More than eight years passed by from the time when the survivors of the 1924 Expedition bade farewell to the Rongbuk valley, to the day late in August 1932, when the welcome though unexpected news came through that the Tibetan Government had at last given permission for another attempt on Mount Everest. During that long interval almost a new generation of climbers had arisen, for Time waits for no man and the span of life during which a mountaineer may hope to scale Mount Everest is but short.
Not a moment was lost. The Mount Everest Committee, consisting of Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society and of members of the Alpine Club, met at once, presided over by Admiral Sir William Goodenough, g.c.b., m.v.o., and began the selection of the party. Brigadier E. F. Norton, d.s.o., m.c., and Major Geoffrey Bruce, m.c., being unable to leave their military duties, I was invited to lead the expedition on the ground that some one was needed with experience of Himalayan peoples as well as knowledge of mountains. A fairly large party was taken in case the first assaults should fail and it might be possible to continue the work during the monsoon. The general principle was to select a body of men all of whom, with the possible exception of the leader and of the chief transport officer, should be potentially capable of reaching the summit. The recognition beforehand of the necessary powers and qualities is still a matter of extreme difficulty, but the severe medical examinations conducted by the Medical Board of the Royal Air Force and by Dr. Claud Wilson could be relied upon to eliminate any one with pronounced weaknesses.
The party finally chosen consisted of:
Hugh Ruttledge (leader), late Indian Civil Service.
Capt. E. St. J. Birnie, Sam Browne’s Cavalry.
Lt.-Col. Hugh Boustead, Commandant, Sudan Camel Corps.
T. A. Brocklebank.
G. G. Crawford, late Indian Civil Service.
Dr. G. Raymond Greene, Senior Medical Officer.
P. Wyn Harris, Kenya Civil Service.
J. L. Longland, lecturer, Durham University.
Dr. W. McLean, second medical officer.
E. O. Shebbeare, Indian Forest Service.
E. E. Ship ton, Kenya Colony.
F. S. Smythe.
L. R. Wager, lecturer Reading University.
G. Wood-Johnson, tea-planter, Darjeeling.
Of these, Crawford had been with the expedition of 1922, and Shebbeare with that of 1924. Smythe, Shipton, Greene and Birnie had climbed Kamet in 1931, and Smythe and Wood-Johnson were with the international expedition which attempted Kangchenjunga in 1930; Boustead was in Sikkim in 1926, while I had been six times to the Kumaun Himalaya since 1925. More than half the party, therefore, had Himalayan experience, while Shipton and Wyn Harris had climbed the very difficult Mount Kenya, and Wager and Longland were mountaineers of well-established reputation. All, with the exception of Wood-Johnson, were members of the Alpine Club.
It was decided that the expedition should leave England towards the end of January, to allow ample time for a leisurely march across Tibet and for an early arrival at the Base Camp. This meant that only four and a half months were available for the work of organization at home and that speed of preparation was essential. A few innovations were introduced, such as a new kind of tent which might offer more shelter from the blizzards of the Rongbuk glacier which caused so much distress in 1924. The designs of an Asiatic Yurt and of a pattern of tent used by the late Mr. Watkins in Greenland were amalgamated, with excellent results. Considerable attention was paid to the scientific preparation of a high-altitude food supply. An improved and lightened oxygen apparatus, weighing only 12§ lb., replaced the heavy outfits of 1922 and 1924. Lastly, Mr. D. S. Richards undertook to finance independently and work a wireless transmitting and receiving set.
Climbing plans were worked out in considerable detail at home, and exhaustively discussed on the voyage out; for the Tibetan plateau is not a suitable place for this kind of deliberation. In these early stages we had some hopes of assaulting the mountain in parties of three, and even of establishing more than two camps above the North Col in order to make the final climb as short as possible. We realized, well enough, that modification would be inevitable, the result of trial and error; meanwhile elasticity of tactical design was required, with an ideal purpose of delivering at least three assaults within a period of eight days. The strategy of the campaign was to be based upon a gradual process of acclimatization, involving a slow advance up the East Rongbuk glacier and an equally deliberate establishment of Camp IV on or near the North Col. This, it was hoped, would bring the storming parties, including the porters, within striking distance at the very top of their form. I think we all agreed that, once on the North Col, the advance must be speeded up, for at or near this point the insidious deterioration of high altitudes may begin to undermine the most carefully planned training. It is the inevitable result of oxygen-lack, cold, wind, discomfort, and loss of appetite and of sleep. The difficulties of adjustment to any plan of this kind are enormous; no two men acclimatize at an equal rate, or defy deterioration for an equal time. It is impossible to foretell with any degree of accuracy how the individual will react to prolonged strain. One could but make a close study of previous experience and of conditions on the spot, and so far as possible reconcile theory and fact, avoiding the attitude of the French philosopher who, when informed that the two did not agree, replied, ‘so much the worse for the facts’.
