack of snow on the Face might render rapid progress impossible, or, worse, the Japanese expeditions of 1970 might succeed in climbing the Face.
There can be no doubt that Dyhrenfurth was well aware of the risks he was running in adopting this two-poinit plan, for a similar situation had existed in the 1963 expedition and considerable friction had developed as a result. Yet the plan went through, saddling the International Expedition with yet another volatile ingredient that was to prove crucial on the mountain.
Choosing their route
On the march-in the expedition members were asked to make their final choice between the routes. They did so as follows:
S.W. Face West Ridge
Evans (U.S.A.), Axt (Austria), Co-ordinator
Co-ordinator Colliver (U.S.A.) Bahuguna (Imdia)
Ito (Japan) Teigland (Norway)
Uemura (Japan) Eliassen (Norway)
Haston (U.K.) Vaucher (Switz.)
Whillans (U.K.) Mme Vaucher (Switz.)
Schlommer (Austria) Mauri (Italy)
Hiebeler (W. Germany) Isles (U.S.A.)
Peterson (U.S.A.) Mazeaud (France)
Dyhrenfurth planned to work mainly between Base and Advance Base, in a co-ordinating role, while Roberts stayed in Base, keeping the Sherpas and porters moving systematically up the mountain to supply those in front. It was decided that the Sherpas would be divided into two equal groups, working independently of one another, their deployment being decided by their respective co-ordinators working with Roberts.
In view of the comments already made about the strengths and weaknesses of the various climbers, it is of interest to consider the choice of route that some of them made. Three of the Americans and both the Japanese were drawn by the Face climb, as were Whillans and Haston. The choice made by the latter climbers, of course, was virtually inevitable, in view of their success on Annapurna. Hiebeler’s reasons are less obvious: perhaps he wanted to cover the big route for his magazine, or perhaps he still felt himself strong and fit. Looking back over his past climbs, however, one can see that he has always been attracted by avant garde projects. Vaucher’s absence from the Face party is more difficult to understand. A strong climber, he is hardly a man to play second fiddle to anyone—except perhaps his wife. His membership of the Ridge party may have been prompted by her aspirations to reach the summit. Mazeaud and Mauri probably also chose the West Ridge for similar reasons.
To describe the members of the expedition as competitors in a race for the top would be unfair: there is no doubt that many had more mature and praiseworthy motives. Yet, beneath a mature facade there often lurks a more basic urge: the desire to succeed. For some, the competitive urge is quite marked. An element of gamesmanship creeps in: just as in an athletic event the winner plays a tactical game, so too may the competitive members of a climbing expedition. While appearing to be working hard, almost sacrificing himself for the sake of a group success, he will be using himself cautiously, so that at the crucial moment he is still fresh. Observing a large expedition is rather like watching a 1,500 m. race or a steeplechase: some of the participants pace themselves, trying to stay in touch with the leaders, while ensuring that the others do most of the work.
The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give…
The foregoing analysis has been carried out in some detail, for the catastrophes that befell the expedition stemmed mainly from these complex origins. Backed by a wide range of financial interests, saddled with a route of minimum inspirational quality, and led by two men whose idealism and trust made them unwary of the effects of ambition and the prospect of monetary reward, the expedition was an ideological powder keg, doomed to become the victim of its own multifarious nature.
Yet, at the time of leaving, it looked like a strong team—too strong, if anything. Mountaineering opinion seemed to be that the expedition was too big and too expensive, so that any element of chance had been removed. The project received widespread disaffection, particularly in Britain. The public relations campaign in the climbing world had been poor, and the expedition had come to represent all that is sick about commercialization of mountaineering. The pre-expedition ballyhoo had resulted in a feeling that the mountain was not being given a chance, and it was predicted that many of the team would reach the summit. The only misgiving that was voiced about the team’s strength was in relation to its age. Some people felt, rightly as it turned out, that the team contained too many past masters and not enough young blood. To counter this, there was the traditional view that it is important to be old and weatherbeaten to do well on expeditions and high mountains. No doubt the latter idea will be seriously reconsidered as a result of the successes on Annapurna, Nanga Parbat and Makalu, and the failure on Everest.
Nevertheless, the leaders were confident that, barring untoward disaster, they had sufficient depth in their team to overcome any number of problems on the mountaiii. Given the extra effort they expected their men to make in the interests of unity, they believed that they had an almost unbeatable team. Like the Titanic, the doomed expedition departed, unaware of the tremendous combination of catastrophes that was to sink it.
Arrival in Kathmandu
The party assembled in Kathmandu in mid-February. Various formalities had to be completed, and the expedition’s food and equipment, which had come in three shipments from the U.S.A., Europe and the U.K., had to be sorted and packed for transportation. Michel Vaucher had the job of fitting everyone’s crampons to their boots: this gave an early problem when it was found that the attachment points on the Stubai crampons were too close to the front of the special Lowa boots to be fastened conventionally. The insecure fastenings became something of a bane on the mountain, except to Whillans and Haston who had taken along their Annapurna boots and Salewa crampons.
The food arrived in bulk, no attempt having been made to sort it into man-day packs. This led to a lot of work later on, and complicated the supply of food enormously.
Once the equipment had been sorted, some of it was flown free to Lukla, thus eliminating the time and expense of prolonged porterage. The climbers, however, walked the whole distance to Base Camp in order to become properly acclimatized. Whillans, who joined the party at Lukla, noted the prevalence of high spirits. In contrast to other expeditions he had been on, everyone behaved as if they were on holiday. He got the impression that few of the climbers were aware of the seriousness of the project upon which they were embarking.
The first camps
The expedition’s Base Camp was established on 23 March. As is usual on Everest, it was sited at 17,900 ft. amid the desolate moraine fields below the Khumbu icefall. It is possible that this relatively high site, with its rarified air and harsh colourless environment, may have added to the expedition’s problems. All Everest parties suffer in the same way, of course, but the camp cannot have been the real rest centre that the expedition needed to combat the spate of illnesses that arose in the ensuing weeks: Steele often found it necessary to send ailing climbers down to lower altitudes to recover.
Morale was high at the start. The march-in had enabled the climbers to get to know each other, and international friendships were flourishing. Raconteurs surfaced in the persons of Murray Sayle and Tony Hiebeler, and the party was in high spirits. No sooner had Base Camp been established than the climbers rushed up to tackle the horrors of the notorious Khumbu icefall. All those who had previously visited Everest agreed that the icefall was in a particularly dangerous state. Most of the climbers had a work-out finding a route up it, but progress was still slow and it was nearly two weeks before Camp 1 was established at the head of the icefall. This area was particularly difficult and dangerous, with complicated crevasses and menacing seracs forming a constant threat. Haunted by the spectre of the Breiten- bach accident in 1963, and the fate that befell the six Sherpas in 1970, the climbers were doubly cautious here.
The partnerships that formed at this early stage gave rise to some interest. First, Haston and Whillans went up, accompanied by Uemura and Mauri. Then Whillans came down again, feeling that he needed to acclimatize more slowly, and Haston teamed up with Schlommer. Vaucher, Axt and Bahaguna all had a try, and also the two Norwegians. Finally, Mauri and Uemura, conversing in pidgin English, worked happily together for several days. It was a period of genuine camaraderie: although many of the climbers had only just met, the efficiency of the international grapevine ensured that many had mutual friends and acquaintances. Everyone, including the four who later defected, was working hard to bring about the realization of the international ideal.
