MAJOR M. W. H. DAY, R.E.
THE ARMY Mountaineering Association (A.M.A.) had been waiting for five years to have a go at Everest. An application was made to the Government of Nepal soon after our ascent of Annapurna I
in 1970 and originally understood to have been granted for an attempt in the spring of 1975. Somehow the Japanese ladies got that slot and even the British SW. Face Expedition found a vacancy which they wonderfully exploited.
The members had a lot of Himalayan peaks behind them amongst which our leader's record was unsurpassed. Col. Tony Streather's ascent of Tirich Mir (I960),
and his legendary parts played on K2 and Haramosh were known to all of us. Maj. Jon Fleming had led A.M.A. expeditions to Tirich Mir (1969),4 Lahul (1973),5 and Nuptse (1976)6. If my great friends Maj. Gerry Owens and Capt. R. A. Summerton had survived last year, there could have been one man with a grand slam of all the A.M.A.'s Himalayan expeditions. As it was Capt. Keelan and I were the only representatives of the Annapurna I expedition. Our Medical Officer Lt-Col. Dick Hardie and Capt. Pat Gunson had climbed the difficult East ridge Indrasan
in 1973. Cpl 'Bronco' Lane, who was to play a big part this year, had been on that trip with two more members of the team. The Nuptse party was of course very strongly represented. Two powerful newcomers were Capt. Phillip Neame and Lt. John Scott who had climbed" Lamjung Himal
in 1974. Flying Officer Geordie Armstrong and Capt. M. Bridges had been on the ill-fated R.A.F.M.A. expedition to Dhaulagiri IV at the same time. The team altogether numbered 35 climbers.
'This was of course a large party but there was a big difference in approach to that of any previous Everest team. Instead of using hired hands to do most of the carrying on the mountain we did that ourselves. We hired only 10 high-altitude Sherpas to work above Advance Base in the Western Cwm and a further 15 ice-fall porters only 8 of whom actually carried above the lip of the ice-fall. Our support party of 11 included mail runners and signallers whose high point was Base Camp. Including the liaison officer and Sirdar Sonam Girmi (from our Annapurna and Nuptse expeditions) the expedition numbered a total of 73.
We walked-in in three main parties almost as soon as we arrived in Kathmandu and took three weeks to Pheriche which was the acclimatization base for some fine alpine style climbing, By 6 April the whole team had reached Base Camp.
The ice-fall party of eight strong climbers had occupied Base Camp on 24 March and a camp was placed on 3 April on the block of ice that had been the British SW. Face team's Camp 1 only a few months before. However it soon became clear that the ice-fall was by no means over. Comparing photographs of ours with those taken in the winter, that camp site had descended at least 70 metres. It took another four days' work to make a route through to the Western Cwm. On April 6 my party moved up and sited our Camp 1, reaching Advance Base Camp in six hours next day. There was a raised block of ice marked by flags still standing from the winter expedition. The SW. Face was black, blown quite clean of any snow. There were none of the heavy avalanches into the cwm from Nuptse and the west flank of Everest that had been reported earlier, either.
The crevasses were thinly covered as a consequence of so little snow, making the cwm a deceptively dangerous place. On 10 April Capt. Terry Thompson inadvertently strayed on to a concealed crevasse that divided Advance Base into two areas and fell to his death. This was a great shock to us all and set us back both mentally and materially. In spite of some fine helicopter flying by Commandant Pierre Le Flock we were unable to recover the body to Kathmandu and Terry was buried near the lip of the ice-fall.
The lowest section of the Lhotse Face proved satisfyingly steep and was well led by Geordie Armstrong. By now we were down to 8 Sherpas and about 20 climbing members. It is pleasant to be able to record that no less than 17 members and 6 Sherpas carried loads to the South Col. Some oxygen practice was made on this section as very few had used the apparatus. Altogether we had mustered 14 sets of the sophisticated diluter-demand type and 10 sets of the well proven const ant-flow model made by L'Appareil Medical de Precision de Paris. Oxygen was used at night at Camp 4 at the rate of 1\2 litre per minute and proved most beneficial. Camp 4 was beneath an ice-cliff to which clung the tattered remains of the Japanese Ladies tents pitched the previous spring, at a height of 7500 metres.
Progress slowed down about this time. Camp 3 was not occupied until 24 April although an easy l 1\2 hours' walk to the head of the cwm from Advance Base. Camp 4 was not occupied for a further five days. There were discussions with the Sherpas as to whether it was possible to carry straight through from Advance Base to Camp 4 and back in a day. A number of us did on more than one occasion but it is probably fair to say that it would be too hard to repeat frequently.
The great couloir separating the ice-fall from the Geneva Spur was now traversed and the Yellow Band attacked at its leftward and lowest extremity. We were not clear at the time how this compared with previous parties. We believed that Hunt's party in 1953 had continued up the Lhotse ice-fall and traversed in above the Yellow Band. The line of fixed rope left by the previous party was later found to run absolutely straight from the place where the Sherpa Traverse ended at the crestline of the Geneva Spur to Camp 4. There was no rope left showing over the Band. Presumably it had chafed against the rock and fallen down.
