[Reprinted by kind permission of the editor, o.a.z.]
Our helicopter circles over the wide snow-fields of the Konaban glacier. The altimeter points to 6,000 m. This is a great height for a 'copter,—but for our purpose it is still too low. If only we could reach the place of which our comrades spoke to us the last time. Although the light is bright, we strain our eyes in vain for the sight of tracks or a tent,—or even a person. Even two further search-flights bring no solution to the tragedy that befell our friends.
With high hopes and confidence we left Vienna on 9 August 1969 in three vehicles. The Minister Dr. Mock and other great personalities bade us farewell—a proof of appreciation of our work and of our guide Richard Hoyer.
We journeyed four weeks through the dust of the upper Asian deserts and the humidity of the plains of the Ganges, and reached Kathmandu by the end of the monsoon. Strain and sacrifice left their marks on people and vehicles alike but, perhaps because of this, the Orient was for us a great experience.
At Kathmandu, we met Kurt Ring and Ossi Krammer as per appointment. They came by plane ; and we camped in the garden of a hospitable Nepalese, thus saving ourselves an expensive hotel bill.
The liaison officer G. K. Shrestha, whom the Nepalese Government gave us, suited us well, and we soon became friends. He was of special help in the days of the catastrophy. The cook too filled his place well and delighted us with his abilities. But the physical condition of the other four Sherpas was—compared to us Europeans—very poor, and by and by they had to drop out due to cough or attacks of weakness. In the end, only Ninda remained. He was the only capable companion.
In Pokhara we distributed the loads, and on a rainy afternoon our caravan of 100 persons left. Each of us carried loads too ;not only to save money, but also to condition ourselves. We left comforts and civilization behind us, passed through rice-fields and towards the racing swirling waters of the Kali Gandaki and later on the Myangdi Khola. These rivers sprang from our ultimate goal which was as yet hidden behind a grey wall of clouds. Then came the day when on a clear and sparkling morning we espied the mountains—a silver jagged line against a deep blue sky ; banana plants and outsized maize stalks stood before them. On the 13th day after leaving Pokhara we reached our Base Camp. In streaming; rain our liaison officer attended to payments and soon we were alone.
The ‘V' shaped Konaban gorge, which seemed to present itself as a giant gate, hid our first disappointment. The end of the gorge was locked by a 200 m. high rock wall, over which the ice of the glacier hung threateningly. The end of the glacier burst into a giant waterfall which disappeared without a sound into the deep snow. Gurt Ring; and Kurt Reha attempted a climb at an apparently safe place but had to abandon the attempt after one day, realizing that it was unsuitable as a route for the expedition.
In the meantime Richard, myself and Sherpa Ang investigated the ridge which started at a height of about 6,300 m. and ran in a southeasterly direction, and whose steep flanks plunged close to our Base Camp. Over grassy slopes we reached the comparatively easy edge, and while Ang erected the first tent for our next camp at about 5,100 m., Richard and myself surmounted the lowest rupture of the ridge which had by now become steep and difficult. Being convinced of its suitability we descended to our Base Camp.
The discussions with our other comrades who had also just returned, did not take much time. Since an ice barrier, extending from the ridge summit to the Konaban gorge, blocked the glacier basin behind it, we decided to go over the barrier summit, although we were strongly dissuaded by a Japanese party whom we had met in the last village and whose ropes we found reaching almost up to Camp I. The following weeks were spent in making the ridge secure and climbable. The constant up and down climbing was favourable to our acclimatization and none of us had difficulties in this respect. We also slowly accustomed ourselves to the slight height of the Base Camp. In order to reach Camp I, we had to overcome an altitude of 1,600 m. but the lovely autumn weather helped us to recuperate from the strenuous work. The weather was funnily enough constant. During October we had almost daily quite a lot of snowfall in the afternoons, but next morning the sun would appear and melt the ice and dry our equipment. However, the daily climb was made more arduous by our tracks being obliterated by the fallen snow, and the fixed ropes were somehow not enough help. Between Camps I and II (5,800 m.) there was no suitable place and this distance was the utmost we could manage in one day. On 20 October nearly all of us were at Camp II, Kurt Ring made the sacrifice of taking back the seriously ill Ang and another Sherpa. Richard and Peter Lavicka climbed on this day over the barrier summit and found an ideal place for Camp III, at a height of about 6,200 m. Peter Nemec, Kurt Reha and myself followed the next day, and for the first time we had a glimpse of our goal. The path lay open before our eyes, although the distance appeared still great. Compared to what we had overcome, this appeared as an easy way. This closed our first phase and we all returned to the Base Camp for a much-needed rest and to recuperate for the assault.
In three groups we ascended during the next three days. In order to make the load transport over the difficult ridge more rational, we erected a depot half-way between the two camps and transported the loads on two rope-shafts which met there and then returned to their respective starting points. At this depot I saw Richard on 1 November for the last time. Since Sherpa Tenzing was not quite up to the mark he was exchanged for Ninda who, up till now, had been working with me. On the following day I went to the depot with provisions and took Sherpa Benzin along who had by now quite recuperated. After leaving these at the depot I immediately returned to the Base Camp to carry out fresh orders. I had given the radio to Richard the previous day. During this time the first group was already working towards Camp IV. Shortly after my return to Base Camp, I received the news that another Sherpa had fallen ill. Lavicka and Reha were bringing him down to Camp I and I was to go up to fetch him from there and take him to the Base Camp.
Our doctor, who had only just arrived, was not yet acclimatized and therefore I had to go up to Camp I again the next morning. The mail which the doctor had brought I handed over at Camp I to my comrades and this was—unconsciously—the last service I could do for them. After spending the night together we parted, and many a time I turned around to have yet another look at them as they were working up over the ridge.
This was not due to any sinister foreboding; no, the reason was quite realistic. Having undergone twice the strain of transporting ill people to the Base Camp, I was almost sure to be excluded from the summit assault party. Richard had always insisted that everyone should have an equal chance to stand on the summit. After Kurt Ring had made the first sacrifice of transporting an ill person to a lower camp I had declared that if another such necessity should arise I was available for this. Now that this had happened and I had to remain behind, I envied my friends for their chance at the summit. Daily we followed their progress on the radio. On 7 November everyone had reached Camp IV and, after a steep climb, they reached Camp V (6,900 m.) two days later.
A sharp ridge runs from this camp to the summit and—as if as a reward-the ridge widened just at the right place. Over the radio I heard Richard's voice at night, full of hope and confidence: 'The next day everyone would stand on the summit and thus the usual morning talk over the radio would not take place, unless the weather turned bad.'
This remained the last news I ever received. It meant that they had started on the assault.
In the early forenoon the weather deteriorated and snow fell at Base Camp. Though this lasted only one day, our anxiety mounted with every hour. The radio remained silent and we had no clue as to what had befallen them. All our exertions to find out anything were in vain—a fruitless attempt to reach at least Camp III with another Sherpa, as also three flights in different machines.
The disaster probably occurred when they had their goal before them and when they least counted with a mishap. 'Six Smiling Facesthus they remain impregnated in my memory.
In bitterness I mull over the questions of 'how' and 'when' and ' why'. One continues to climb, but will the sun ever again shine so brilliantly?