A PERSONAL EVEREST

CHRIS BONINGTON



Saser Kangri II (7518 m.) Close up from Sakang glacier. (M. Oki)

Saser Kangri II (7518 m.) Close up from Sakang glacier. (M. Oki)



THEY'D REACHED THE summit, barely a hundred yards away and a few feet higher than me. I had to squeeze out my last bit of will power to join them. Push one foot in front of the next, pant hard to capture what little air and oxygen there was flowing into my mask. But had I enough left to get there? And then another careful, deliberate step, along the corniced snow-ridge to the top of the world.

A break in the cornice, and framed down to my right was the Northeast ridge, the route we had tried in 1982. Crazy ice-towers, fierce snow-flutings, a knife-edged ridge that went on and on. Friends of mine of the current British Everest Expedition were somewhere down there. Perhaps also were the bodies of Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker.

Another step, and the Northeast ridge was hidden by a crul of snow. This was where Pete Boardman had last seen Mick Burke in 1975. He and Pertemba were on their way down and Mick, cocky, aggressive, very funny, was going for the summit on his own. He never came back. My head was filled with thoughts of lost friends, of Nick Estcourt who forced the Rock Band and died on K2, of Dougal Haston who went to the summit with Doug Scott, and died skiing near his home in Leysin.

And then, suddenly I was there. Odd, Bjorn and Pertemba were beckoning to me, shouting, their voices muffled by oxygen masks. I crouched in a foetal position and just cried and cried in great gasping sobs - tears of exhaustion, tears of sorrow for so many friends, and yet tears of fulfilment for something I had so much needed to do, and had done with people who had come to mean a great deal to me.

It was difficult to believe that just six days earlier, Odd Elliasen, Bjorn Myrer-Lund and I were resting at Pheriche, 15,000 ft below-We had walked up to base camp on 16 April 1985, had a day's rest there and then, with Pertemba, who was also joining us in our summit bid, climbed the icefall.

This was to be the climax of an extremely happy and successful expedition. The previous year I had been invited to join the first ever Norwegian expedition, by a close friend, Arne Naess. The team was to consist of nine Norwegian climbers, myself and 28 Sherpas, whose Sirdar was Pertemba. He had been our Sirdar on the 1975 South West Face expedition and had now been to the summit of Everest on two occasions.

We established base camp on 14 March and, in spite of the fact that the icefall was particularly dangerous this spring, made fast progress into the Western Cwm and up the Lhotse Face. This was due to excellent weather and the hard work of our Sherpa team.. One of my jobs on the expedition was to advise on the logistics and supervise the flow of supplies up the mountain. To do this more effectively I took with me an Apple He desk top computer, powered by a solar panel up to Gamp 2. It all fitted into a compact alloy case weighing eight kilos and was invaluable in helping to keep stock of the flow of supplies up the mountain and at the same time for word processing my expedition reports and letters.

But my main aim in joining the expedition had been to realise a personal ambition to reach the top of Everest. I had helped Bjorn Myrer-Lund and two of our jSherpas, Sundare and Ang Rita, to reach the South Col and had then gone down for a rest at Pheriche. Now we were on our way back up for our own summit bid, as the second summit team. Just in the short time we had been away, there had been frightening changes in the icefall. An entire section of about a hundred yards had collapsed in a chaotic jumble of ice-blocks, mangling and twisting the reinforced alloy ladder bridges as if they had been made of paper. I prayed that this would be the last time I would ever have to climb it.

We had originally planned to have a day's rest at Camp 2 but the weather seemed perfect and that day the first summit team was moving up to the South Col for their bid. All three of us decided independently that we should move up to Camp 3 the following day to snatch what seemed a slot of fine weather.

It was 19 April. The first team was going for the summit that day and I was struggling up the fixed rope of the Lhotse Face on the way to Camp 3. Pertemba, who had only once during the expedition been above base camp, having spent the entire time on administration and purchase of local food, had disappeared ahead. Odd and Bjorn were pulling away from me. I couldn't help woniering what chance I had of getting to the top.