Most of the members suffered some kind of minor ailment at this time, as their systems adjusted to the altitude, but the only one to be seriously troubled was Hiebeler, who suffered from heatstroke, haemorrhoids, and an inability to acclimatize properly. But these afflictions, although serious enough in themselves, were only a foretaste of the troubles that lay ahead.
Load-carrying: the climber/Sherpa dichotomy
Progress through the icefall was slow. Roberts was keen to get his Sherpas into action, so, to save time, a dump was established half-way up the icefall and the long slog of load-carrying began.
The expedition had equipped itself with a Sherpa contingent of fifty-five. Although sounding quite large, this was far less than the group employed by the Japanese in the previous year, when two routes were being attempted. The 1953 British Everest Expedition, with only one route to worry about, employed thirty- seven Sherpas—a ratio of three Sherpas to one climber. The International Expedition, however, had less than two Sherpas per climber (with the television crew included). It was predictable that a route like the South Face would need very strong Sherpa support, since the climbers had to preserve their energies for the expected technical difficulties in the last 3,000 ft. In this respect the expedition was weaker than its predecessors, even before a series of catastrophes weakened it further. With the precedents of Annapurna and the 1963 American Everest Expedition in mind, the leaders of the International Expedition apparently expected the climbers to supplement Sherpa support by carrying loads themselves. But experience on Annapurna had shown that nothing demoralizes and weakens a climber more quickly than prolonged load-carrying. Considering that the major difficulties of the South-west Face of Everest start at 26,000 ft., as do those of the West Ridge, it was hardly surprising that some of the ambitious climbers avoided heavy work lower on the mountain, prudently saving themselves for the expected toil higher up.
On such a project, of course, this is a reasonable policy, but it is one that needs careful handling on the part of the leaders. For apparent lack of activity amongst some of the team has a lowering effect on the morale not only of the other climbers, but also of the Sherpas. A proud race, the Sherpas will, not surprisingly, refuse to be treated like so many pack-animals by high-handed and indolent employers. Somewhere a compromise has to be reached, with a minimum of actual or imagined hardship for all concerned.
The parting of the ways
The two teams now began to work independently—each with half the Sherpas and each responsible for its own tactics. Roberts and Dyhrenfurth, who had never harboured any illusions about being young enough to take a serious part in the climbing, were concentrating on general administration. It was agreed that Roberts should keep Base Camp ticking over, while Dyhrenfurth worked mainly at Advance Base.
The two climbing parties kept to the same route until Advance Base (Camp 2) was established. This took place during the first week in April. The climbers of each team then set to work preparing their routes up to the next camps. Eliassen, Teigland and Bahuguna, followed by the Vauchers and Axt, started on the slopes leading up to the West Ridge, while Whillans and Haston, accompanied by the two Japanese, began work on the South-west Face.
The Face route progressed relatively smoothly. It had a good snow cover and Camp 3 (Face) was established with little difficulty in the identical position to that used by the Japanese the year before. The approach to the camp was across relatively easy 40° snow slopes, which were all equipped with fixed ropes.
It was a different story on the other route, however, where the slopes were more problematic and much more dangerous than they had been in 1963. At first the Norwegians and Bahuguna tried to push a route directly up to the West Ridge, instead of following the more diagonal line of 1963. After a few days, however, they realized that this was futile and came down, leaving Vaucher and Axt to work on the original route. Even this was difficult, with a complicated icefall barring the way. Some of this was turned by a downhill detour, a traverse and a 300 ft. climb to rejoin the original line. Axt and Bahuguna then went into the lead, establishing Camp 3 (West) and climbing right up to the ridge where they saw a site for Camp 4. They worked hard, and both were due for a rest. A few days earlier Dyhrenfurth had advised Bahuguna to go down to Base. But the Indian was very keen to put in just one more effort; he and Axt now realized that their site for Camp 3 was too low and they wanted to move it higher before coming down.
While these two had been working higher up, Mauri and Mazeaud had ferried some equipment up towards Camp 3 and Vaucher and Eliassen had straightened the route. They had cut out the whole downhill detour, by constructing a long horizontal rope traverse across the ice. This was about 400 ft. long and was secured at intervals by ice screws and stakes. At each anchor point a large step was cut in the ice. The traverse itself bulged so that the start and finish were out of sight of one another. The angle was about 40° and the difficulties were modest. It was relatively easy for a competent climber to negotiate it hand over hand, safeguarding himself with a sling if necessary. This improvement shortened the route up to Camp 3 by at least an hour.
The following morning Vaucher, Mauri and Mazeaud went to Dyhrenfurth to complain about the supply situation. They were concerned by the fact that Advance Base seemed to be full of Face route Sherpas while only a few of their own were in evidence. This situation had arisen because of a bottleneck in the West Ridge supply flow, at Camp 1. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that some of the West Ridge party, most notably the Vauchers, Mauri and Mazeaud (or ‘the Latins’ as they had become known), were reluctant to carry loads, describing it as ‘Sherpas’ work. On occasion, this group had even made Sherpas carry their own personal gear. Thus the load-carrying potential of the West Ridge party was not being fully exploited, and the stream of supplies was consequently seriously disrupted. Dyhrenfurth quickly took stock of the situation and invited the climbers to join him in a load-carrying operation in an attempt to improve matters. I suggested descending to the lower camp en masse to make a big carry ourselves—as was done many times in 1963—but the four “Latins” considered this beneath their dignity. No “Sherpa Labour” for them. Disgruntled I decided to set an example picked up my pack and headed for Camp 1.’ After consulting Peterson about the logistic bottleneck at Camp 1, Dyhrenfurth returned carrying a token load of two bottles of oxygen, 6 one each for the face and the ridge, in fairness to both teams’.
Cause and effect: the plexus of tragedy
Meanwhile, higher on the mountain, Axt and Bahuguna had decided to put in one more day’s work before descending. They wanted to move Camp 3 a little higher, closer to the proposed site of Camp 4, which was to be on the ridge itself. In the early afternoon, having accomplished their task, the climbers started to descend in the face of deteriorating weather. Here Axt takes up the story as told to Dyhrenfurth the following day: ‘We were not roped together during the descent, there was no need, there were no difficulties at all. Since I knew Michel and Odd had placed fixed ropes on all the steeper sections, I left our climbing rope, and my harness and karabiner at the new camp. At first Harsh went ahead. Around 2 p.m. the weather turned bad. Soon we were caught in a raging storm. When we reached the long rope traverse, I took over the lead and got across it hand over hand. It was very long and tiring as hell. At the far end I waited for Harsh to follow. Voice communication was impossible, the storm was much too strong. I waited for a long time perhaps as much as an hour. My hands and feet lost all feeling. Then I saw Harsh, tied into the fixed rope with a harness and karabiner, groping his way round the last corner of the steep ice slope that separated us. He waved with one hand. Everything seemed OK, no indication of any serious difficulties. I was really worried about frost-bite so I went down. Just before I got to the camp I heard his screams and alerted everybody. I couldn’t have gone back up as I was completely done in.’ Dyhrenfurth asked Axt why he didn’t stay with Bahuguna. Axt replied: 41 had no idea how bad things were with him, and besides, what could I have done without a rope and karabiner? Harsh had taken his gear, but I would have had to go back hand over hand over that long traverse ! I simply didn’t have enough strength in me for that, and my hands and feet felt like blocks of ice .
