NORTHEAST RIDGE OF EVEREST, 1987 EXPEDITION
ALL THE OBVIOUS RIDGES, buttresses and faces of Everest have now been climbed, except for the Northeast ridge. There have now been four attempts, all British, to climb this last big problem on Ihe mountain.
The first was Chris Bonington's expedition in the spring of 1982. Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker reached their high point beyond the first pinnacle at approx. 8200 m. How far they got beyond this point is not known, but that is where they were last seen. It is assumed that Peter and Joe, in traversing around the next pinnacle on unstable snow fell down the northeast side of the ridge. They had been at base camp (5330 m) and above for a total of 9 weeks prior to their final summit push. Having lost a great deal of muscle tissue it is also possible that they succumbed to exhaustion and hypothermia.
In the spring of 1985 the Pilkington expedition led by Mai Duff illcmpted the ridge. After one massive snowfall (21 May) and Illness amongst the team members the attempt was called off by the leader, however, towards the end of May during better weather, Hick Allen climbed up the ridge through all the camps to bivouac at 7900 m solo. Rick then went on (27 May) up the first pinnacle to a height of 8150 m. It is highly probable that with more support Rick would have got further.
In the autumn of 1986 Brummie Stokes and a large team came to the Northeast ridge in the post monsoon period for the first time. The previous two expeditions had taken the ridge from the Raphu la (6510 m). In the autumn the 30 degree slopes leading up from the Raphu la seemed dangerously avalanche-prone with alll the snow lying on it. Brummie's team climbed directly up the Rorth buttress meeting the ridge at 7090 m. It is now known as 'Hill's Buttress' after Bill Barker who led most of the route. Harry Taylor and Trevor Pilling reached the high point at 8000 m at the bottom of the first pinnacle on 16 October. Despite a very determined effort the expedition was then abandoned due to incessant snowfalls and hurricane-force (200 km.p.h.) winds which made any further progress physically impossible.
Despite some of the best climbers from Britain, well organised, climbing lightweight, as on the first, and all-out seiging with Oxyzen on the second and third attempts, the Northeast ridge remained unclimbed. Once again the long ridge climb was proving more difficult than steep face climbing. On the Southwest face, for instance, of Everest, the distance from advanced base camp on the glacier to the summit is about 2440 m and the face is often; sheltered from the winds especially as, like many faces, it is concave, protected on the sides by the containing buttresses. On the four mile long Northeast ridge, lines of communications are very extended and involve a great variety of climbing. From whichever direction the winds blow the climber is at risk from the chill factor and sheer impossibility of making any progress at all when the winds reach hurricane-force.
Obviously the dangers of rock fall and avalanche are less on the ridge, certainly on the crest, but so often the route takes the open slopes to the side and there is still danger from avalanche and collapsing cornices on the ridge. All in all the Northeast ridge can justly be dubbed the last great problem, if not 'the problem route' to Everest's summit.
The Chinese Mountaineering Association knew of Rick Allen's enthusiasm to return to the Northeast ridge and let it be known to him that an American expedition for the autumn of 1987 was unable to raise the funds. Rick was able to get confirmation of this from the Americans, who gave up their permit to Rick. Rick asked Sandy Allan who had been on Everest in 1985 and with Rick on Pumori in 1987, to join him for the autumn slot. Sandy rang me Christmas eve 1986 asking if I was interested in going and organising the trip as both he and Rick were tied up at work. I accepted with alacrity and in the next few weeks we gathered together a team of eight. Nick Kekus had been with Rick and Sandy in 1985 was an obvious choice. I asked Stephen Sustad, an American, now living in Britain married to a British girl, who had been with me on Shivling, Broad Peak and Makalu under very difficult circumstances. I also asked Robert Schauer an Austrian climber from Graz, who has climbed perhaps the most difficult route in the Himalaya, the west face of Gasherbrum IV with Wojciech Kurtyka from Poland. Robert had climbed five 8000 m summits all but Everest in lightweight style. Sandy suggested my son Michael who had climbed with me up Chamalang's eastern and central summits, Diran, and had been up to 7300 m on Nanga Parbat and 7770 m on Makalu. I asked Sharavati Prabhu from Bombay to join us. She had reached 7300 m with the Indian women's expedition to Everest in 1984 and had climbed on half a dozen peaks in the Indian Himalaya. She was also the first Indian mountaineer to climb in Chinese Tibet. Michael brought Eva Jonsson from Sweden to be our base camp manageress. The brothers, Mangal Sing (Nima) Tamang and Sila Tamang joined the expedition as cooks. They had been with me on all my expeditions to Nepal since 1979.
Fuel and food were generously donated, or given at favourable discounts by manufacturers from all over the country, Austria and Germany.
However, after many near misses, we were still very short of funds. In fact two weeks before departure date in July we had tfiven up on Everest and had decided to stay in Nepal and hopefully climb Annapurna. At the eleventh hour Rick made contact with Archie Thomas of Altos Computers who generously and wholeheartedly gave us their financial support. Rick came out to Nepal, where the rest of us were by then, with this good news.
