The Mountain With No Name

``Summit fever'' is a term which has sprung to prominence. Members of the public and establishment minded mountaineers take a dim view of the irrational drive to get to the top of a mountain when the chances of a safe return are virtually nil. A prominent Australian mountaineer said Alison Hargreaves' death on K2 was due to summit fever. When Michael Rhineberger reached the ``third step'' at 8,700 m on Everest's North ridge at 4.00 p.m., his decision to carry on to the top surely cost him his life.

Yet there are many instances where mountaineers who successfully pushed themselves to the very edge of the abyss, have become celebrities. Doug Scott and Dougal Haston spring to mind. They reached Everest's summit via the south-west face on Bonington's ``Everest The Hard Way'' expedition in 1975 but, because they survived their bivouac without oxygen at 8,760 metres, returned as heroes. Stephen Venables lost toes to frostbite after he bivouacked at 8,500 metres during his oxygen-less ascent of Everest's Kangshung face in 1988, a feat about which Lord Hunt has said: ``I know of no finer example of mountaineering, of mind triumphing over matter''.

So what's the difference between ``summit fever'' and ``mind triumphing over matter''? Do all survivors become heroes? Are those who die all accused of having a death wish? This is a complex issue and one about which I knew nothing when I first went to the Himalaya. During my trip to Gangotri, I sampled the peak collector's obsession but hope to never acquire the taste for it. It was an example of the classic mountaineer's dilemma. We could carry on up to the summit and succeed or return to base camp, defeated. Victory would be ours but we knew the price - a night without sleeping bags - was high. The alternative - a comfortable night in our tents - would also cost us dearly. Failure would dog us for months. For a few minutes the options hung in balance.

Mick, a geologist, said he had on three occasions bivouacked in similar conditions without getting frostnip. He said we would quickly forget the night and emerge from the experience with a peak to our credit. His rational comments seemed to point upward, but he sounded cautious. Jim, a mathematics graduate from Cambridge, said little. Perhaps his partial burial by avalanche a week earlier had dulled his sense of adventure.

For me there was no decision to be made. I was gripped by summit fever. We had to press on! I needed the summit. I would do anything to reach that point on a mountain where descent is the only available option and not merely the result of a prudent decision. I understood for the first time why my grandfather, George Leigh Mallory, continued up towards Everest's summit in 1924. His desire to get to the top was profound.

So, at 3.00 p.m., with new enthusiasm we resumed our slog up the endless ridge of knee deep snow. I kicked one step...breathed deeply several times....then kicked another. Onward and upward. Every step was an effort.

By 5.00 p.m., the novelty of struggling up the ridge had worn off. It was physically demanding, we had been doing it all day, our gloves were wet, there was virtually no view and nor would there be a hot bath and a beer waiting for us at the end. Only the summit kept us relentlessly, oblivious to the universe, climbing ever upward.

Suddenly the summit ridge was just twenty metres away. Then we were traversing on its crest and saw the sun for the first time that day. A short traverse with a potential 1,300 metre fall took us to our objective, the summit. It was my first peak and I was thrilled.

But we only spent a few minutes revelling on top. Once the summit photos were taken, the seriousness of our predicament crashed through the euphoria like a medieval battering ram. It was 5.30 p.m., we were at 6,000 metres, had no tent, stove or down clothing and sunset was imminent. There were twelve bitterly cold hours ahead of us and we knew it.

This experience, my first in the Himalaya, was the culmination of a trekking trip to India's Gangotri area with my friend Mick. Trekkers require neither permits nor a liaison officer but are not allowed to climb above 6,000 metres. Although officially being trekkers prevented us from making formal plans, we were nevertheless equipped for ice climbing. Our aim was to make opportunities and enjoy ourselves.

From the holy village Gangotri, we set out for Kedar Tal, the base camp for peaks such as Bhrigupanth (6772 metres) and the Matterhorn-like Thalay Sagar. There we met a group of six English climbers from Cambridge University. Their objective was to make the first ascent of Manda III (6529 metres). We didn't want to announce our intent to surreptitiously attempt a peak for which we had no permit so arrived at their base camp disguised as trekkers. But we didn't deceive their liaison officer. Our enormous packs, and Mick's muscular legs, labelled us ``would-be mountaineers''. But as luck would have it, the Indian immediately intimated he would overlook our attempts to climb any easy peaks even if they were officially off limits. His offer was generous because climbing without a permit can result in anything from a fine to expulsion.

In the next two weeks, Mick and I unsuccessfully attempted a 6,100 metre peak. We were forced to turn back close to the summit because a huge crevasse blocked our route. This disappointment fuelled my passion to ``bag'' a Himalayan peak. The Cambridge climbers made little progress on their objective and their leader, Jim, was reconciled to them not achieving their expedition goal. Mick and I were low on supplies and our time was limited. Prospects didn't look good for any of us.