No sooner had Axt arrived in Camp 2 and reported his companion’s plight than a rescue team set out, comprising Vaucher and Eliassen, followed by Mazeaud, Whillans, Ang Pemba, Mauri and Steele. Whillans took the precaution of providing himself with a bundle of ski sticks to mark the way for their return. Thinking that it was merely a matter of rescuing a gripped climber, Cleare and Howell also set out, hoping to get some film. They soon returned, however, for the light was fading fast and they were afraid of frost-bite.
Vaucher and Eliassen found Bahuguna still clipped to the rope, about 80 feet away from easier ground, where he should have undipped and passed an anchor point. He had lost a glove and a crampon. His hands were frozen, his face was coated with ice, and his protective clothing had been pulled up by his harness, exposing his body to the driving storm. He was in a poor state, suffering badly from exposure, and clearly close to death.
By now the blizzard was blowing full force rendering any movements nearly impossible. At first the two men tried to push the stricken climber along the remaining section of rope traverse, but the violent wind prevented this. They decided to lower Bahuguna off the anchor and then try to swing him across to easier ground. They had only lowered him a few feet when he turned upside-down. At this point Whillans arrived on the scene. He lowered himself down the rope and righted the Indian and, after further lowering, tried to swing the casualty across the slope to try to reach the shelter of a crevasse that slanted down to the side of them. Again it proved impossible, and Whillans found it difficult enough to keep his footing and avoid being swept backwards. The conditions were so bad that the climbers were barely able to move themselves, let alone rescue an injured man. With their hands frozen, barely able to tie knots or open karabiners, there was only one course open—to continue lowering the Indian in the hope that the rope would be long enough to reach the crevasse straight below. But the lowering rope proved too short, and Bahuguna was left suspended on the ice, about thirty-five feet above the shelter of the crevasse.
It was now dark and Whillans was unable to hear Vaucher and Eliassen, so violent was the storm. Balancing on the ice slope in crampons, there was nothing he could do without an ice axe and rope. Indeed, there was nothing any of them could do, and the storm was by now so bad that the rescuers themselves were running a grave risk. Faced with a set of circumstances far beyond their control or influence, they were forced to leave the dying man to his fate. By now close to exhaustion themselves, they stumbled back to the others and the whole party groped its way back to the camp in the darkness, along the line of markers. Most were in tears.
The following morning a great gloom had gathered over the camp. Axt appeared in the mess tent, rested, and clearly unaware of the trials of the previous evening, having gone straight to sleep on his return. ‘How is Harsh? ‘ he asked. ‘He’s dead,’ said someone. The words struck Axt with a spasm of shock, and he collapsed and wept openly.
The accident was to prove the turning point of the expedition. Everyone felt that it should never have occurred. Who or what was to blame? That was what Dyhrenfurth wished to find out when he gathered the climbers together for a formal enquiry later that morning. The proceedings were taped, to give the leader the first-hand factual report that he knew would be required by the Nepalese authorities and the Indian Army, Each man was asked to recount his knowledge of the affair in his own language. Axt was questioned closely. Later, Dyhrenfurth thought it best to ask Vaucher to take over as West Ridge co-ordinator, as Axt s position had clearly become untenable (some of the climbers, including Vaucher and Mazeaud, openly snubbed him for a period.
It is difficult to know exactly what precipitated the tragedy, but one explanation is that Bahuguna was slow because he had never previously encountered a technical rope traverse. When Axt saw him he may well have been tired but otherwise all right. Perhaps soon after this his crampon came loose (a common enough occurrence due to the unsuitability of the front-fixing points). In trying to refix the crampon, Bahuguna may then have lost his glove and with his hands frozen, been unable to unclip his karabiner and move to the next section of the traverse. Fatigued and frozen, his plight would have gradually worsened until the blizzard and the intense cold finally set the seal of his fate. Looking back, it is clear that Axt should not have left Bahuguna in such a situation, but equally, Bahuguna should have asked Axt to stay with him at the start. For it must be understood that, while the Indian was very experienced at high altitude, he had not previously encountered any serious technical climbing, either on rock or ice. This was a serious defect and one that should have been fully appreciated not only by him, but also by his companions and the leaders. It should also be remembered that both Axt and Bahuguna had worked themselves dangerously close to a state of exhaustion. For this, Axt, as co-ordinator and the more experienced climber, must take a good deal of the blame, although there is little doubt that the Indian was very keen as well.
The rescuers were gravely hampered by the serious weather situation. It is Steele’s considered opinion that even if they had got Bahuguna down they could have done little to revive him, for the necessary medical equipment was still being transported up to Advance Base and had not yet arrived.
The following day a mood of depression settled over the camp. The accident had underlined the harsh realities of Himalayan climbing, and spirits sank under its impact. Strong and decisive leadership was needed at that point to restore the morale and self-confidence of the climbers. But strong and decisive leadership was just what was lacking, and in its absence there was nothing to halt the gradual undermining of the expedition’s purpose that can be traced from that day on.
The storm and its aftermath
The weather had now closed in for what was to prove a ten- day bad spell. Most of the expedition members found themselves marooned in Advance Base with plenty of tents but insufficient food. The presence of so many people in the front line at such an early stage had already given the leaders cause for uneasiness. Roberts, in particular, had been very scathing about the way things were developing, but Dyhrenfurth’s policy of low-profile leadership allowed each co-ordinator to plan his own tactics and deploy his climbers and Sherpas wherever he wished, and the leader was unwilling to disturb the freedom of action he had created.
Of the dozen or so Sherpas marooned in Advance Base, most were members of the Face support party. This, of course, was because Axt had kept the West Ridge Sherpas working down in the icefall area, concentrating on the build-up of supplies, while Evans had brought most of his Sherpas up to the front to assist the leaders on the Face. Of the Face party itself, those present were Evans, Whillans, Ito, Uemura and Colliver, while the West Ridge members included the Vauchers, Miazeaud, Mauri, Eliassen, Steele and Axt. Dyhrenfurth, Blume and some of the TV men— Thomas, Cleare, Howell and Kurban—were also marooned there.
Others were cut off in Camp 1. These included Peterson, Isles, Sayle and Harka Gurung (a Nepalese geologist who had become an ex-officio member of the expedition), together with some West Ridge Sherpas. All the rest of the climbers were in Base Camp. High above Bahuguna’s corpse hung on the ice, the blizzard preventing any attempt at retrieval.
