Serious high altitude Alpinists are a breed apart. The focus of their existence is something that is immutable – an obsession, frequently fatal – attaining the summit of a mountain, though they would prefer the word ‘conquering’ to ‘attaining’. To an Alpinist, a peak is a conquest.
And as a breed apart, seeking out more and rigorous climbs, Alpinists find a definition – a certain legitimacy of purpose in what is to them an otherwise purposeless life. Nothing else matters.
Believe it or not, serious Alpinists consider being able to scale a peak much less important than how they got there, prestige earned through making the ascent to the top via the most unforgiving route, with the least equipment and without supplemental oxygen. The rock stars among the Alpinists are the the soloists who ascend without rope or supplemental oxygen, with only the most basic gear.
To true Alpinists, the greatest feat of mountaineering was not the Tenzing/Hillary summit of Everest, but another ascent a decade later in 1963. By then there had been four successful ascents, but all of them had been from the Nepalese South Col/Southeast Ridge route.
Two Americans – anesthesiologist, Thomas Hornbein and theology professor, Will Unsoeld, both highly experienced Alpinists, chose a different route to the summit – via the incredibly more difficult West Ridge that has a near vertical slab of sheer rock known as the YellowBand, at 28200 ft, just a couple of hundred meters below the peak. Scaling the Yellow Band required great physical strength and technical ability, but they did it, even in their sleep-deprived, oxygen depleted conditions.
The Yellow Band is one of the most interesting features on the Everest – a slab of a calcium-magnesium carbonate mineral known as dolostone, very similar to limestone, it in fact circles the summit pyramid of the Everest like a gold wedding ring. The portion of it that traverses the West Ridge is very steep, so steep that descent by the same route is almost impossible and the only other way to get down is via the by then well-established Southeast Ridge route, the same one that had been taken by the Tenzing/Hillary summit ascent, a decade prior.
Hornbein and Unsoeld summitted at 6.15pm, which is very late for an Everest summit. If you summit anytime after 3pm, the chances of a successful descent recede at a rapid rate with time. 6.15pm offered them a 20/80 chance of surviving the expedition. They had no choice anyway.
As the slanting rays of the sun disappeared behind the nearby 8200 meter Cho Oyo, they decided that there was no other option but to bivouac for the night. So, that was another record – bivouac for the night at 28000 ft. Far as I know, this record still stands, even after the passage of five decades.
They would still have perished, had it not been for the two full oxygen tanks that they came upon during their descent, probably left behind by a climber who had been too fatigued to be able to carry their weight down with him. Talk about fortune favoring the brave.
The account of the Hornbein/Unsoeld ascent has been published by Thomas Horbein in his book Everest: The West Ridge. Being an armchair mountain maniac, I am itching to get my hands on it.
A view of Everest and the various routes that Alpinists take to reach the summit. The Everest is a three-sided prism, with the North and East Faces in Tibet and the Southwest Face in Nepal. Ascents are attempted on the ridges or the edges, between the faces – the Northeast Ridge, the West Ridge and Southeast Ridge. So far, most summit attempts (especially the commercial ventures) have been made over the South-East Ridge, the reasons being – (1) Getting permits from the Nepalese authorities used to be easier than the Chinese till recently and (2) the Southeast Ridge is less hazardous. You will find an excellent interactive map at : Maps of Everest routes
Until the 1980s, Everest had been the bailiwick of the very elite among Alpinists, but all that changed when a wealthy 55-year old Texan with limited mountaineering experience, named Dick Bass, summited in 1985. He was ushered to the top, his hand firmly held by a trained Alpinist, for profit. Thus, the commercialization of Everest began and suddenly Everest became doable to the ordinary Joe.
Today you have policemen, firefighters, accountants, doctors, pediatricians, stay-home moms and nursery school teachers, all of whom have a few things in common – they are tired of the mundanity in their lives and want the ultimate thrill of an adventure, they have saved up and prepared by keeping themselves in reasonably good physical shape.
Now commercial Everest expeditions are being launched on a regular basis every May, with trained Alpinists shepherding groups of five to fifteen amateurs (some of whom have paid up to a hundred grand a pop), up the slopes to the summit.
As commercial Everest expeditions have become a business model, around them have grown legions of hardy Nepalese sherpas whose job it is, to not only accompany the climbers – holding their hands all the way, but also to carry bivouac tents, ropes, ladders and oxygen cylinders, to pitch tents, pack and unpack, cook and clean, haul garbage and maintain toilets and latrines. For a pittance by western standards, the sherpas these days do everything that is required to make the climb for a paying amateur as pleasant an experience as possible.
But there is one task that the Sherpas perform that has reduced an Everest summit attempt to a sterile pantomime in recent years – the preparations that begin way ahead of the start of the climbing season, in early May…..
