Wits Graduate Climbs Everest

These days, mountaineers don't need to be at the cutting edge of their sport to reach the summit of Mt Everest. Although attempting new routes without bottled oxygen remains the domain of hard core climbers, both the south-east and north ridges are now ``trade routes''. Even so, an aspirant Everester who takes success for granted is a fool. Because despite all the knowledge gained about the highest mountain since George Leigh Mallory first explored its approaches in 1921, it still regularly claims lives.

In 1994 I was invited to join the 1995 American Mt. Everest Expedition, not because I was an aspirant Everester - and certainly not for my high altitude experience - but because of my family background. My grandfather, George Leigh Mallory has been described by Everest historian Walt Unsworth as ``the man who, more than anyone else before or since, was to match himself against the greatest mountain in the world.'' The expedition theme was to commemorate the adventurous spirit of the pioneers of Everest and the leader thought it appropriate to have Mallory's grandson on the team.

Once I had overcome the initial shock, I accepted the invitation. It seemed worth spending R100,000 just for an opportunity to attempt to climb Everest by the route on which my grandfather had disappeared in 1924. Naturally, I hoped to do well on the mountain, but since the success rate for expeditions on the north ridge was then around 20%, and I had only been to the Himalaya once, I knew my chances of reaching the summit were slim.

With my grandfather so closely associated with Everest and only two Alpine seasons to my credit, I naturally felt very intimidated. My trepidation increased when I heard in May 1994 that a climber from Melbourne Australian (where I now live) had died on Everest's North ridge. Mike Rhineberger refused to give up on his ambition - to climb Everest - and on his seventh attempt reached the summit ─ at 7.30 p.m.! He and his guide were forced to spend the night just below the summit. Their oxygen ran out during the night and Rhineberger died of cerebral oedema the next day.

Rhineberger was gripped by ``summit fever'', a mistake which cost him his life. This tragedy made me determined to do everything I could to prepare for what I expected to be an extremely challenging climb. Cycling up and down a mountain near Melbourne became my speciality and by the time I was ready for Everest had, in one continuous 23 hour session accumulated 11,000 metres of ascent in a 340 kilometre ride. This feat boosted my confidence and I felt that, given reasonable conditions, there was some chance of becoming the first Wits graduate to climb Everest.

By early May 1995, our expedition had acclimatised on an 8-day trek in Nepal, driven up through the Himalayan range into Tibet and on to Base Camp which is at an altitude of 5,200 metres. We, and particularly our Sherpas, had slowly but steadily established and stocked camps with food, fuel and oxygen bottles. Our leader had selected two summit teams of seven climbers each and we were ready to place our R100,000 bets on Everest's fickle weather.

Although Everest expeditions involve being away from home for four months, the summit push takes just seven days - five up and two down. Day one is a 22 kilometre walk up the East Rongbuk glacier to Advanced Base Camp at 6,400 metres. Yaks, which carry tons of equipment to here, have trampled a path up the central moraine so, except for shortness of breath, its an easy day.

The North Col (7000 metres) - the low point in the ridge that connects Everest to Changtse - was our destination on day two. We ``walked'' up snow and ice at an average angle of 40° and, like virtually everywhere else on the route, clipped into fixed ropes that had been placed several weeks earlier. Climbing the North Col was not difficult but avalanches have the distressing habit of killing people here. On our way up, a huge ice cliff crashed to the glacier only 150 metres from our route. As we watched, we hoped that similar ice blocks above us didn't do likewise.

The use of bottled oxygen is a complex ethical question. Climbing without oxygen significantly increases the risk of altitude sickness and frostbite, and since the entire expedition would be affected by an accident, the team decision was to use oxygen above 7,800 metres. Day three, the slog up the North ridge to this altitude without oxygen was physiologically the toughest day. By the time our tent was within sight, six long hours after leaving the North Col, I could only manage ten steps between rests. The next day, assisted by supplementary oxygen, we ascended technically ``easy'' ground to ``high camp'' at 8,300 metres. The weather was excellent and, although it was tempting to feel optimistic, we reminded ourselves that on ``summit day'' we had set ourselves an absolute imperative: to turn around at 2.00 p.m. even if we were within spitting distance of the top.

On the eve of the biggest day of my life, I was anything but calm. My grandfather's attempt to climb Everest 71 years earlier, was seen as symbolising the ``transcendence of mind over matter''. I wondered how people would perceive this climb: as extravagant self indulgence, or an opportunity for celebrating mankind's adventurous spirit. I was tormented by the thought that all of the route's technical difficulties were still above us, and slept not a wink.