The mood of defeatism among the West Ridge team was ‘lowing, Eliassen and Steele deeply moved by the accident, wanted only to help the Face party complete their route and then to get off the mountain. Eventually Mazeaud and Mauri came up with a serious plan. They argued that the West Ridge was too hard and serious, and would consuime far too much time. Why not, they asked, change the objective to the original route by the South Col? (In fact in the circumstances, the West Ridge would probably have been the quicker way to the summit). Dyhrenfurth was not happy with the Latin’s proposal as his comments in a later article indicate: ‘I tried to convince them that Everest has already been climbed by five expeditions by way of the South Col. All told, 23 climbers of six nations have reached the summit that way. I considered this colossal investment in time, manpower and money unjustifiable for a route which at this stage of Himalayan mountaineering is of no further interest… All my pleas were in vain. Against my better judgement I proposed a vote to be taken.’
The vote took place on the fifth day after the accident. The weather cleared for a few hours and the West Ridge men gathered in front of Dyhrenfurth’s tent to discuss the matter. Above them Bahuguna’s body could be seen as a clear black dot on the ice slope. Of those present, Axt voted for the Ridge, Steele and Eliassen for the Face, and the four Latins for the South Col In the evening radio contact was established with the others below: Isles and Surdel (considered part of the West Ridge team by this time) voted for the Ridge, while Teigland said he would go with the majority. It was therefore decided that the route should be changed to the South Col and Dyhrenfurth promised full support for the new tactics. Privately, however, he was far from happy: ‘It is more and more obvious that Carlo Mauri and Pierre Mazeaud are in no way interested in an all-out team effort. All they want is personal glory by reaching the summit the easiest possible way and to become national heroes in France and Italy. Also the Vauchers’ sole interest lies in the summit… Despite serious misgivings and deep disappointment, I declared myself ready and willing to lend support to their new project
All this might have worked out satisfactorily if the weather had improved, but after ten days of bad weather the build-up of supplies was so delayed, the route so broken (particularly in the icefall), and the expedition in such disarray that the likelihood of success on two routes became almost unthinkable. Furthermore, the storm made severe demands on physical constitution.
On a normal Himalayan day a climber wakes to find the inside of his tent encrusted with ice. This soon melts, however, and everything in the tent becomes damp and clammy. But so rapid is the evaporation produced by the morning sun that drying soon gets under way. In storm conditions this cycle is interrupted, and the drying phase never takes place: sleeping bags and duvets simply get damper and damper. Couple this with the poor diet, the shortage of food in Advance Base, and the fact that the whole expedition was deprived of fresh food until early May, and the situation becomes considerably worse. Under such conditions, coughs and colds increase, and the climbers, already under some degree of altitude stress, become easy prey to the ravages of pneumonia and bronchitis.
With the end of the storm, therefore, many of those incarcerated in Advance Base had become so ill that they were forced to descend to Base to recuperate. At first, Cleare, Axt, Howell, Colliver and the Vauchers went down, accompanied by Steele. Later, Evans, Eliassen and Blume joined the casualties. So it was that the accident, and the coincidence of the storm with the presence of large numbers of climbers in Advance Base, dealt a crippling blow to the expedition’s morale, fitness and logistical status. It was this chain reaction of events that was to prove the instrument of defeat.
However, this critical situation was not foreseen during the storm, and each team busied itself with planning the tactics to be employed when the weather improved. Whillans, Evans and Cleare got together and worked out their supply requirements on the Face. Working backwards from the premise of two men on the summit, they calculated that they would need to stockpile about one ton of equipment below the Rock Band. Their route, of course, was of a highly technical nature, and this meant that their equipment requirements were far greater than those of the South Col group, for they needed items such as ropes, pitons and a massive amount of oxygen to tackle the expected difficulties of the Rock Band. As they worked on, it became increasingly obvious that the expedition as a whole had barely enough Sherpa support for one route up the Face, let alone for anything else. Already the logistical hydra was rearing one of its ugly heads.
The South Col group, on the other hand, after their initial period of uncertainty, were now reasonably happy. With their allocation of Sherpas and their more modest objective, they felt confident about reaching the summit in ten days (a somewhat optimistic schedule). They consulted Dyhrenfurth, who briefed them on the problems of the route, and things now seemed to be satisfactory.
When the storm ended, Advance Base was replenished with badly needed supplies, and both teams set to work. The South col team soon established their first camp, below the Lhotse Face, while the Face team completed their route up to Camp 4 and equipped it with fixed ropes. But there was one other task that had to be completed, before the climbers could really push ahead: Bahuguna’s body, which had been retrieved during a lull in the storm, had to be taken to Base. Usually in such a situation, the body would be buried on the same glacier, but Bahuguna was a Brahmin and his religion demanded cremation within thirteen days of death.
A funeral pyre was constructed at Gorak Shep, half a day below Base Camp, and the Sherpas took the body down the Cwm and through the icefall. The funeral was a moving time for all concerned. Harsh Bahuguna was much loved, not only by his new friends, but alSo by his many climbing companions on previous trips. He was an infectiously friendly person, and his death deeply affected everyone on the expedition. A commemorative carving was made on the stone that already bore inscriptions to John Breitenbach and Phu Dorje—sad reminders of the continuing toll of life demanded by the Himalaya from those who would climb them.
A house divided against itself …
After the funeral, Roberts climbed the hill above Gorak Shep to consider the route through binoculars. The supply line through the Khumbu Icefall was giving constant trouble, being broken every other day by a widening crevasse or a falling serac. The supply situation was becoming critical. Roberts realized that they could not hope to achieve success on both routes if they were to beat the advancing monsoon. He could see only one solution to this dilemma: the expedition should choose one route or the other. This was the gist of a message which he put out on the radio network, bluntly stating the manpower situation and requesting the expedition to make its choice. If the Face route was chosen, he said, all work must cease on the South Col route, except for what was necessary to equip it for a purely support role (i.e. the placement of a tent and supplies on the Col, in case a successful Face team was forced to descend that way).
Roberts had been sceptical about the feasibility of the South Col plan from the start and had constantly advised Dyhrenfurth to scrap it. Having given the Latins his support however, Dyhrenfurth was reluctant to withdraw it, and he pleaded with Roberts to try to rectify the supply situation. By the time of the funeral, however, he had come to the same conclusion as Roberts and at the same time as the latter sent sent out his radio message, Dyhrenfurth (in Advance Base) also sent out a message asking the expedition members to vote for their choice of route. The simultaneity of the two messages, coupled with the inability of the leaders to confer with each other because of erratic radio contact, was most unfortunate. It gave the Latins the impression that some sort of plot was afoot to oust them from their route. The vote was taken, not only among the climbers but also, to the understandable amazement of Mazeaud, among the leading Sherpas. Almost everyone voted for the Face, feeling that this was the route that the expedition had really set out to tackle. With the Vauchers descending and unable to vote, only Pierre Mazeaud and Carlo Mauri voted to go by the South Col. So Dyhrenfurth decided to put all the expedition’s remaining effort into climbing the Face. It was this decision that finally ignited the smouldering rift between the four Latins and the rest. The dissidents were furious. Mazeaud and Mauri promptly packed and rushed down to Base Camp to join the Vauchers. Over the next few days the atmosphere in the camp became highly unpleasant, as the infuriated Latins, particularly Pierre Mazeaud and Yvette Vaucher, vented their spleen on the remainder of the party.