Most of us spent ten days in the Langtang mountains, north of Kathmandu acclimatizing and climbing Naya Kanga (5846 m), Michael and Eva were busy moving loads along the Friendship Highway towards the Chinese border, a task made more difficult by five landslips. All the loads had to be portered round, but vehicles had been trapped between landslips so were able to carry the gear to the next where porters were again available to carry the gear to another van and so on until they reached Friendship Bridge. We joined them there and had porters take all our gear Up to Zhangmu (Khasa) and the waiting C.M.A. vehicles.
After two nights spent at the town of Xegar (Shekar Dzong), we arrived at base camp on 4 September three days after leaving the border. After three days acclimatizing, sorting loads and waiting for the Yak men to arrive, we set oft for advanced base camp at the head of the East Rongphu glacier. On the 7th we stopped at 5500 m, 8th at 6000 m and finally reached advanced base camp on the 9th at 6400 m. The yaks returned the same day and ourselves the day after to start the second yak run on the 12th and completely stocking advanced base camp by 14 September.
A strong, 14-man, American expedition camped nearby and were already working away at the route to the North Col and the North ridge of Everest.
On 15 September Robert and Sandy started to climb 'Bill's Buttress'. On the 19th Nick Kekus and myself reached the top of the rib and Pt. 7090 m where we left two tents. The rib had been climbed by all members. It was difficult because of all the snow lying on it and the high winds which blew across from the North Col, so we were glad to unearth the blue rope left by the Brummie Stokes expedition and also to connect missing portions with Chinese rope generously given to us by the American lads which they had found en route to the North Col. Cl was thus established but tenting was abandoned after their destruction in favour of a huge snow cave dug out by Nick, Robert and Rick on the 22nd.
On the 25th Rick, Sandy and myself attempted the easy angled wction between our first camp and the first rock step. We had not gone far before we retreated in snow well up our thighs that seemed in danger of avalanching off. There followed severe snow-storms which lessened as the winds became stronger. It was not until 3 October that conditions improved and Steve and Robert managed to reach the first buttress. By that time Michael had decided to return home having had constant problems with diarrhoea and sickness. He and Eva departed. Sharavati was also having problems with her stomach having swallowed a sharp edged salt plum stone which caused her to vomit blood and pass blood in her stools. Thanks to the good medications provided by Dr Tom McCullough of the American expedition, Sharavati recovered but was left somewhat emaciated and weakened.
7 October proved a more fruitful day with carries from our first camp to the first rock step at 7500 m. Sharavati carried gas cylinders, Steve carried food and Robert filmed, as Sandy and I climbed the first rock step fixing 180 m of rope mainly because of avalanche-prone snow. At the top of the first step Rick came through and continued solo up the second rock step to make a cave at 7900 m - a very fine effort leaving us all with a haven and marker for our future attempt at the pinnacles above. Nick later made a further carry to the bottom of the first rock step, but by now most of the team were suffering frostbite or frostnip, particularly Robert, who had spent long periods static during his filming operations. Nick was also suffering greatly from the winds and the ensuing chill factor. He had suffered severe frostbite and amputation of his big toe winter climbing in the Alps a few years before.
On 12 October knowing that the wind and cold would from now on only increase as winter grew nearer, six of us set off from base camp to make our first summit push. Steve turned back at the bottom of 'Bill's Buttress' and Sandy a thousand feet higher, both feeling there was no chance. Robert and Nick with numb toes retreated from the top of the first rock buttress on 13 October. Rick and I continued in high winds to reach Rick's cave at the top of the second buttress. On 14 October we set but from the cave in extremely strong winds. We climbed two thirds of the way up the first pinnacle to a height of 8100 m at which point Rick's middle fingers had become numb and 'wooden'. It seemed prudent to descend to the cave. In any case it seemed unlikely that we could erect our bivouac tent in the hurricane-force winds that were screaming across the ridge.
On 15 October, we set out again from the cave but stopped short of our previous high point. The winds were so strong they had the power to lift small rocks and blow them uphill. They had us crouched over our ice axes braced but even so managed to blow us about and us dancing around trying to regain position. The wind was blowing vast quantities of snow off the mountain in huge streamers, thousands of feet across the Kangshung face and we feared that the winds could blow us off as well. It was physically impossible to make any further progress so we descended the same day all the way to base camp, arriving there three hours after dark on skis from the bottom of 'Bill's Buttress'.
We talked of making a further attempt, but on the 18th the first big storm blew in, depositing about a foot of snow along the East Rongphu glacier and moraine. On the 19th a further storm, much bigger, hit base camp where most of us were. There was 36 hours of actual precipitation, the winds were horrendous and snow began to drift in off the hills after the actual storm.
We waited the arrival of Sila and Nima who had remained at the half-way camp along the East Rongphu glacier. On the 20th Sila came staggering in dropped down onto his knees, sobbing that his brother had been killed by an avalanche. Rick, Sandy and myself rushed straight off, found the avalanche on the trail between our base camp and that of the American, Japanese and Irish teams on the north side of Everest and Changtse. We dug into the snow until after dark but could not find Nima's body. On the 21st with help from the north ridge American team we dug into the avalanche. Robert using a fibreglass tent pole taped together at the joints, located the body on his fifth probe. This was the seventh such body that Robert had located over the years in the Alps and the Himalaya. That night we sadly towed Nima's body down to base camp. We later carried on pulling the body to the Rongphu monastery where Nima was cremated on 24 October.