The majority of the party assembled at Darjeeling on the 17th February. On the way I paid a visit to the Meteorological Observatory at Alipore, where Dr. S. N. Sen ventured the prediction that we should encounter a series of western disturbances and an early monsoon. He was only too accurate.
At Darjeeling it was imperative to recruit our porter corps and be off before the unending kindness and hospitality of the local residents entirely ruined our form. Seventy-two men, Sher pas and Bhutias, were enlisted, medically examined, relieved of internal parasites, and equipped. Mr. Richards set up his main wireless station, and Messrs. E. G. Thompson and W. R. Smijth-Windham, of the Royal Corps of Signals, arrived from Jubbulpore to accompany the expedition. With them were Sergeant N. Watt and Corporal W. J. Frawley, who would remain at Darjeeling to help Mr. Richards. Finally, three N.C.O.’s of the 1/3rd Q.A.O. Gurkha Rifles—Haviidar-Major Gaggan Singh Pun, Havildar Lachman Singh Sahi, and Naik Bahadur Gurung—specially selected by the Commanding Officer, Lt.-Colonel A. G. Stone, o.b.e., m.c., joined us to safeguard the treasure-chest and organize camps. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the military authorities in India, who left no stone unturned to assist the expedition; especially to Major-General W. L. O. Twiss, c.b., g.b.e., m.c., who himself supervised many of the details.
Our heavy baggage was sent direct from Calcutta to Kalimpong, where we received untiring help and hospitality from Mr. and Mrs. Odling; and, leaving our business affairs in the capable hands of Mr. R. J. Kydd, who most kindly volunteered his services, we started for the 350-mile march to Everest in two parties, the last setting forth from Darjeeling on the 12th March and rejoining the first at Gautsa in the Chumbi valley on the 21st March.
Space does not permit of a detailed description of our travels across the Tibetan plateau. Suffice it to say that we were foiled in our project of entering Tibet over the Sebu La, owing to news of a heavy snow-fall; so, after obtaining our passport from Mr. H. Williamson, i.c.s.j Political Agent for Sikkim, at Gangtok, we followed the usual route via Phari, Kampa Dzong, Tinkye Dzong, and Shekar Dzong, to Rongbuk. Here the expedition was blessed by the old Lama and proceeded without delay to establish the Base Camp on the 17 th April, twelve days ahead of our predecessors.
One expects severe conditions in Tibet during the spring, and we had our fair share of high winds and snow, but arrived at the Base Camp with a practically clean bill of health, except for some sore throats caused by the all-pervading dust. At least dysentery and such-like plagues had been kept at bay. Our complacency was now disturbed. Crawford developed some chest trouble and Wyn Harris influenza, of all things. Then one of our strongest porters went down with pneumonia and was only saved by oxygen and by his rapid removal, under Crawford’s care, to the lower altitudes of the Karta valley. Wyn Harris made a wonderfully quick recovery in time to take a share in the work of establishing a camp on the North Col.
Shortly before this a provisional allotment of parties had been made, based on observation of form during the march. It had early been realized that the idea of three-men groups was a counsel of perfection, and that the climbing would have to be done by pairs. The first selections were: Smythe and Shipton, Greene and Wyn Harris, and Wager and Longland. The remainder would be in reserve, to be called up as the occasion demanded; but as many as possible would be put into Camp III, our advanced base at 21,000 feet, to acclimatize there and share the work of establishing Camp IV. Each successive camp up the East Rongbuk glacier would be properly placed and stocked before a further advance, and both sahibs and porters would spend not less than four days in each camp, thus becoming accustomed to the increased altitude. This did not preclude reconnaissances up the glacier.
The period between the 17th April and the 2nd May was occupied in establishing Camps I, II, and III, at heights respectively of 17,700, 19,800, and 21,000 feet. The weather, at first admirable, deteriorated later, and Camps II and III required repeated efforts before they were finally occupied. Once this was done they never had to be involuntarily evacuated, even in the worst conditions; though western disturbances did their best to drive us out. By the 6th May no less than twelve members of the expedition were in residence at Camp III, and we were in a strong attacking position, with at least adequate supplies and the porters in good heart. More men were, however, needed to consolidate the advance, and we anxiously awaited the arrival of reinforcements sent for from Sola Khombu, the Sherpa settlement in Nepal. The delay was due to heavy snowfalls on the passes, but the men turned up in time.