Yvette Vaucher pelted Dyhrenfurth with snowballs as the weary leader returned from Advance Base. Ned Kelly came in for a tirade of abuse, being accused of falsifying radio messages. Roberts was violently slanged by Mazeaud, and Evans was accused of collusion by Yvette Vaucher. Whillans, who was luckily well out of harm’s way up the mountain (climbing it!), was described by Mazeaud as ‘that English working man’ and was accused of ‘standing to gain millions from Karrimore for the climb’. When Whillans later told the Sherpas to strike the only South Col camp, Mazeaud was even more enraged.
Finally, the B.B.C. and the leaders were accused of having made a secret deal to get the two Britons to the summit first. It was alleged that they had conspired to deny the Latins their route, for fear that they would steal the Face climbers’ thunder. In short, it was all a devious plot on the part of the Anglo-Saxon contingent (the Japanese, presumably, being cast in the role of honorary members) to stop them from reaching the summit.
Alas, the truth was far less sensational and far more simple than this colourful tale of plot and intrigue would suggest. The breakdown of confidence was cynically ascribed by the other members of the expedition to the frustrated ambitions of the Latins. Mauri was said to have been furious because he lost his chance of lucrative advertising contracts ,Yvette because she lost the chance of fame and fortune; and Mazeaud because he aw Ms political dreams collapse in ruins. But was it really all so facile? It has already been pointed out that Mazeaud’s political ambitions can hardly have been furthered by his ludicrous behaviour and it is difficult to believe that commercial interests could have provided such eminent and seasoned mountaineers as Mauri and Vaucher with sufficient reason to create such a row. Furthermore, the suggestion that Vaucher was influenced by his wife and that Mauri was swayed by Mazeaud’s rhetoric hardly stands up to examination either. There is little doubt that the four were very keen to get to the summit of Everest, probably as much for genuine mountaineering reasons as for the more mercenary motives the others suspected. Their refusal to help on the Face route is less explicable. Mazeaud says that he was unwilling to act as a porter to ‘Anglo-Saxons and Japanese , and this rather stupid reason was branded on all four. All mountaineers on a big mountain would like to feel that they have a chance to reach the summit, and on Everest the Latins seemed to have believed, rightly or wrongly, that the British and the Japanese had the Face climb earmarked for themselves. This belief seems to have been aggravated by Mazeaud’s intense distrust of Whillans (though the Englishman offered to give them a fair share of the leading on the face) and the feeling that Whillans and Roberts were controlling the whole show for their own advantage. By failing to be seen to be fair, and not offering a glimmer of summit hope to the Latins, the leaders may have lost the last chance of getting them to stay. So the most likely explanation of the Latin’s departure is because they felt betrayed, cheated, let down and plotted against by the remainder of the party. In short, it could fairly be termed a case of ‘ minority group paranoia .
An interesting precedent for this took place in the course of Dyhrenfurth’s 1963 expedition, when Hornbein found himself in a similar position and was similarly outraged. A comment from his book The West Ridge is remarkably apposite to the case of the Latins: ‘Only an American expedition would attempt to vote itself to the top of Everest. Our approach to decision making was at times exorbitantly democratic. The minority group, particularly if absent when the vote was taken, was inclined to suffer. I felt let down on something that I thought had been agreed on by the entire expedition weeks before: that we should push the two routes simultaneously.’
Hornbein, like Vaucher, Mazeaud and the rest, was very angry. He was restrained by his friend Unsoeld, however, and eventually, after the expedition’s primary target (the South Col route) had been attained, they managed with the aid of some good weather and a superhuman effort to climb the West Ridge via the North Face.
There is, then, nothing particularly new or chauvinistic about the Latin’s basic grievance: the only novelty lies in their excessive reaction. All four quit the team and returned to Europe, where they gave further vent to their feelings, particularly about Dyhrenfurth, through the ever-open door of the popular press. Had it not been for these later attempts at character assassination, which received such wide publicity, the group might have come in for a great deal more sympathy.
A major cause of the split, therefore, was the fact that the leaders’ priorities were never made clear. From the moment they had decided to do two routes, Dyhrenfurth had engendered a feeling of complete equality between the teams, sharing the porters amongst them and encouraging them to make their own decisions. Had the two routes in fact been equally important, this would have been a perfectly tenable way of leading the expedition. As it was, however, although Dyhrenfurth encouraged this feeling of equality, both he and Roberts reverted to the assumption that the Face was the main objective when the crisis came. Most of the climbers realized that the purpose, the money and the power of the expedition had always been aimed at the Face route, but the Latins didn’t seem to grasp this reality or didn’t want to. The parallel with the 1963 trouble is astonishing. Even more astonishing is that Dyhrenfurth, having; already had experience of such a crisis on a previous expedition, nevertheless allowed the situation to develop once again.
Robert’s view of the whole affair was that of the confirmed disciplinarian. After all, he said, the four had been provided with virtually free tickets to Everest, and had signed a contract that bound them to the leaders’ decisions. It was therefore their duty to obey orders. Technically, of course, he was right, and on the face of it the Latins appear grossly ungrateful for acting as they did. Yet, in dealing with the subject in these terms, Roberts sounds as if he were discussing something tantamount to mutiny, and it is worth remembering that mutiny can develop just as easily under liberal as under autocratic rule, and that it is often mainly a reflection on those whose authority the mutineers are flouting.
That this lamentable collapse of confidence took place on an international expedition was purely a matter of coincidence. I hat it was used by the world’s press to ‘prove’ international incompatibility was nothing short of disastrous. National differences had nothing whatsoever to do with the dissidents grievances, except in so far as language difficulties may have contributed to the general lack of communication and understanding.
Perhaps the biggest catastrophe of all was Mazeaud’s infamous comment, quoted in newspapers all round the world: ‘They expect me, Pierre Mazeaud, Member of the French Assembly, aged forty-two, to work as a Sherpa for Anglo-Saxons and Japanese. Never! This is not me but France they have insulted’ It was a pompous and ill-considered remark, and it made Mazeaud a laughing stock. But there were those who took it seriously, and in this respect it did great harm, for it sounded the death knell of the expedition’s image of international goodwill. It was the worst piece of public relations work imaginable—one that roused sensation-seeking newspapers from all over the world to gorge themselves on the misfortunes of a proud expedition.
The spate of illnesses
From a tactical point of view the defection of the four Latins was not too serious. They left on 2 May; Hiebeler weighed down by illness and grief for his friend Harsh, had left on 25 April. Had the losses stayed at five’ the expedition would have had ample strength to press on with its plans effectively. But now illness started to take its toll. On 8 May, Steele sent six climbers home-Isles, Teigland, Howell, Dyhrenfurth, Eliassen and Evans (the latter pair recovered at lower altitude and later rejoined the expedition). Four days later, Colliver and Blume left Roberts, who took over the leadership when Dyhrenfurth went at first welcomed the thinning of the ranks, for it seemed to make the expedition more manageable. But it soon became apparent that the situation was so acute that the success of the whole project was threatened. The cause of the trouble was a rare type of glandular fever which infected nearly everyone in Base Camp and to a lesser extent some of the others. Of the climbers, only Whillans, Haston, Ito, Uemura, Schlommer, Axt and Peterson remained untouched: a few of the TV men escaped as well.