Four days' work fixing rope across the couloir and through the Yellow Band was done by Hardie, Scott, Chris Johnson and Gunson. Then Geordie Armstrong and I took over with Phil Neame and Steve Johnson. It was cold and windy on the face but Geordie bombed up from Advance Base in 3f hours with a full load of kit. Next day we picked up the line of Japanese ropes just as our own ran out and this pointed the way to the end of the Sherpa Traverse. Unless a climber had been there before, there is no way that the particular point of the crest could be found with any accuracy by an ascending party. It is quite clear that the Sherpa Traverse was discovered in descent. It was also clear that the Japanese ladies had some good route finders with them !
Having excavated the Japanese rope to within 20 metres of low crest on 4 May, we withdrew for the night. We left Camp 4 again next day at 7.30 a.m. and were on the South Col by 12.30 p. m. We found hundreds of cylinders, all of them empty of oxyzen. Later on I was to find quite* a number that were usable and was particularly pleased that the adaptors purchased from A.M.P. enabled us to use them all. Geordie and I arrived back in Advance Base in time for supper at 5.30 p.m.
A week later we were back on the col as part of Tony Streather's summit plan. There were to be four 'official' summiters (Brono Lane and Brummy Stokes; John Scott and Pat Gunson). Camp 6 would be carried up by four climbers (Armstrong, Fleming, Hardie and myself) and the second pair would be supported by Steve Johnson and Phillip Neame. The support climbers could then have a go themselves as circumstances permitted. The logistics were finally calculated and there was 11 of everything with a small reserve.
Or course, this was wishful thinking; Everest does not lower her guard for four days on end just when you want it. Camp 6 went in at 8400 m on top of the tent left by the Americans in 1963 (empty cylinders nearby were date-stamped 1962). Bronco and Brummy led the route, being comparatively lightly laden. The top section of the couloir leading to the SE. ridge was hard, consisting of steep, deep and insecure snow. There was no security offered by the snow. The exit on to the rotten rocks was nasty as was the next 20 metres or so. It was a good lead to have made. Geordie and I caught them up on the main ridge where the first Swiss expedition had placed a camp in 1952, The going by now was definitely unpleasant. Unconsolidated powder snow lay over rubble and no footstep was firm. Brummy and Bronco both seemed to move in a daze, often making separate tracks although roped together. Visibility by now was very poor; no longer could we see the beautiful pyramid of Makalu nor Lhotse behind us. The style of the Swiss ascent of Lhotse in 1956 was years ahead of its time. Just two men on their own, climbing the great cleft on sight, 800 metres to the summit-a great achievement yet to be fully appreciated.
The ridge line by now was corniced and conditions made it difficult to tell where the snow ended and cloud began-one of us could easily have dropped into Tibet while digging out a platform for the tent. I had found the edge of a blue tent showing through an otherwise uniform slope of snow angled at about 40°. Bronco and Brummy had hoped we would carry up to the top of the South shoulder at 8500 metres but I pointed out that the third rope was going very slowly, it was already 2 p.m.' and we had to dig their platform in and get down before dark in obviously worsening weather. I began excavating the snow from above the blue tent and began uncovering yellow oxygen cylinders of familiar pattern, the wire-wound 920-litre cylinder sold by A.M.P. They were date-stamped 1962-so this must have been the American top camp in 1963. My altimeter read that we were 400 metres above the South Col which was almost half the difference (8848 m - 800 m) to the top so it would have to do. As it was, the second support pair were not back on the col till about 5 p.m., not long before dark. The doctor had been concerned about his companion and had closely supervised the descent especially down the nasty broken rocks leading to the top of the couloir.
The loads had been planned in great detail. Brummy and Bronco had packed and were carrying their own rations and personal equipment including the cylinders of oxygen consumed on the way. Each of us needed an oxygen cylinder (5 kg), oxygen apparatus (1 1\2 kg) and the pack and frame to carry everything (2 kg). We each carried a pay load of 10 kg. In my diary I record that I carried the assault tent (4 1\2 kg) and a cylinder of oxygen (5 kg). So none of our packs weighed less than 19 kg or 42 lb. One cylinder was substituted by a sphere at extra high pressure (4500 p.s.i. compared to 3300 p.s.i. in the cylinders) which saved 1 kg. Bronco chose to use this at the bivouac site rather than take it on the summit bid as he had not used one before and did not want to be let down. There was an extra rope for the Hillary step and our lightest radio (0.8 Kg.). We left them with 6 full tanks of oxygen. In theory they needed 1 1\2 each for the summit and one between them for the night. This left two spare which would be left there for subsequent parties. They also had 24 hours' reserve of rations and fuel.
I don't remember when the storm began but it was still blowing gale force in the morning. On the col it was exhilarating knowing that the tunnel tents were soundly pitched exactly head to wind, feeling snug in a warm bag, sleeping oxygen working well.