At 12.30 a.m. my climbing partners and I emerged from the tent and, once we had donned boots, harnesses, crampons and oxygen gear, set out at 1.00 a.m. on the 14th of May to climb to the planet's highest point. There was not a breath of wind and the moon was full and bright. Jeff, Chhiring Sherpa and I formed a trio and, as agreed, left the other four members of our party to set their own pace. Within minutes of leaving our ``high camp'' we started scrambling up 40 sloping mixed rock and snow known as the yellow band.

After an hour we reached the crest of the summit ridge and could look to the east. Makalu, the world's fifth highest mountain, was bathed in moonlight just 20 kilometres away. It was an amazing place: on my left the East face dropped 3,300 metres to the Kangshung glacier - on my right, the vast sweep of Everest's mighty North face rose 2,500 metres from the crevasses of the Rongbuk glacier. The splendour around us was a sample of the greater prize on offer at the top.

The climbing along Everest's summit ridge is much harder than anywhere else on the route. It is never exceptionally difficult, but for at least 80% of the route, an unguarded slip would be disastrous. In 1995, Sherpas from the Japanese North-east ridge expedition had secured ``ropes'' (5mm cords) along the entire summit ridge. We were anxious not to rely on the lines because we had not placed them ourselves. Although none of our members ever tested the integrity of this ``safety net'', two climbers from another expedition did and were saved from certain death only because they were attached to the fixed ropes by their jumar clamps.

The crux of the route is the ``Second Step'', a 25 metre high cliff at 8600 metres. This was where Noel Odell said he glimpsed my grandfather and Andrew Irvine for the last time in 1924. His observation, and more particularly, precisely where he saw the two black spots moving with ``considerable alacrity'' towards the summit, is crucial to all theories about whether they reached the top or not. Odell may have miss- identified the feature and seen the climbers, not on the Second Step, but lower down on the ``First Step''. Mountaineers in 1933 regarded the Second Step as impregnable and so Odell's observation was questioned.

It was then 3.45 a.m. and because the moon was low in the west, the Second Step was dark. We switched on our head torches and looked up at the crux. The requirement seemed ludicrous: to climb technical rock at 8600 metres, by torch light, in a temperature of -20°C. My bulky down suit, crampons and 15 kg pack would add to the challenge. But two decades of experience on rock came to the fore and within minutes I reached the base of the final slab where Chinese mountaineers placed a four metre ladder in 1975. Immediately above me was the one place on Mallory's ``prodigious mountain mass'' which has been the subject of so much conjecture. Could Mallory have climbed this piece of rock?

I paused long enough to assure myself that my grandfather, who was acknowledged to be among the finest rock climbers of his day, could have scaled the cliff, then, with a twinge of guilt, climbed up the ladder. A glow on the eastern horizon illuminated Everest's final pyramid. There were no difficulties ahead, and the summit seemed well within our grasp.

Half way up the final pyramid the sun's first rays struck the snow. I gazed towards the western horizon and saw Everest's immense shadow reach past a multitude of Himalayan giants. Victory seemed imminent. The slope increased to 60°and placing the pick of my ice-axe became essential. Despite sucking bottled oxygen I managed just three steps between rests. Then I heaved myself onto the summit plateau, and there, 100 metres away was the top of Mt. Everest. Emotions overwhelmed me as I realised that nothing would stop me from reaching my objective.

We reached the top at 5.30 a.m. - comfortably ahead of our 2.00 p.m. turn-around- deadline. I removed my oxygen mask and admired the view. Lhotse (the world's fourth highest mountain), Nuptse and Ama Dablam were below me to the south. In the west, Cho Oyu and Shisha Pangma (both over 8000 metres) were visible. The view of Makalu surrounded by a sea of clouds was utterly spectacular and 130 km to the east, Kanchenjunga's huge bulk protruded well above the horizon.

From my pack I retrieved a laminated photograph of my grandparents and knelt down to plant it in the snow. This was, for me, a profoundly moving moment, one which symbolised the unarguable completion of a climb my grandfather started 71 years earlier. Jeff tuned in to the moment and said: ``George, your grandfather would be proud of you''. I basked in the sensation of having accomplished the seemingly impossible, but not for long...

Euphoria was quickly banished by grim reality. We were a very long way from home and our partial success would amount to naught if we did not make it safely back down. This doctrine is one to which I am sure my grandmother and her three children would agree because to them, George Mallory was not just a hero, he was also the husband and father who didn't come back.

Copyright George Mallory II, 22/02/96

Jim McElwaine
Last modified: Thu Oct 18 17:46:06 BST 2001