Earlier Whillans had been very critical about the outbreaks at illness, suggesting that people were deliberately evading the load- carrying. The doctors were being over-cautious, he thought, and he suspected the party of being victims of a wave of hypochondria. This time the illness was real enough however, as Whillans recognized. Nevertheless, the general ill health may have contributed something to the air of defeatism and caution that overcame the team—an air that Whillans felt had become increasingly evident since Bahuguna’s death had underlined the realities of their situation.
The new leader: a driving force
By mid-May most of the climbers had been weakened to such an extent that they were no longer capable of completing a serious role on the Face. Those who, like Evans and Cleare, managed to recover and return to the fray never reached any great height. Surdel was continuously ill, while Axt was out of the running: he claimed that the Face didn’t interest him and that his wife had told him not to go near it. Once the West Ridge and South Col plans aborted, he busied himself retrieving equipment left on these routes. Steele was fully occupied tending illnesses in Base Camp. The only other fit climbers were the Sherpas and the man who commanded them, Jimmy Roberts.
With Dyhrenfurth’s departure, Roberts had applied himself to the task of establishing some sort of order in the chaos. Less diplomatic than Dyhrenfurth, he is quick to state the truth bluntly on occasion, and this led to not a few ruffled feathers.
The dissident Latins have since accused Roberts of drunkenness and inefficiency. It is true that, having completed the day’s tasks, Roberts was a keen whisky enthusiast. But one can hardly blame him: living for over two months in that arid, lifeless camp site, surrounded by ailing climbers, must have been a tremendous strain, and it is not surprising that Roberts (and others) obtained relief in a time-honoured fashion.
But the charge of inefficiency was totally unfounded. Roberts of course, must accept his share of collective responsibility for the errors made in planning the project, but his organization of the Sherpas and supply lines on the mountain is above reproach. In the face of the problems the expedition encountered, a collapse of Sherpa morale or even a Sherpa strike might have been anticipated. But Roberts kept his men enthusiastic and busy. Despite lack of supervision higher on the mountain, the Sherpas carried out the monumental task of supplying the lead climbers with exemplary efficiency. In all, fifty-five loads were lifted to Camp 5, at 26,000 ft. Seventeen Sherpas were involved in this operation, but only four ‘climbers’ ever reached thesite Two Sherpas even lifted loads up to Camp 6, at over 27,000 ft., without the use of oxyzen.
The magnitude of the Sherpas’ effort on the mountain was the backbone of an otherwise lamentably weak expedition. About half of the Sherpas were in their early twenties and had very limited climbing experience. Only half a dozen had ever seen fixed ropes or jumars before. Nevertheless, twenty-four carried loads of about 40 lb. up the fixed rope to Camp 4 climbing on jumars unescorted, unroped, and without oxygen. It was a fane performence and one of’which the Sherpas can feel justly proud —more than can be said for most of the climbers Indeed, it must sometimes have been wondered who was actually climbing the mountain. On one occasion, when a team of Sherpas brought supplies up to Whillans and Haston one of them remarked : No other sahibs on the mountain-only Sherpas It is interesting to speculate on the tales that will be told in the chang houses of Namche Bazar this winter about the deeds of bravery done on Everest by the latest crop of climbers from the West!
If at first you don’t succeed …
The series of disasters experienced by the party added up to a catalogue of misfortune that would have destroyed a lesser expedition and sent it scurrying back to cvihzation mastateo disarray That the International Himalayan Expedition still managed to gather itself and launch a serious attempt on the Face is a tribute to the tenacity of the remaining climbers and their leader
Revived by a better flow of supplies up the Face, the climbers prepared for a final push. While arguments and epidemics had been raging below, those at the top had been working steadily to establish the route. By mid-May, they had set up Camps 3, 4, 5 and 6. Camp 3, which was under a protective rock bluff, about 1,200 ft. above the bergschrund, was approached via 40 snow and ice slopes. Here, as well as digging snow platforms the expedition utilized some Japanese frame platforms left from the previous year. These metal constructions, hammered into the ice formed a suitable if precarious site for the Whillans Boxes. 1500 ft higher up was another platform, which was adopted for Camp 4. A stone platform for a tent was built here too, m an unnervingly exposed position. Above, the ground became more mixed, with patches of rock showing through the snow. Camp 5, just below the Rock Band at 26,000 ft., comprised one more Whillans Box and another tent.
The Rock Band provided no feasible continuation of the line. The climbers had thought that some snow couloirs which were reminiscent of the Exit Cracks on the Eiger, would lead hem through the Band and out on to the West Ridge. But, on closer inspection, the couloirs proved too steep. Instead, the climbers were forced to take the snow ramp that leads up to the right, away from the more direct line. Here, the ground became steeper and more difficult, being similar to the mixed climbing found on the Matterhorn North Face.
For the most part, Haston and Whillans worked on this section but they were hampered by bad weather, which often pinned them in their tents for several days at a time. During these periods the Japanese pair, who were with them, would retreat to Advance Base to rest, but the lead pair always remained high on the mountain. This earned them a good deal of criticism from others in the team, for it meant that they used up precious supplies, not the least of which was oxygen For it was oxygen that enabled the climbers to remain at such a height for such a long time. By taking it almost continually, they withheld the effects of high altitude deterioration so completely that they were able to stay above 25,000 ft. for nearly three weeks always poised to push the route higher when the weather relented.
By the time Whillans and Haston had neared the Rock Band, the monsoon was approaching fast, and Roberts decided to concentrate all the expedition’s remaining resources into getting the two climbers within striking. distance of the summit. All the Sherpas were working at full stretch, Peterson was up at Camp 3, and even Evans had reappeared after his prolonged illness. Of the TV men, Cleare and Kelly put in an appearance too, hoping to get some high altitude film. Ito was up in Camp 5 in support of the British pair, with Uemura going up and down the route like a yo-yo, filming whenever he could spare the time from load-carrying.
It was during this period that Axt and Schlommer offered to come up and help. It is hard to say how serious this offer was. Both claimed later that they had been willing to help all but Whillans prevented them. Schlommer’s laziness had certainly annoyed Whillans (he had once asked the Englishman to send down a Sherpa to carry up his personal gear), and Axt had stayed well away from the Face, constantly reiterating his intention not to go on it. Whillans claims that he constantly asked for Axts assistance. However, although the Austrians certainly seem to have wanted to be of use at that stage, Whillans’s rejection of Schlommer’s offer was so blunt that Axt withdrew also, and both climbers went back down the mountain. (The two climbers arrived in Kathmandu just after the expedition’s final failure was announced. Their reports of Whillans’s selfishness provided instant material for public consumption, and yet another mischievous piece of bad publicity was headlined across the world.)
At this time, news of an imminent summit attempt was prematurely leaked. The press had its last fling, making the most of the ridiculously forlorn hope that Whillans and Haston might somehow make it. But summits of 29,000 ft. don’t come easily. They never have. With their highest camp at 27,200 ft., the lead pair had to overcome 1,800 ft. of difficult climbing, first up the Rock Band and then up the steep mixed ground of the Yellow Bands, in order to achieve success.