A group of forty of the best Sherpa guides set about breaking trail and fixing ropes over large seracs (boulders of ice) and ladders across crevasses, over the last hurdle – the Hillary Step – right up to the summit. This is an enterprise so hazardous that one in ten Sherpas do not survive it. Breaking trail is when someone has already waded through waist-high snow ahead of you, cutting a sort of channel, identifying dangerous crevasses or sharp rocks and generally making it easier for you to do the trek uninjured. A broken leg on the Everest is a death knell. The channel also acts as a real trail, showing you the way. Without this initial work, climber deaths would simply sky-rocket.
Jon Krakauer’s Into thin air is the story of one such commercial expedition in the May of 1996 that would have ended just like any other, except for one thing – that day (10-11 May 1996), recorded the largest number of deaths on the slopes of any single day in the history of Everest ascents. Three expeditions suffered casualties – Adventure Consultants, Mountain Madness and Indo-Tibetan Border Police. In all, nine climbers lost their lives that single day.
You will find most mountaineering books written by climbers boring, because the writers are more skillful as adventurers than they are as writers. But Krakauer is an exception – it is a thriller from Page-1. With three other books already under his belt (Iceland, Eiger Dreams and Into the Wild), his fourth venture is a narrative that is meticulously researched.
Krakauer, a journalist on assignment from Outside Magazine, to report live from the summit, was a member of one of the teams and Into thin air is his account of what went down on the slopes of Everest on the late afternoon of May 10, 1996 – The intimidating storm that gathered and struck with little warning, blanketing the upper reaches of the mountain and the thirst for conquest that led a bunch of amateurs to insist on summitting instead of turning back when there was still time – in the end, this was just another horrendous affirmation of Murphy’s Law – that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
The main mandate of Karakauer’s assignment was to get a sense of the commercialization of Everest and in that regard, he was not prepared for what he saw – Everest was no longer the pristine mountain anymore, but a stinking garbage dump, with ‘huge stinking piles of human feces lay everywhere…..more than 300 tents at the base camp over 1000 empty oxygen cylinders that had been discarded at 26,000 feet on the South Col….’
Unlike the rest of his fellow clients in the expedition, Karakauer had been a physically fit Alpinist who had previous climbing experience. “I wasn’t sure what to make of them…they seemed like decent folks,” he says of the others – a gentlemanly lawyer from Michigan, a 56-year-old Australian anesthesiologist, a 50-year old pathologist from Dallas, Texas, a 47-year-old Japanese woman and an American postal worker who had almost conquered Everest the previous year. Except for the Japanese woman, they had little or no mountaineering experience and had paid $65000 each, excluding airfare and equipment costs, to be led to the summit.
What is striking about Into thin air is that in the ultimate analysis, the account provides ample evidence that no matter how closely one lives his or her life to the rule book, or how strong one is mentally – when the time is up, there is very little one can actually do to prevent destiny from deciding his fate.
When you read about two of the climbers, you will know why I am saying this……
On their way down from the summit, two of the team (50-year old Dallas pathologist Beck Weathers and 47-year old Ote City, Japan, resident Yasuko Namba) got separated from the rest in the blizzard, high up on the mountain and found themselves battling the whiteout conditions together, stumbling around, unable to figure out the route. They were in fact only 50 meters from Camp-IV (26000ft) when they collapsed, but they didn’t know it.
These two were even more different than the metaphorical chalk and cheese – while Weathers was stocky and inexperienced, Namba was a tiny, fit and nimble woman who had just gained the distinction of being the oldest woman to conquer all Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the world’s seven continents.
One of them – the unlikely one – would survive the ordeal while the other – the one you could bet on making it – would in the end be destined to remain a part of the scenery for eternity.
When the two were found, they were both barely alive and severely frostbitten, with no strength left to move on. A member from another expedition, Stuart Hutchison, chanced upon them, but he was suffering from hypoxia himself. He saw no choice but to leave them there for nature to take its course.
Hutchison did not do anything inappropriate by abandoning them. Everest makes the ground rules, the most fundamental one being that if you are down, it is okay for others to pass you by and not to try to save you, since rescue is too arduous and dramatically reduces the the chances of survival for the rescuer himself. This after all is the life you willingly chose and as an Alpinist on Everest, you learn not to expect to be rescued. You either try to marshal all your strength and move on or you just let go – death on the Everest being mercifully swift. In the extra-dry and harsh environment your body will remain well-preserved for decades before it decomposes appreciably. George Mallory died on the West Ridge in 1924 and his body was discovered in near-pristine condition in 1999.
After a while, by some miracle, Weathers came to and managed to make his way down to Camp IV, which – at 26000 ft – is the last rest & refuge from where climbers usually make their final summit push. He was in deep hypothermia and despite efforts to revive him, Weathers lost consciousness again, regaining it once more and managing to make it down far enough for a rescue team to help him down the rest of the way.
Beck Weathers eventually recovered, but he lost his nose, right hand, half his right forearm and all the fingers on his left hand, to frostbite.
Weathers – the untrained amateur – survived, but Yasuko Namba perished, in spite of being the physically more fit of the two. Did Weathers have a stronger will to survive, than Namba? By all accounts that seems improbable.
Life is simply destiny, sometimes shaping our road toward great things and at others – to a cruel end on a desolate mountainside.