The North Col was obviously going to be a hard nut to crack, even if the weather improved. It rises in a 1,200-ft. wall of snow and ice above the head of the glacier, and has of course changed considerably since 1924. In place of the route adopted in that year we found an unbroken slope of ice, out of the question for laden porters. The only clear alternative was an approximation to the route of 1922, on which it was advisable to remember that seven men had been killed by avalanche. Moreover, the little ice-ledge which accommodated the Camp IV of the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, close under the crest of the Col, could no longer be seen, and it was essential to have a camp somewhere near the Col. Careful examination with the telescope revealed something like a ledge about 250 feet below the crest. This might serve, though it would entail harder work on the men establishing Camp V on the North Arete. Even to reach it was difficult. A great horizontal crevasse split the slope across about 600 feet above the foot; and worse still, higher up there was an ice-wall quite 40 feet high, which gave us furiously to think. Whatever the technical difficulties, the greatest care would have to be exercised throughout the operations in view of the constant danger of avalanche.
What may be termed the second stage of the campaign was now entered upon, comprising the establishment of Camp IV on the North Col; and some idea of the difficulties encountered may be gained from the statement that this work, the making of a route over a vertical distance of less than 2,000 feet, took from the 3rd to the 15th May. To save time and energy, a subsidiary Camp (IIIa) was pushed up to the foot of the wall, just out of reach of possible avalanches. Parties were to work in shifts, each man leading for about twenty minutes and cutting steps, while the others fixed pitons and ropes. With the exception of two portions of about 200 feet each the slope was steep enough to require step-cutting the whole way, and if the porters were to carry 30-lb. loads up they would require to be steadied by fixed ropes.
The weather during this time was about as bad as it could possibly be. The North Col appeared to give no protection from the west wind, which poured over and descended almost vertically, putting an immense strain upon the arctic tents at Camps III and Ilia. Gale after gale whistled across the glacier, driving the snow in horizontal sheets. It was heart-breaking work for Smythe, Shipton, Greene, Longland, Wyn Harris, Wager, and Boustead, and the snow conditions were by no means always safe. But whenever there was a lull, and that was generally in the morning, parties would issue forth and labour at the slopes, being generally chased off them by midday. They would then have to run for shelter, while the gale filled every step with fresh snow; and the weary business would have to start all over again next day.
Meanwhile Birnie, who had made the selection and organization of porters his special care, got together a corps d’elite of fifteen men, who were taken up to Camp Ilia as soon as an advance became possible. There was no lack of volunteers; the porters had been most carefully equipped and rationed, and were in splendid fettle. We were at pains to get to know every man individually. The slackers, of whom there were very few, were weeded out for work at the Base. There was considerable competition for the honour of going high.
That great obstacle, the 40-ft. ice-wall, was tackled by Smythe and Shipton. The first few feet actually overhung, and the greater part of it was vertical. Himalayan ice is apt to be very tough, and does not break off in flakes under the axe, as in Switzerland. The labour of step-cutting, especially at a height of 22,500 feet, is therefore very severe. The slope up to the great crevasse, below this point, had already exacted a considerable toll, for it was exceedingly steep. The crevasse itself gave no trouble, being well bridged by snow. But the wall required a tremendous effort and the finest ice-craft. By means of pi tons and much one-handed use of the axe (the other hand being generally needed to hang on to specially cut hand-holds), Smythe, well backed up by Shipton, contrived to surmount the wall in a single morning, after hours of exhausting work. At the top, where the angle eased off, the two men hammered a big piton into the ice, and subsequently a rope ladder was hauled up and fixed here. Without that ladder the establishment of Camp IV would have been impossible.
Smythe and Shipton now went on up to the ledge which had been observed from below, finding that it would serve well enough. It was the lower lip of a biggish crevasse, the upper lip of which towered 40 feet above them, while beyond that were 250 feet of steep ice leading to the crest of the Col. To reach the latter it was necessary to turn an awkward ice-corner, traverse upwards and southwards across a slope which obviously required care in bad conditions of snow, and then cut straight up. This meant that, even after the route was made, parties moving up to establish the higher camps would have at least forty minutes of hard climbing to reach the North Col itself. But there was no help for it; alternative there was none. On every side steep slopes and ice-cliffs plunged down to the glacier, offering not the smallest of ledges for a camp. The North Col was not then considered, for it was known to be terribly exposed to wind. On the 15th May, Smythe, Shipton, Wyn Harris, Longland, Birnie, and Boustead occupied the ledge, accompanied by the selected porters. The second stage of the operations had been completed.