I had nearly reached the icy ledge on which nestled our third camp. A little figure was coming down the fixed rope from the Soulh Col. It had to be one of the summiters. Had they reached the top? I made it a private race to reach the camp first - one step pant, ,and then another.

'Have they made it?'

N"o. There was too much wind. They had turned back at the South Summit.

The climber arrived. It was Ralph Hoibakk, tired but philosophical. At 46 he was probably the strongest climber of the expedition. He lad broken trail for much of the way to the South Summit and had arrived there forty minutes in front of the others. At that stage, the wind was bearable. He thought of going for the summit alone but they had agreed they, should go together. By the time the others arrived the wind had increased to gale force blowing a banner of cloud and snow across the Tibetan side of the Southeast ridge.

And so they were defeated and were dropping back to rest and perhaps try again. The following day we moved up to the South Col. It was exciting seeing so many well known land marks drop below us; Pumori, that dominated base camp becoming little more than a hillock; Nuptse and the west shoulder of Everest coming level with us. But the South Col itself is a surprise. 7986 m high it is almost the size and as flat as a football pitch; the highest scrap yard in the world, the flat slatey rocks are littered with old oxygen bottles, the skeleton frames of tents and the tawdry junk of previous expeditions.

Our other two Sherpas, Dawa Nuru and Ang Lhakpa, neither of whom had been to the top before, came straight up from Camp 2 that day. I shared a tent with Pertemba. I could sense his friendship and at the same time was spoilt for he insisted on doing the cooking. It was essential to drink as much as possible through the afternoon. We also ate tsampa, the traditional Sherpa dish of roast barley flour, boiled into a thick porridge and spiced with chilli sauce. It was a great improvement on the dehydrated, processed high altitude rations that we had been eating.

We were determined to start early, in hope of beating the wind, which seemed to increase in strength during the day. This meant starting to cook at around eleven o'clock that night. I woke from a light sleep to the purr of the gas stove. Pertemba had started heating the water he had melted that evening and had stored in a thermos.

Two hours later we were ready to start, boots, kept warm in our sleeping bags, forced onto our feet, outer windproofs and down jackets turning us into Michelin men as we struggled out into the bitter cold of the black star studded night. It was minus thirty degrees Celsius and the wind gusted across the col. A struggle with oxygen equipment, last minute fitting of the Sherpas' face masks and we were ready to start.

It was one thirty in the morning when we set out across the flat of the col, each one of us in a tiny pool of light from a head torch. Pertemba had been here before in 1979, when he climbed Everest for a second time. He took the lead, first over hard, but easy-angled ice, then onto a steepening of snow that led to broken rocks. A thousand feet; an hour and a half went by. I was so tired. I had dropped behind, the lights of the others becoming ever-distant weakening glimmers. They'd stopped for a rest but as I caught up they started once again. I slumped into the snow, and involuntarily muttered, almost cried, 'I'll never make it.'

Odd heard me, 'You'll do it Chris. Just get on your feet. I'll stay behind you.'

And on it went, broken rock, hard snow, then deep soft snow, which Pertemba ploughed through. I felt ashamed to be glad of the hard going, for it enabled me to keep up. It was no longer black and the mountains, most of them below us, assumed shapes. The crest of the ridge, still above us, lightened, and then the soaring peak of the South Summit was touched with gold as the sun crept over the horizon far to the east. By the time we reached the ridge, site of Hillary and Tenzing's top camp in 1953, all the peaks around us were lit by the sun's low flung rays. We were at about 8300 m and it was five in the morning. We changed our oxygen bottles and started up the crest of the Southeast ridge, our shadows cast far into Nepal. Ever steepening, sometimes rock, mostly snow, it was much harder than anything I had imagined. Anyone calling this the 'yak' route, should come and try it for themselves. And it went on forever. Glancing behind me, the black, rocky summit of Lhotse, fourth highest mountain in the world, still seemed higher than us.