It simply wasn’t possible. Almost certainly another camp would have been needed above the Rock Band, and there was no longer the means to stock it with the necessary ropes, pitons and oxygen, for there was only a trickle of supplies reaching Camp 6.
Whillans climbed up and round to a low relief buttress that forms the edge of the South-west Face. From here he could view the smaller and easier-angled South Face, which separates the South-west Face from the original South Col route. An easy line ran across this face to join the original route just below the South Summit.
Should they quit the Face and try to clinch a success by this route? Whillans considered the idea from his airy viewpoint, but decided against it. After all the arguments of the previous weeks, he felt that such an action would leave himself and Haston open to the charge of hypocrisy. ‘Some people would say that we’d planned it all along,’ he said.’ Mind you, if the same choice happens again on any future expedition, and reaching the summit is impossible by the Face, I would certainly take this easier way… but then I will have said so beforehand.9
So he returned to Haston. Together they climbed 300 ft. up an icy couloir in the Rock Band, fixing ropes. It was the highest point reached and with hardly any supplies coming up to Camp 6, they were forced to turn back and admit defeat. It had been a remarkable performance. They had remained at high altitude for a very long time, and many climbers would have cracked under the strain in a third of the time. The following day every- one started to descend. The International Himalayan Expedition 1971 had failed.
Whillans: route leader or route grabber ?
Whillans (and to a lesser extent Haston) has come under fire from certain quarters for supposedly ‘hogging the lead’. It is only fair to both critics and criticized to consider the validity of these allegations.
With Evans out of the running, Whillans (the obvious person) had been asked by Roberts to take over the leadership on the mountain. Whillans’s plan was that, as he and Haston were the only pair capable of breaking the route, he and Haston would lead. Uemura and Ito would follow, each with a Sherpa. It was a reasonable tactic, especially in view of the apparent lack of keen climbers to take over. But there were several climbers fit enough to rotate the lead with Whillans and Haston—Axt and Schlommer, say, or the two Japanese. Rotation of the lead would certainly have increased the morale of the party. Furthermore the British pair could then have rested, and regained their strength for the final push. Somehow things didn’t work out that way and after seven weeks on the mountain nobody, except the two Britons, seemed keen to be in the lead.
So during these final days of attempt, Whillans dictated the plan as the circumstances seemed to demand—from the front— but in doing so he completely committed everything to himself and Haston. Hardly anybody got up to Camp 6 to support them, and when the fragile lifeline of supplies finally petered out, they had to admit failure.
Looking back over the previous expeditions, it becomes evident that Whillans has always been a good tactician, but never very adept at delegating the lead to other climbers. On Huandoy Sur he did hand over the lead, and went down for a rest. But on his return he found that the decision had been made (mistakenly, in his opinion) to call off the attempt. On Annapurna he some- times seemed to be irritated by the efforts of his companions. On his other expeditions—Gaurishankar, Aig, Poincenot, Towers of Paine—he has always been in front. All his natural tendencies put him there.
However, this impressive dynamism is not necessarily the most important quality for a leader. Personal desire to be in front must be restrained, and he must deploy his men so that he is the kingpin of an attempt. He has to inspire his fellow climbers, have confidence in their abilities, and be able to move them to greater efforts.
On a national expedition, where the leader’s authority is often partially established before he reaches the mountain, this is less difficult. But on an international expedition, where people are only known to one another by reputation, the subtle skills of leadership are far more difficult to establish. Perhaps one of the reasons why so many talented climbers produced such meagre results on this expedition was that nobody had the leadership qualities to weld them all into a team. If any criticism can be levelled at Whillans, it is that he, too, failed in this respect. One is therefore left with the lingering feeling that a more inspired plan might have brought the other fit climbers into action. Had Axt and Schlommer pulled their weight, had the Japanese done more in front, had a more constructive plan been formed … its all supposition, wisdom after the event. There was never any one moment when the expedition’s plight was clear, and with no other obviously keen climber in view, there seemed no course open to the British pair but to lead from the front. Once they were established there, they would have welcomed assistance and, indeed, asked for Axt’s help on several occasions. Poor radio communications (a constant handicap throughout the expedition) didn’t help. High on the mountain, Whillans and Haston came to the conclusion that they were the only climbers capable of pushing the route higher. One has to concede that Whillans’s plan made the most of the expedition’s declining resources. The team can feel satisfied that after so many mishaps it achieved what it did.
Postscript: the lessons to be learned
Many mistakes in the planning and tactics of the expedition have been revealed. Despite much hard work and goodwill its history was studded with wrangles, blunders, selfishness and ambition—the whole gamut of human weakness. But this is nothing new; any expedition can suffer the same problems. What is new is the fact that every unpleasant detail was charted in the popular press. For a brief period the expedition came to represent to the public the whole sport of mountaineering. The image it gave was not a good one—that of a sport performed by jealous, ambitious, nationalistic people, keen to denigrate each other’s efforts.
In this article an attempt has been made to put the record straight, to put everything in its proper context, and to reveal the true villain of the piece: the atrocious weather. Quite simply, if the weather had been better, the story might have been one of success. For it was the weather, in the long run, that brought the expedition to its knees, just as it was the weather that caused the failure of most of the other Himalayan expeditions in the field this season.
But was the expedition really a failure? After all the advance publicity, the subsequent feeling of anti-climax certainly gave this impression. But if we had heard nothing of the expedition until its return, our feelings might well have been different. As the hullabaloo dies down, it becomes apparent that the climbing achievements were not inconsiderable: the expedition did, after all, go much higher than the two previous attempts.
And what of the human achievements? The popular picture was not the one of international solidarity in the face of adversity and danger that Dyhrenfurth hoped to create. But the whole principle of putting international relationships on trial in this way is a matter of some contention. Even strong national expeditions suffer from outbursts of bitter personal argumentation. If you gather together thirty people who don’t know each other, make their communication with one another doubly difficult for reasons of language, culture and social background, and then ask them to test their interrelationships against the backdrop of a highly dangerous setting, then any success will be a stupendous achievement. But failure—particularly if your group is in the public limelight—will lead to repercussions out of all proportion to the project’s inherent importance.
On Everest there should really be two criteria of personal success: firstly, the participant’s performance as a climber (and here, most of the present party were found wanting, although mainly for reasons of illness); and secondly, his performance in the field of personal relationships. In the latter respect, despite some failures, most of the International party succeeded. For, ironically, the split threw the remaining climbers close together, and one gets the distinct impression that much was gained in the way of international goodwill. As one member put it: ‘1 have made twenty-five new friends from this trip, and have floors to kip on all over the world!’
The dissidents themselves were not completely estranged from the rest of the party, even after the dispute. Vaucher and Mauri remained on perfectly good terms with almost everyone. Mazeaud and Yvette Vaucher seem to have been determined lo wallow in their umbrage to the full, however. In theinternational limelight, France’s image came off badly ; but even here there were compensations. On its return the International Expedition met up with the victorious French Makalu Expedition m Kathmandu. Relations could not have been better; Robert Paragot embraced Whillans and Haston as old friends’. There were many similar instances of goodwill.