It was already apparent that no time could be lost, for a message had come through from Alipore on the 12 th May that the monsoon was making progress off the east coast of Ceylon. The news was most disquieting. The party had been heavily battered by the series of western disturbances, and might reasonably have hoped for a comparatively quiet period such as enabled the assaults of 1924 to be launched. Yet here was the monsoon appearing weeks before its normal time.
The third stage, that of the establishment of the higher camps, was delayed by circumstances over which we had little or no control. The weather had been a sufficiently severe handicap to work during the second; it was fatal to the rapid progress necessary for the third. Our tactical plan, in its latest form, allowed for about five days’ acclimatization at Camp IV, to be followed by the combined operation of establishing Camps V and VI and assaulting the summit in a further period of, if possible, three days. In other words, it was hoped that the first assault would be delivered on the 23rd May. In an estimate based upon previous experience, one might have allowed for a further period of at least a fortnight in* which to continue the siege, if necessary.
But the weather during this third stage upset every calculation. The party at Camp IV was cut off by a gale which surpassed in fury its predecessors; and no movement of any kind was possible till the 19th May. Smythe and Ship ton, on two occasions, ventured some distance up the North Arete, above the North Col, but had to turn back. The moment the gale abated, on the 20th May, a party with porters attempted to establish Camp V. It only reached the top of the snow slope on the North Arete, at about 24,500 feet. Meanwhile, the work of bringing stores up to Camp IV was resumed at high pressure, in spite of the somewhat dangerous condition of the snow. Crawford and Brocklebank, convoying relays of porters, made no less than six ascents and descents—a very fine performance. Smijth- Windham had established an advance wireless receiving and transmitting station at Camp III. From there a telephone wire was run, with immense labour, all the way to Camp IV. Already clouds could be seen sailing up from the south-east in the monsoon current, which was fighting round the shoulders of Everest for mastery over the west wind. Once that mastery was obtained, we must look out for avalanches on the North Col slopes.
I went up to Camp IV on the 21st, to reorganize the climbing parties. Poor Wood-Johnson was already out of the hunt, having been attacked by a gastric ulcer at Camp III. It was arranged that on the 22nd an attempt should be made to establish Camp V at a height of not less than 25,600 feet. The party would consist of Wyn Harris, Greene, Birnie, and Boustead, with 20 porters. Wager and Longland would accompany them for a training walk, descending the same evening with twelve men. On the following day Wyn Harris and Greene, with eight porters, would make Camp VI at not less than 27,400 feet, accompanied by Birnie, who would escort the porters down. At the same time Smythe and Shipton would come up to Camp V in support. On the third day the first assault would be made, primarily as a reconnaissance to decide upon the respective merits of the route along the crest of the great North-east Arete, always favoured by Mallory, and of the traverse route preferred by Norton and Somervell in 1924.
The comparatively fine weather of the 22nd was not wasted, and a splendid carry by the porters resulted in the establishment of Camp V on a good ledge at 25,700 feet. Finch’s Camp of 1922 was passed, and Greene found near by an oxygen cylinder, still in perfect working order. The camp of 1924 could not be seen; it was somewhere away to the left, on the face overlooking the East Rongbuk glacier. Greene unfortunately strained his heart during this climb and had to return the same evening, his place being taken by Wager.
So far all had gone well except that the time allowance at the North Col had already been exceeded and there were already signs that high-altitude deterioration was setting in. The climbers were still going strong, but were more conscious of effort. Now, at this critical period, yet another storm blew up from the west. This time it was of almost hurricane force. It began on the night of the 22nd and continued unabated till the morning of the 25th. Even then the wind was still very powerful. The party at Camp V spent a terrible three nights. Smythe and Shipton had, somehow, fought their way up on the 23rd according to plan, being unable to see the signal above that Wyn Harris and Wager could not get on. The latter pair promptly descended to relieve the congestion, and a relief was organized on the 25th. By that time the Camp had had to be evacuated, the parties meeting on the arete.