Breakfast was a well practised routine-Geordie lay still while I promised not to blow myself up again (I had foolishly over- heated a butane cylinder to vapourize the gas three weeks before and it had exploded cutting my hands badly). Then the realization. Camp 6, exposed on the ridge, a metre from Tibet. The first radio call was depressing. The assault tent, fine at Advance Base, was not shaping well. Spindrift had filled it through an air event now clamped shut with a clip from the oxygen set. Poor night's sleep, morale low. I relayed this to Tony at Advance Base using another radio (that weighed 1.6 kg hence not taken to camp 6). He had already appreciated the significance of the delay and wanted the first support party down (leaving the second assault, group on the col-John Scott and Pat Gunson supported by Steve Johnson and Phillip Neame). I remember the disappointment-producing objections (there would be no radio link with the South Col unmanned during 'Summit day'-the second partly being en route to Camp 6). But as the morning wore on the radio messages from Brummy and Bronco cheered up--they had dug themselves out, the wind was dropping, they hoped to met it next day. So eventually we left the col at 2.45 p.m. arriving at ABC at 6 p.m. in time for supper. Jon Fleming stayed the night at Camp 4. He had worn himself out with many unselfish carries on the Lhotse Face and was now in need of a good rest.
Throughout the following day, Sunday 16 May, tension mounted. After an early morning radio schedule with Phillip Neame on the south Col had established that the summit pair had set off at 6.30 a.m., no further news was reported until the second support pair returned to the col in the evening, having carried loads for the second assault pair to Camp 6. No part of the route above the south Col could be seen from Advance Base in the Western Cwm. The weather was indifferent all day with heavy snow failing in the cwm.
Brono and Brummy made good progress up wind-hardened never to the South Shoulder where they once again met unconsolidated snow. Their account from now on becomes a little hazy. Several hours later they rounded the rock pinnacle on the In south summit. I had passed on Doug Scott's briefing on their bivouac10 paces towards Everest from the South Summit rock slightly right. They found a cylinder (there should have been two-both empty). If Mick Burke had made it back to that site on 26 September 1975, there was no sign of him now. Photographs they took from there looking upwards show the whole route to the main summit-the Hillary Step having undergone yet another metamorphosis being part rock and part snow with no sign of a chimney. At its foot lay an 8-metre length of rope, attached to a deadman belay. Pete Boardman had warned me not to rely on this line as it was poorly anchored. So to the summit where they must have showed great strength of will. For not only did Bronco take photographs with the mandatory pennants but Brummy read my altimeter and took his heartbeat. The altimeter indicated an increment of 915 metres above the South Col (conventional survey computations indicate 848 metres). Brummy's heartbeat was 98 which sounds impressively low.
The descent must have been a nightmare. At dusk they found the part-filled oxygen cylinders dumped on the South Shoulder that morning and scraped a little shelter in the lee of the ridge only for the wind to change into their faces. Changing cylinders proved too great an effort so they shared the last one between them a few breaths each. Somehow they survived the night.
Meanwhile all camps were again manned and all communications opened. John Scott and Pat Gunson radioed to Phillip Neame and Steve Johnson on the col that there was no sign of the summit pair and this was passed down to us at Advance Base. Regular schedules next morning contained some depressing news and by 9 a.m. I and I suspect many others, feared the worst. The second pair set off prepared for the summit but also to act as a rescue party. At 10 a.m. we heard on the radio that John Scott and Pat had found them frostbitten and half-dead struggling out of their bivouac site. Dosing them with oxygen they began their laboured descent that was to last five days for one of them.
We were overjoyed. Tony had tears in his eyes and I think most of us and lumps in our throats. 'That which was lost is found.'
It took the full team to get them down but we were by no means spent. All those who had worked above the col needed a rest probably down at Base Camp. It would have taken almost two weeks to mount another assault. Many of the members had exhausted themselves carrying on the Lhotse Face, a debilitating activity and perhaps could not be expected to repeat the feat. No one was surprised when Tony announced the inevitable, that the mountain was to be evacuated.
So it was over. The 11th ascent, the 52nd and the 53rd climbers to reach the summit. Already 2 more have repeated the achievement and many more are preparing to try. What had we achieved ? As a club we had together done far more of the work of lifting camps up the mountain than has been the case before. Seventeen members and eight Sherpas carried to the south Col. This reversed the traditional proportions, and members carried all the loads to Camp 6. But most of all we have learnt,to know ourselves a little better.
IT. J., Vol. XXX, 1970, p. 106.
H. J., Vol. XIV, 1950-51, p. 59.
II J., Vol. XIX, 1955-56, p. 33.
H. J., Vol. XXXIII, 1973-74, p. 134.
The summit of Everest at about 2 p.m. on 16th May 1976. The climber is Lane. No sign of the Chinese theodolite stand, last seen in September 1975.
II J., Vol. XXXIII, 1973-74, p. 42.