A last swell of snow, the wind gusting hard, threatening to blow us from our perch, and we were on the South Summit. We all gathered on the small corniced col just below it. This was where Doug Scott and Dougal Haston bivouacked in 1975 after climbing the South West face.

Odd was worried about our oxygen supply. We'd been going for over three hours from where we had changed bottles. Ever sound and cautious, he questioned whether we had enough to get back. The others had been climbing at a flow rate of 3 litres per minute, but I had found that this had not been enough. I had frequently turned it on to four and so I would have even less than them. But I knew I wanted to go on. I was prepared to risk almost anything to get to the top.

Pertemba said: 'We go on'.

But there was a pause. The ridge between the South Summit and the final steepening, named the Hillary Step, looked formidable, a fragile knife-edge of snow clinging to the rocky crest, with a frightening drop on either side. Bjorn pushed into the front, Ang Lhakpa got out the rope, twenty metres between six of us, and Bjorn trailed it, more of a token than anything else, towards the step. The going was easier than it looked but the step itself was hard. Odd belayed Bjorn, who floundered up steep unconsolidated snow, getting an occasional foothold on the rock wall to the left. Pertemba followed, digging out an old fixed rope left by a previous expedition

I was last but Dawa Nuru waved me on. I gathered he had run out of oxygen. He and Ang Lhakpa had climbed the route on just one bottle of oxygen at a flow rate of only 2 litres per minute. They had carried our spare bottles to the crest of the Southeast ridge.

I struggled up the step, panting, breathless. I could almost feel the physical presence of Doug Scott, could see his long straggly hair, the round, wire-rimmed glasses, could sense his reassurance and encouragement. Les, my father-in-law was there as well. He is a wonderfully wise man, had thrown the I Ching just before I left for Nepal, and had predicted my success.

By the time I had reached the top of the step, the others had already breasted the next rise, but it was comparatively straightforward now. Just put one foot in front of the other for that last stretch to the highest point on earth.

And after J recaptured my emotions, I hugged Pertemba, crouched beside me. Odd and Bjorn who were flying and photographing the Norwegian flag, came over and embraced me.

And then there was time to see around us. From west, through north to east, the Tibetan plateau, a rolling ocean of brown hills with the occasional white cap. To the east Kangchenjunga, a huge snowy mass, first climbed by George Band and Joe Brown in 1955, and to the west the great chain of the Himalaya, with Shishapangma, China's eight thousand metre peak dominating the horizon. Doug Scott, Alex Maclyntre and Roger Baxter-Jones climbed its huge south face in 1982. To the south was a white carpet of cloud covering the foothills and plains of India. We were indeed on top of the world.

And then another figure appeared, moving so very slowly and painfully. It was Dawa Nuru. He hadn't turned back; he was coming to the summit without oxygen. I don't know how long we stayed. I was in a haze. But someone said it was time to go and we started retracing our steps, so much easier now that we were going down. We reached the South Col that afternoon. Odd and Bjorn went on down to Camp 3 and the rest of us caught up the following day to drop down the Lhotse Face towards Camp 2. We met Arne Naess, leader of the expedition with Stein Aashein on the way up for their attempt. Warm congratulation and a sense of tired fulfilled happiness. On down past Camp 2, through the icefall, fearful and hurried, to another welcoming committee with bottles of beer and a thermos of tea. The Sherpas who had done so much to make this possible, were so unstinting in their joy at our success.

But that was not the end. Just nine days later four more Norwegians, Arne Naess, Ralph Hoibakk, Havaard Nasheim and Stein Aasheim, with four Sherpas, Sundare, Ang Rita, Pema Dorje and Chowang Ringzin reached the summit. Then on the following day, the Americans Dick Bass and Dave Breashers with Ang Phurba got to the top. What a host of records - the most people ever to reach the summit in one expedition, the earliest complete pre-monsoon ascent, with personal records for Sundare, fourth time on top, Ang Rita, third time without oxygen, and for Bass, both the oldest at 55 to reach the summit and also the first man to have been to the top of the highest peak on every continent.

Most important of all though it had been a very happy expedition and everyone came back alive.