Meanwhile the heavy snow which had fallen during the storm rendered the position of Camp IV dangerous. Avalanches were beginning to fall from the slope above, threatening to hurl the tents down to the glacier or bury them on the ledge. After three nights of anxiety we decided to move up on to the North Col itself, where there was just room for two arctic tents, risking the inevitable exposure. Smythe, Shipton, Wyn Harris, Wager, and Longland would occupy one tent, and a fresh body of porters the other. Hardship and frost-bite had already taken considerable toll; only one of the eight porters originally selected to make Camp VI was available to go high again. The rest of us would have to descend to Camp III, which we did in bad conditions but safely on the afternoon of the 26th, while the others carried their tents and gear up on to the North Col.
The stage was now set, and right nobly did the men play their parts. Camp V was again occupied on the 28th, and on the 29th Wyn Harris, Wager, and Longland, with eight porters, made Camp VI (one small tent) at a height of 27,400 feet, on a tiny sloping ledge some 400 yards east of the first step and perhaps 250 feet below the crest of the North-east Arete. This was 600 feet higher than a camp had ever been placed before. The leading was very fine and the porters behaved superlatively well. I think that in any account of the Mount Everest campaign of 1933 their names should be placed on record; they were:
Ang Tarke Sherpa
Da Tsering Sherpa
Nima Dorje Sherpa
Ang Tsering Sherpa
Kipa Lama Sherpa
Tsering Tarke Bhutia
Kipa Lama, who is an old friend of mine, has always been rather eccentric. On this occasion, having thrown his load down with a grunt of relief, he instantly demanded a ‘chit’, certifying that he was of good character. I gave him a very special one, all to himself, at Darjeeling on our return.
Shortly after Longland began the descent with his eight still fairly merry though tired men, about 2 p.m., one of those sudden blizzards which were a feature of almost every afternoon at this period came tearing up out of the west, with no warning. Visibility was at once reduced to a few yards, and goggles became iced up and had to be discarded, whereupon men’s eyelashes froze together and direction- keeping became very difficult. It was a mercy that the men were being led by a first-class mountaineer who could keep his head. Longland had wisely decided against returning by the route of ascent, up the evil, sloping, steep slabs of the North Face. On most of this ground a slip is likely to be fatal, for there are no anchorages. The best way was to traverse eastwards to the head of the North Arete, and descend the whole length, via the old Camp VI of 1924, to Camps V and IV. The difficulty was to find it in the storm; and for nearly two hours Longland shepherded his men slowly and carefully downwards, never quite certain that he had not traversed too far and was approaching the edge of the tremendous precipice which falls to the East Rongbuk glacier. Every hundred yards or so he had to count the men, for there was real danger that straggling might begin and that one or two, more tired than the rest and unable any longer to face the torture of the wind, might sit down and be quickly frozen to death.
Passing the old Camp VI they stopped for a moment and recovered a folding lantern and an electric lever-torch, which worked at the first pressure. Then they staggered on downwards, over little cliffs, frozen scree, and treacherous snow, till at last Camp V came into view. Two of the most exhausted were left here in Birnie’s care for the night, and Longland and the remainder, summoning their last reserves of strength, contrived to reach the North Col and the ministrations of Crawford and McLean, who had come then in support. Not one man was badly frost-bitten or permanently incapacitated. The day’s work had been most efficiently done. I regard it as a model of good mountaineering.
The storm died down in the evening, and while Smythe and Shipton went up to Camp V on the morning of the 30th, Wyn Harris and Wager set off from Camp VI to deliver the first assault. A whole week had been lost owing to the gales; now there was a clear warning in the sky that the monsoon was at work. A ten-mile-an-hour wind was blowing at 5.40 a.m., and it was not unreasonably cold; but Wyn Harris and Wager had spent an uncomfortable night on their inadequate little ledge, had eaten little, and were suffering from thirst. They found that heavy panting at this altitude resulted in a rapid loss of body heat, which compelled them to move as quickly as possible till the sun rose, when Wager pulled off his boots and rubbed his feet.
At about 200 yards east of the first step and 60 feet below the crest of the North-east Arete, Wyn Harris found an axe lying free on smooth, gently-sloping slabs. It looked quite new, the wood of the haft unstained and the steel head polished. Yet that axe must have lain more or less in that position for nine years. It could only have been carried by Mallory or Irvine, for no other party had passed that way. Presumably it marked the scene of a fatal accident, for it is highly improbable that any climber would voluntarily abandon his axe on the mountain. Whether the accident occurred during the ascent or descent will perhaps always remain matter for conjecture. Odell remains convinced that he saw both Mallory and Irvine on a snow-slope near the foot of the second step, much farther along, and Mallory actually on the top of the second step itself. Our party does not think that the latter could be climbed during the five minutes that the vision lasted before becoming obscured by mist. Moreover, Smythe and Shipton on this day of their ascent to Camp VI thought they saw figures (Wyn Harris and Wager) on the second step, until they realized that they had been deceived by small protruding rocks. Yet Odell may be right; he tells me that he was able even to distinguish the one climber from the other, by his climbing gait. Perhaps we shall never know, unless on some future occasion a trace is found on or near the arete, or even on the summit—an oxygen cylinder, maybe.