Nima was a great man. AH of us who knew him, knew that we gained far more from him than he ever did from us. He was a man in balance who asked for nothing, was completely self-effacing, always cheerful, hard working under the most difficult of circumstances. This was a great personal loss for since 1979, when as a young cook on Kangchenjunga, he had been cooking and managing base camps for us whilst we climbed such peaks as Nuptse, Makalu, Chamalang and Baruntse. At advanced base camp I had offered him my foam sleeping mat as I was going down to base camp for a few days. Nima had said that it would be really good to have the foam but I would come back and need it and he would miss it so he would rather not bother. He was a Buddhist through and if anyone knew that the body is but a garment to put on and take off - he did. Looking back it seemed that he was ready to pass on, but how difficult for us to accept that his garment was taken off so early. He was only thirty, married a year to a girl from his village in Solu Khumbu.
Nima, with Sila a few paces behind, had been walking along the snowed up track across the hillside near base camp when he triggered off an avalanche. He was still on the surface of the snow as Sila was going down to him, when a second avalanche from way above came down and buried him. It seemed to us that someone else wanted Nima.
Sandy, Sharavati, Sila and myself skied or walked on down to the village of Chadzong to bring back yaks to transport our equipment down to wherever we could get a truck. Along with every other expedition on the mountain we had problems of transport. All the trucks and jeeps at base camp were snowed in, awaiting the spring thaw.
Rick, Steve, Nick and Robert went back upto advanced base camp to bring down the more important items. Food and the larger tents just had to be abandoned. We apologise now to future climbers and trekkers that may be put out by any rubbish that could not be located and burnt under some 1.5 m of snow. Clearly we should have disposed of our waste each day to avoid this possibility.
Finding the road from Xegar to Kathmandu blocked by huge falls of snow for some 30 km, first Sandy then Sharavati, Sila and myself went east to Lhasa. We were able to obtain Nima's death certificate from sympathetic C.M.A. officials. Sandy flew home via Hong Kong and the three of us returned west to meet up with Rick and the others at the hotel in Nyalam. From there we went to Kathmandu, returning home variously on 7, 8, 9 November.
Everest, as with K2 has not been climbed for eighteen months, despite attempts by many expeditions consisting of some of the world's most experienced Himalayan climbers. The weather last year and the year before over the Himalaya, had been unfavourable in the extreme. The storm that hit the Himalaya, putting paid to our attempts and those of all the other expeditions last autumn, was said to be the biggest to have hit this part of the Himalaya in living memory. There is endless speculations as to what is happening to the weather in the Himalaya and indeed all over the world at the moment. It may just be a bad point in the cycle of long term weather systems or it may be to do with holes in the ozone layer or the greenhouse effect from all the pollution that is being put into the atmosphere in ever-increasing quantities. Whatever it is, climbers will no doubt remain undaunted and indeed Everest is now booked up on the south side until 1995 and on the north until 1991.
Of course we cannot but hope that we will get a chance in future but if the mountain is climbed before we do, then we all hope that it will be climbed in an as adventurous a way as possible, for at the moment it remains, this Northeast ridge, a great step into the unknown, an exciting goal for the future, this symbol of all our strivings.
We know from the results of many seige style expeditions to Kverest, such as the one up the SW Face that if enough well led imd experienced men are engaged on the route, if they have enough money and materials and if the weather is reasonable, (hen the route will be climbed, so what is the point of repeating this imrticular exercise since the essence of mountaineering is all about facing up to a degree of uncertainty and risk. Of course the-route can be attempted after the seiged climb in lightweight style without the oxygen and all the logistical support and fixing of ropes, that taking oxygen bottles demands, but by then all the little secrets of the route will be known, no longer a step into the unknown which it is at this present time, a tantalising prospect urging climbers up to see if they have the energy and skill \o negotiate the pinnacles and if they can keep their heads on Ihe last mile to the summit.
The weather is crucial to any approach to this exposed route. It Ik unlikely that reasonable conditions would prevail after September, so the most favourable period would be pre-monsoon or possibly during the monsoon.
The optimum size of the team on such a long and demanding route might be between 6 and 10 climbers depending on their pxi>rrience of very high altitude climbing and fitness on the day. WliiiLover the size, the team would need to be in sympathy with pbcIi other and be able to exercise great discipline and accept pre-pi«c organisation to maximise on the short periods of good weather. In liny case no time should be wasted at base camp as above steady phyHlcal deterioration will set in.
It would be fine thing if a British party, or any other, were able , to complete what Chris Bonington, Dick Renshaw, Peter Board- and Joe Tasker attempted in 1982. It would be a fitting tribute to everything Peter and Joe stood for if the Northeast ridge climbed in the same bold, lightweight style of the pioneers.
It may be that many years will pass before everything is favour- for a successful ascent in this way. Is it not worth the wait for by then success will be just that, in every sense of the word?