WE did not climb the South West Face of Everest, but inspite of this the expedition has not been a failure for us. Each one of us have the satisfaction of knowing that he has taken himself to his own personal limit—and even beyond.
Before we ever left England we knew that the odds were piled against us in a post-monsoon attempt on any route up Everest. Only one Himalayan peak of over 26,000 feet had been climbed, and two previous post-monsoon attempts on Everest by the South Col route had been beaten by the high winds. But the Autumn slot was the only one we could get for the next four years, and so we took the gamble and organised the expedition. Were we attempting the impossible? Perhaps, but then that, surely, is what climbing should be all about.
We started off with the challenge of raising funds and getting the expedition organised in a break-neck nine weeks. It was only with the sheer hard work of Kelvin Kent and Graham Tiso, and the tremendous co-operation of many firms that we were not only ready on time, but were also as well equipped as any expedition that has ever attempted Everest.
We flew out to Nepal by BOAC VC-10 on 22 August. All our gear had been airfreighted by BOAC three days before. After just one day in Kathmandu, we set out on our approach march to Everest----seventeen rainsoaked, leech-ridden days, for we were walking to Base Camp during the monsoon. We could not afford to lose a single fine day, for climbing Everest in the Autumn is a race against the winter winds and the cold.
On reaching Base Camp on 14 September, Dougal Haston and Hamish Maclnnes immediately started work on the Ice Fall and in five days, with the help of other members of the team, they succeeded in cracking it.
Photo Plates 1-4.
Having made a route through the Ice Fall, my first aim was to establish our Advanced Base Camp, in the Western Cwm at the foot of the Face, and then to run out the route as quickly as possible up to the site of Camp V at the foot of the Rock Band. At first everything went well, in spite of two heavy snow falls on 26 September and then on 6/7 october. Camp II (Advanced Base) was established by Nick Estcourt and Dave Bathgate, on the 1 October. They made the route up to Camp III (23,000 ft.) on the 2nd. Doug Scott and Mick Burke made the route to Camp IV on 10 October, and Hamish Maclnnes and Dougal Haston made the route from Camp IV (24,500 ft.) to Camp V (26,000 ft.) on the 14th.
The Face had a good covering of snow, and all the fixed ropes left by previous expeditions were covered. The climbing was not technically difficult, but the two snow falls had wasted about eight days, eating into the precious time we had between the end of the monsoon and the start of the high winter winds. It was not just a question of reaching the foot of the Rock Band, the point which has stopped the three previous attempts; it was also essential to ensure that there was enough oxygen cylinders, fixed rope and food at the top Camp, to sustain a serious assault on the Rock Band and the summit rocks of Everest. To do this, we needed a build-up on stocks of supplies at Camp V before we established our top Camp below the Rock Band. On 15 October, I moved up to Camp IV with four Sherpas, to start ferrying supplies up to Camp V. It was on 16 October that we had our first experience of the post monsoon winds. It was impossible to do anything in the face of them. The wind came down the Face like a torrent, sweeping spindrift and rocks in its wake. There was no question of trying to climb in these conditions. We could only wait for the wind to drop. In four days, we only succeeded in completing one carry to Camp V.
Nick Estcourt and Dave Bathgate relieved me on 23 November. They each made a carry on the 24th and 25th respectively, without using oxygen; but then, on the night of the 25th, the weather broke—their box was hit by a large rock at three o'clock in the morning, smashing the frame and tearing the walls. They had no choice but to retreat to Camp II. This left Graham Tiso in solitary possession of Camp III—our sole outpost on the Face. The storm only lasted four days, but it put us back several more. Camp I, which was occupied by eight of our Ice Fall Sherpas, was very nearly obliterated under twelve feet of snow. It was nearly as bad at Camp II, and a tribute to the manufacturers that the tents survived at all.
At the end of the storm Haston and Maclnnes were at Base Camp. The route through the Ice Fall was deteriorating, as crevasses opened up and serac towers swept the route. They had to improve the route before coming up.
As a result, it was only on 31 October that Mick Burke and Doug Scott were able to start back up the mountain. They reached the site of Camp IV on 1 November, to find two of the three boxes badly damaged by stone fall. After an exhausting time rebuilding the camp, they set out to establish Camp V on 3 November. It was now both windy and bitterly cold. Camp V was in a particularly bleak spot; shaded by an overhang, it only received about two hours of sunlight each day. On 5 November, Estcourt and Bathgate joined them at Camp V, and on the 6th, Scott and Estcourt started fixing ropes up towards Camp VI. Burke and Scott, now tired from their efforts in setting up two Camps, in appalling conditions, dropped back for a rest at Camp II.