A dual objective is necessarily a handicap to speed. Wyn Harris and Wager had first to examine the second step, to climb it if they could, and proceed thence along the crest of the arete to the final pyramid. If this route proved impossible they would follow Norton’s route and traverse along below the ‘black bands’ formed by the strata of the first and second steps, cross the great couloir (gully) which descends from the north-east foot of the final pyramid, and attempt to climb the latter on its northern face.
Turning the first step was easy, but from there they at once saw that a frontal attack on the second would almost certainly fail. It rose almost 200 feet from the arete, smooth and narrow; in shape something like the curved bow of a battle-cruiser. But beyond it, and easily reached by a horizontal traverse, appeared a promising little gully, which might afford a means of turning the step and reaching the arete farther on. This was the apparently obvious line of least resistance, and the traverse was accordingly made. As they passed below the black bands, the climbers saw that they could not reach even the foot of the second step by direct ascent up the face. They carried on, only to find that the gully was a fraud, a mere shallow scoop in the face, thinning out against the pitiless vertical slabs above.
Much time had already been taken up by this bit of exploration. There was now nothing for it but to continue the traverse into the great couloir. Edging their way along small, downward shelving ledges, where there were no hand-holds and no belays and where safety depended on an erect posture and the friction of the boot-nails, they slowly approached the couloir. By now they were roped together; not because one man could hold another on such ground— if one man slipped both would fall to the main Rongbuk glacier, 9,000 feet below—but because roping up seems to afford some moral support in situations of difficulty. They were at 28,000 feet.
To cross the couloir involved some 50 feet of very nasty going. Snow does not melt and re-freeze at these altitudes. It is dry and of the consistency of castor sugar, giving no support to the feet. Indeed, it cascades off the rocks at a touch. Only at a few places, where it has been subjected to severe wind-pressure, does it attain any degree of hardness or cohesion. The men had to scrape it off the slabs with their axes when it was shallow enough. In the couloir they had to face the risk of stepping across boldly, trusting that the foot would pass through the snow to find a lodgement on the sloping slab below. It was a sensational passage.
The rock-wall on the farther side was possibly even steeper than the one just left behind. Traversing upwards very slowly to a point some 150 feet beyond the couloir, they reached a slab on the edge of a tiny, snow-filled gully. Wyn Harris tried his luck and sank deeply into the snow, recovering position with difficulty. It was time to review the position—12.30 p.m. They had been at work for nearly seven hours, and though not completely exhausted were very tired. They needed, at a conservative estimate, four hours more to ascend the last 1,000 feet; possibly more, in view of their fatigue and of the difficult and dangerous character of the going—especially the next 200 feet or so. Wager thought he might be able to continue for about another hour, Wyn Harris perhaps more. They must leave a margin, both of time and of strength, to allow of a return to Camp V, for Smythe and Shipton would now be at Camp VI, and the tent there only held two men. Lastly, it was just possible that a final examination of the second step would reveal some means of climbing or of turning it.
The upshot was a wise decision to turn back. After the exertions of their reconnaissance, and with the slabs in their snow-covered condition, the party would almost certainly have failed to reach the summit and might well have been benighted on their return. Traversing back by a slightly lower route, they made one more attempt to reach the arete near the second step, but found themselves too exhausted to pursue it. They now made slowly towards Camp VI and, while Wyn Harris retrieved the derelict axe, leaving his own in its place, Wager dragged himself up to the arete east of the first step. He is the only man who has done so, to look down the colossal, icebound southern face.
They told their story to Smythe and Shipton and descended to Camp V the same evening, and to the North Col next day, arriving completely exhausted. On the way down, just below Camp V, Wyn Harris had a narrow escape while attempting to glissade down a small snow-slope. He got out of control and only just saved himself, by means of his axe, from a fall down the eastern face.