The most lamentable aspect of the whole affair was undoubtedly the spate of critical newspaper reports and magazine articles that the expedition attracted. Perhaps the most damaging was Michel Vaucher’s piece in La Suisse. Vaucher delivered a catalogue of stinging criticisms: he accused a number of climbers of drug- taking, Roberts of drunkenness and Bahuguna, Teigland and Eliassen of lack of climbing experience and poor ice climbing technique. He further claimed that the food was bad and the logistic support pathetic. But his most vicious remarks were reserved for Dyhrenfurth. He described the leader’s lone supply trip m poor weather as a foolish, futile gesture, and condemned him for raising the hopes of the South Col party and then scheming to deny them their route. Finally, he claimed that during the crisis the leaders ordered him to toe the line, saying that they had raised the cash and that it was his duty to obey them. Basically, his charges seem to centre round two factors the lack of competence and drive among a large part of the team and the poor and inefficient leadership.
In some respects Vaucher’s complaints are fair. On food, for instance, there is no doubt that the expedition’s diet left much to be desired. There was far too much dependence on tinned or dehydrated foods and not enough fresh food. Vaucher is being rather hypercritical here however, as he was fully consulted over food matters during the planning stage.
On the leadership issue as well, Vaucher has a point The series of tactical changes after the accident were almost bound ‘ to lead to a feeling of betrayal somewhere in the team, for the leaders found themselves unable to satisfy everyone. What is less understandable is Vaucher’s apparent inability to comprehend, at the critical stage, that something had to give As a seasoned climber himself, he cannot have been so naive It is tempting to suggest that had he been alone he would have stayed with the expedition and played his part like a reasonable man and that it was the combined influence of his embittered wife and the emotional Frenchman, coupled with his own feelings of betrayal, that led him to view matters in a different light.
Mazeaud’s main criticisms (which appear in the final chapter of his latest book) seem to stem from a chronic suspicion of Anglo-Saxon motivation, coupled with a violent dislike of Whillans and Dyhrenfurth (whom he denounced in one letter as‘ a low-down swine’). Most of his critical comments are so feeble in substance and so heavy in invective that they are not worth serious consideration. Although his actions seem to have been motivated solely by self-interest, they do point to one major error on the part of the leadership—the failure to understand the summit-lure of a mountain like Everest and the failure to ensure that all the climbers felt that they would have a fair chance of getting there. But Mazeaud’s own actions were not above reproach. He was a keen supporter of the Face attempt until the expedition reached the foothills of Everest; then, he changed to the West Ridge team, denouncing the Face attempt as ‘not true Alpinism’, because of its prolonged fixed roping. Certainly the Face route left much to be desired ; but Mazeaud’s blatant hypocrisy in condemning it, when he had joined the expedition to climb it, is nothing short of laughable.
Mauri’s comments were similar to Vaucher’s, though far less intense. His magazine story, published in Domenica del Corriere, was, curiously, illustrated with many fine photographs which conveyed an atmosphere of great camaraderie, totally opposing the impression the writer was trying to create.
Finally, Leo Schlommer also denounced the leaders and Whillans, this time on Austrian television. Schlommer’s comments seemed strangely weak, however: when Dyhrenfurth asked him to explain further, he apologized, claiming that he had to say something as he was being attacked on all sides! It is particularly sad that Schlommer reacted in this way because in general he got on well with his companions.
The main butt of all the criticisms, of course, was Norman Dyhrenfurth. Naturally, as leader, it is he who has to bear the brunt of failure, just as in 1963 he bathed in the pleasant aura of success. But this time he has almost been crushed by the recriminatory back-lash that followed the expedition.
He has borne all this with dignity, however, avoiding the type of untidy fracas that followed last year’s Nanga Parbat episode. A generous man, he has been the first to excuse the outbursts made by his critics. He has done everything possible to provide the material for this article, despite the fact that the final verdict must inevitably go against him.
Every leader has to be prepared to face the realities of failure. Lord Hunt was in the same position after his catastrophic expedition to the Pamirs in 1963. The long knives were out then, and now, in 1971, the no less prestigious back of Dyhrenfurth is the prime target. To describe either Hunt or Dyhrenfurth as incompetents, because their expeditions failed to justify the hopes invested in them, would be wrong, but it is possible that a hitherto successful expedition leader might sometimes bank too heavily on his charisma, neglecting some of the painstaking attention to detail that brought him success in the past.
Despite suggestions to the contrary, it is clear that Dyhren- furth’s motives in organizing the expedition were completely altruistic and stemmed from an idealism traditional to his family and typical of his Swiss/American background. It is easy to forget the sheer workload involved in organizing an expedition such as this without strong national backing. It was a tremendous achievement in itself to get thirty people from thirteen different countries to the foot of Everest with all the food and equipment needed to climb it. The majority of those people speak highly of Dyhrenfurth and are deeply grateful to him for giving them the chance to go to the highest mountain in the world. The expedition’s failure will leave him with a large personal debt to pay off.
Quite understandably, Dyhrenfurth has been deeply hurt by the criticism and cynicism levelled at the expedition, particularly as the whole affair represented an attempt to further the friendship and understanding of mountaineers the world over. Superficially, it failed but on closer inspection it is clear that many international friendships were formed. It has also been a salutary reminder not only of the harshness of the big mountain environment, but also of the whole new range of pressures that face contemporary mountaineers as they step into the public arena.
Tom Frost was uncannily accurate when he wrote last year in Mountain 12: 6 To me the International Everest Expedition epitomizes the ultimate. It contains all the prime requisites for suffering: a large, contrived, diverse group of individuals, heavy logistics, snow slogging, danger, high altitude (the highest), load- carrying, stonefall, breathing apparatus, generally low technical difficulties, and non-climbing leadership. The full arsenal of classic expedition challenges will be arrayed. Those who take up the challenge to go to Everest, as many have before, will be well tried. Those who endure to the end—physically, mentally and spiritually—will receive the greatest blessings the mountains can offer.’
The expedition certainly proved to be the trial Frost predicted —we can learn much from its experiences.
Nepal Himalaya. Everest (29,028 ft.),
An International Expedition comprising: Norman Dyhrenfurth and James Roberts (joint leaders), John Evans, Don Whillans, Dougal Haston, Naomi Uemura, Reizo Ito, Leo Schlommer, Dave Peterson, Gary Colliver’ Toni Hiebeler, Wolfgang Axt, Michel Vaucher, Yvette Vaucher, Pierre’ Mazeaud, Carlo Mauri, Odd Eliassen, Jon Teigland, Dave Isles, Harsh Bahuguna, Duane Blume and Peter Steele. The expedition was accompanied by a B.B.C. Television team comprising: Anthony Thomas (leader), Ned Kelly, Ian Stuart, John Cleare, Ian Howell, Jerry Surdel, Bill Kurban and Arthur Chesterman (joined the expedition later). Sunday Times Reporter: Murray Sayle. Geologist: Harka Gurung. March, April and May 1971. Attempt failed 1,500 feet short of the summit.