Scott described what it was like living at Camp V.
"It is getting started in the morning that is the problem. You warm up your inner fur boots over the gas stove; you warm up your boots so that the warmth goes right through them. Then you warm up your neoprene boots, then the outer nylon over- boot; so that your outers, your rubbers, your boots, your inner boots and your socks—five layers—and when you get out of the tent the cold strikes through in ten minutes. How it does it, I don't know-but it does!"
Estcourt and Bathgate continued to work on the route to Camp VI in fast-deteriorating conditions, and on 7 November, Estcourt and the Sherpa Pertemba forced their way to a point just short of the potential site of Camp VI, in spite of the rising winds and the extreme cold. It was all they could do to get back along the fixed ropes against the wind. Estcourt's feet were frostbitten during their descent.
The Sherpa Ang Phurba and myself now replaced Estcourt and Bathgate. At this stage it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain our build-up of supplies on the Face, since the Sherpas, who had been doing a magnificent job ferrying supplies up to Camp V, were now beginning to tire. The Sherpas at Camp II were carrying loads straight through to Camp IV— a very long day indeed—but they could only manage to do this every other day. On the carry from Camp IV to V, most of our Sherpas had difficulty in making more than two successive carries before going back to Camp II for a rest, though there were one or two notable exceptions who completed 3 or even 4 carries in succession.
The aim of Ang Phurba and myself was to ferry sufficient supplies up to Camp VI, to enable Maclnnes and Haston to occupy the Camp and then start working on the Rock Band, supported by Burke and Scott at Camp V. Ang Phurba and I made two carries each, and by 14 November there were sufficient supplies at Camp VI for Haston and Maclnnes to move up.
On 14 November, Haston Maclnnes, Scott and Burke set out for Camp VI. Maclnnes was forced to turn back because his oxygen set froze up, but the other three forced their way up to the site of Camp VI, against an increasingly strong wind. Doug Scott described it.
"One gust of wind slammed into me, and literally lifted me up and dropped me five feet further down, and I'm quite a heavy bloke—fourteen stone, plus a pack, plus two bottles of oxygen."
Dougal Haston reached the site of Camp VI first. He was going well, with plenty in reserve. He describes what he discovered.
"Our whole plan was based on climbing the Rock Band by a gully I saw on the International Expedition in the Spring of 1971. In fact I had climbed two or three hundred feet of it and it was a snow gully. Now this snow was essential to our movements because we would have to climb the gully fairly fast—no more than a couple of days. When you are out in front on an expedition like this, it's like being at the top of a teetering pyramid of acrobats-with everybody getting tired.
"But now I am faced with a rock gully—no snow at all. It looked rather like Great Gully on Craig-y-Ysfa in North Wales —about 'Very Difficult' to 'Severe' standard and 800 or 1,000 feet high, demanding rock climbing techniques, with an oxygen pack on your back. A few days' work at least."
Dougal, still alone, and with the wind rising and, as he put it, 'a little bit of doubt in his mind', thought next of an alternative route—the so-called 'Escape-Route' onto the normal South Ridge route that Don Whillans discovered in 1971.
"I looked round the corner and there was just no way that anyone could have survived on it. Any normal human stuck in the middle of that slope would have simply been whipped off the Face.
"Doug and I looked for a sheltered spot where we could talk. The only way you could talk was to stick your lips right into the next person’s ear and shout. I think we both probably knew what was going on, but we must have stood there for a quarter of an hour and by this time our hands had gone—completely frozen from the wrists. And our feet were beginning to go. So we just looked at each other and said "Let's go back down".
They told me the news that night over the radio. They had made the only sensible decision possible. Everyone, Sherpas and climbers alike, had given their utmost. We had sufficient oxygen and rope up at Camps V and VI to make a serious summit bid, but in those winds, which rarely dropped below a hundred miles an hour over the top of Everest, there was nothing we could do. Regretfully, we started to clear the Face of gear.
Then, tragically, in the last moments of the expedition, Tony Tighe, an Australian who had been helping to run Base Camp, was killed in the Ice Fall while walking up to meet the rest of the team on their descent. It was an accident that could have happened, at any time during the expedition, to any one of us in the team. It was impossible to make a route through the Ice Fall which was completely free from objective danger, and it is a risk that anyone who wants to climb on Everest must take. I his, in no way, reduces our grief at losing a good friend.
There have been quite a few questions—whether any expedition is worth the £60,000 that this one cost or, for that matter, whether it is worth a man's life. All we, the members of the expedition, can answer is that it represented one of the most enthralling and exacting experiences of our mountaineering careers. To us, this made it all worthwhile.