Smythe and Shipton were meanwhile imprisoned in their little tent by another gale and a heavy fall of snow, which plastered the dangerous slabs and really destroyed all reasonable hope of a successful ascent. But they set out at 7.30 a.m. on the 1st June—the cold made an earlier start impossible—and tried to make the best of things. Shipton, who had had practically no sleep for two nights and who was suffering from indigestion, found himself unable to go on beyond a point a little to the west of the first step. He was obeying the law that there must be no false heroism on Everest. Each climber must closely watch his own condition and turn while he still had strength to get down by himself. To carry on till he dropped would only involve his companion as well as himself in disaster. He therefore decided to regain Camp VI, and Smythe, having satisfied himself that he could do so, went on alone. The slabs were in very bad condition owing to the fresh snow, but there was now no need to waste time in examining the second step and he made good progress along Norton’s traverse, crossed the couloir, and at 10 a.m. was at exactly the same place as Wyn Harris and Wager had reached on the 30th May. Norton, by the way, after study of the photograph and discussion, is of opinion that this is his own highest point of 1924. The height is probably just over 28,100 feet.
It will be realized that Smythe had time in hand and was thus in a more favourable position than Wyn Harris and Wager had been. Moreover, he was going well and had a good reserve of strength. But the rocks ahead, treacherously dangerous as they had been on the 30th May, when powdered with snow, were now thickly covered and literally impossible to negotiate. Any attempt to meddle with them could only result in a slip; and one slip on this portion of the face means certain death. As it was, Smythe had only retained his position on one of two slabs by inserting the pick of his axe into small cracks. In fact, the limit of reasonable climbing had been passed, and there was nothing for it but to retreat.
Smythe, in his turn, followed a lower and easier traverse on his way back, and then rejoined Ship ton at Camp VI. The latter then decided, ill as he was, to make for Camp V. His descent was grievously imperilled by appalling weather, which appeared as usual out of the blue; and he was very nearly lost. I incline to the opinion that on this treacherous upper face of Everest, where there may be bright sunshine one moment and a raging blizzard the next, men should not move singly except in the last resort. It may become necessary on occasion, in pushing home the final assault, but everything possible should be done to avoid it. One vital need is to have greater comfort and more accommodation at Camp VI. The misery of two men enclosed in a tiny tent, seven feet by four, perched insecurely on a sloping ledge so narrow that one third of the floor projects into space, may be better imagined than described. One difficulty is that the North Face is so sadly deficient in ledges of any kind.
Smythe settled down for his third night at Camp VI, this time alone. He contrived to sleep soundly for thirteen hours, oblivious of a gale and of the fact that.fine snow was drifting in through a small hole which had been accidentally burnt in the side of the tent by the flame of a ‘Tommy Cooker’. Next day he set himself to make the descent of 4,400 feet to the North Col, and accomplished it successfully, through a storm which nearly blew him off the mountain.
The attacks had failed, and as it turned out they were the only attacks that we were to be permitted to make. The first thing was to get the whole party down to the Base Camp for a rest. The continuation of the westerly storms, pari passu with the advance of the monsoon, gave some small cause for hope that a bright interval might yet occur, during which the campaign might be renewed. But the mountain was already ominously white, and the number of climbers who had shown themselves capable of going high was small. Of them, too, some had dilated hearts; while everyone had obviously lost weight and condition during the past few weeks.
It would be unprofitable to describe in detail the operations that followed. The rest at the Base Camp was very welcome, and then Greene passed Smythe, Shipton, Wyn Harris, Longland, Crawford, Brocklebank, himself, and me as fit to take part in another attempt. Thompson would come this time with the wireless. The weather showed little sign of improvement, but it seemed to be a case of now or never. Local opinion stated very clearly that, once the monsoon really sets in, Everest remains a snow peak till the autumn. This was corroborated by advice from Alipore.
The return up the glacier was begun on the 11 th June, and Camp III was again in full occupation by the 15th June. Crawford and Brocklebank went on ahead to examine the slope of the North Col. They found the fixed ropes buried deep under snow. An avalanche had come down over the ice-wall. Only half the ladder rope could be seen. Any attempt to ascend in these conditions was utterly unjustifiable. We waited some days. The mornings were usually fine, and the eye of faith seemed to discern some slight diminution of the snow high up on the mountain. But snow fell every evening and night, accompanied by wind. During the hours of darkness one could hear the rumble and thunder of heavy avalanches falling from the northeast shoulder. We visited the Rapiu La, the col east of the shoulder, and climbed the unnamed peak above it, to be rewarded by an unforgettable view of the south face and ridge of Everest, of Makalu and Chomolonzo, and even of distant Kangchenjunga.
But it was soon clear that to remain on was a waste of time. Even had the mountain got into condition again, I doubt if we could have made an effective assault, for several of the party had by no means recovered from their great exertions during May.
The logic of facts could not be ignored. We returned to the Base Camp. The position was explained by wireless and cable to the Mount Everest Committee, which wisely decided to recall the expedition; and we left for the return march on the 2nd July, fairly and squarely beaten by the weather conditions of an abnormal year.
A few words may be permitted on the lessons learnt, for the experience of each successive expedition is of value to its successors.
(1) The best period for attempting the mountain is almost certainly between the 7th May and the 15th June. Once a really heavy snow-fall has occurred on the North Face—this is not likely to happen before the monsoon—the season is over. Snow hardly melts at all above 27,000 feet, and the only agents of its removal from the North Face are sublimation and the north-west wind. Neither of these are in operation during the monsoon. Therefore, snow will remain till the late autumn, when the monsoon weakens and the north-west wind reasserts itself. By that time the days are too short, and the cold too severe, for high-altitude climbing.
(2) Oxygen was not used by the climbers this year, though it saved life in a pneumonia case and also saved a frost-bitten porter’s hands. It is worth while to try to devise an even lighter pattern than ours, with a view to its possible use on the difficult section near the final pyramid. This might tide the climbers over the most exhausting period of their effort and conserve their energy for the last lap. But I think it is very important that they should have acclimatized themselves as far as possible, by unaided ascent, to a height of at least 27,000 feet. Any break-down of the apparatus should then produce no dangerous effects.
(3) As to the best route to the summit, the opinion formed this year is that Norton’s traverse offers the best chances of success. If only the second step could be climbed or turned, the arete beyond it looks fairly easy, and by this way one would avoid the terrible slabs of the couloir walls. But Wyn Harris and Wager would not have turned away from anything that seemed at all possible. The inference is that it is a waste of time to try the second step again. Smythe has a theory that the North Face and the couloir might be traversed at about the level of Camp V, and the ascent completed straight up the North Face. It may be so, but careful examination with the telescope from the Base Camp left me unconvinced.
(4) Improvements in equipment can still be made, especially in the matter of high-altitude tents and of boots.
(5) Rations require further study. It is a most difficult subject, for men’s tastes vary and the higher they go the more exacting they become. One result of the careful acclimatization of 1933 was the capacity to eat solid foods up to and even beyond the North Col.
(6) Some observers are inclined to think that we overdid the acclimatization this time,, with the result that deterioration overbalanced it. Generalizations are usually misleading. It can be claimed that every member of the party save one (his gastric ulcer has nothing to do with the subject, and before that developed he was one of the fittest) reached the North Col, most of them feeling that altitude but little. It was the delay there, due to weather, that allowed deterioration to get a hold. Could the assaults have been delivered between the 15th and 25th May, and had the North Face remained clear during that time, I believe we should have had a very different story to tell. At all events it is admitted that the party returned home in remarkably good health.
(7) The selection of a party is a matter of extreme difficulty, for no known test reveals all the data required. We are now aware that Everest has in its upper reaches a system of defences which would be considered exceptionally severe, even in the Alps. I am pretty sure of one thing: every member of the climbing parties should have a long record of guideless mountaineering. To be able to point to a good list of peaks climbed in the company of guides is not sufficient. He must be able to lead himself, to negotiate safely the treacherous, outward-sloping, smooth slabs of the North Face. Years of practice are necessary to give the unconscious, balanced adaptation to angle, which will enable a man to move with economy of effort at high altitudes; and this economy is essential if the course is to be run to its end. Fortunately we have in England a strong school of young climbers who fend for themselves, but hard times are making it increasingly difficult for them to obtain needed experience on the great peaks of Switzerland.
There are other problems; men are collected from many professions and callings, differing widely from one another in temperament and outlook. They have to live for months at close quarters with each other, and to endure a strain such as I think no other kind of expedition imposes. Small wonder that, at times, the exercise of self-control is too heavy a burden.
However carefully chosen, no party can be immune to mischance, and it will be lucky if, when the time comes to ‘go over the top’, it can muster six men ready for the final effort.
Mallory once put the odds against the success of a given party in a given year at fifty to one; yet he was not by nature a pessimist. When all is said and done, we need the best organization, the best party, and above all the best luck. When we can synchronize four consecutive days of fine weather with the perfect simultaneous acclimatization and training of six men, perhaps two climbers will reach the summit.