But Mick, Jim and I resolved to attempt something short and easy. We chose a line which would take us straight up to a high point on a ridge close to base camp. This spot was marked on the map in our guidebook but had no name. Its humble status didn't bother us - we just wanted to climb to the top of a mountain, any mountain. And we didn't care that its ``name'' was ``6014''.

Our plan was to start before dawn and by keeping our loads light, climb the 1,300 metre snow ridge to the summit and return to base camp the same day. With only the bare essentials - a litre of water each, a few chocolate bars, headtorches, harnesses, a rope, a few snow anchors and my camera - we set off in the pre-dawn glow. After an hour of moraine bashing we paused at the base of the glacier to change into our mountaineering boots. Jim and I then jettisoned some redundant weight by sharing his rucksack. It seemed like a good idea to the two of us, but without explanation, Mick insisted on carrying his own pack. I didn't know then but I was destined to learn the hard way why he was happy to carry the extra weight.

The snow was soft and mostly knee deep. Our route was predominantly up a spur where, fortunately, there was no avalanche danger. But progress was slow. At 3.00 p.m. we were at 5,800 metres debating whether to continue up to the top and spend a very uncomfortable night out Mick's euphemism or return, defeated, to base camp.

At 5.30 p.m. after the summit-photo session, my strongest instinct took over. An inner voice shouted: ``Survive! Stay alive! Don't sleep!'' Granted, with hindsight, I was possibly over-reacting, but at the time we did not know that we would survive the bivouac and as far as we knew, our toes, fingers, and possibly our lives were at stake.

We had to find a patch of sloping snow and dig a snow with all the essential features a roaring log fire, hot bath, drying cupboard and room service. We found a site just a stone's throw from the summit. After we had chipped away at the ice for more than an hour, we discovered our site had a hidden drawback a sloping floor of rock hard ice only 1.5 metres below the surface. My spirits sank at the thought of having to abandon our creation and start another cave, but because the closest alternate site was 1,300 metres below us, we just had to modify our design to suit the slope.

Our home for the night was barely big enough for the three of us to squeeze into. It had two horizontal entrance tunnels about two metres apart. Mick's entrance opened up to a minute hole into which he crawled head first. Jim and I squashed ourselves into a small void which linked our entrance to Mick's. As we stopped digging the cold gnawed into our bones.

The decade between 8.00 p.m. that night and dawn the next morning was colder than a swim in icy water, scarier than soloing a big wall and seemed longer than my two years of conscription.

For the first year, I tried in vain to distract myself and Jim with idle chatter. After two years had dragged by, I tried to rearrange the uncoiled rope beneath me to provide better insulation from the icy floor no easy task in the cramped confines of the cave. I visualised the roof collapsing and my desperate struggles to escape rendered impossible by the rope in which I had become entangled. ``Bivouac'', it occurred to me, was probably French for ``blunder''.

My incessant shivering was so violent it caused me to pant in the thin air. This in turn aggravated my claustrophobia. Once a month I checked on Mick and Jim. It had dawned on me that having frost-bitten mates would be almost as bad as losing my own extremities. When on occasion I heard no reply, I wondered how true the description of death by hypothermia is. If my grandfather succumbed to the cold, were his last hours like this?

After spending five years just lying on the ice and surviving, I tried once again to improve the insulation beneath me. Jim and Mick lay on their empty rucksacks but mine was on the glacier, 1,300 metres below. The reason Mick had insisted on carrying his own rucksack became plain: it made a better mattress than a tangled rope. My efforts probably made some difference because soon after that I almost dozed off an instant of bliss from which I recoiled in horror. Fear stepped into the breach and warded off any further drowsiness. But would I survive? And if I did, would my extremities?

At 6,000 metres the air was arctic, but the ice on which we lay felt even colder. In near desperation I decided to sit on an empty water bottle outside the cave in the hope that this would reduce my heat loss to the ice. Leaving the cave would adversely affect Mick and Jim, but I simply had to do something to relieve the aching in my bones.

I stamped my feet outside the cave. This was great for my feet but wind-chill lowered the effective temperature for the rest of me. After enduring conditions there for a few years, being inside the cave seemed preferable. I manoeuvred back inside at 4.00 a.m. At that stage I remember thinking that, since I was still alive, I probably would survive the night. The fear, which had proved itself to be an asset over the past eight years, vanished, and I was left to deal with the bitter cold unassisted.

Dawn did eventually break, just as it had for billions of years. But to the three of us, it had never before been more welcome. It was eight o'clock before we could coax our stiff limbs to take the first uncoordinated steps down from the mountain with no name. By 10.00 a.m. occasional bursts of sunshine penetrated the clouds and roasted us. I was astonished at how quickly our perception of the night changed from ``intensely, bitterly cold'' to ``uncomfortable''.

Our descent to base camp was uneventful. At 3.00 p.m., 34 hours after waking up the previous morning, I crawled into bed. Before sleep engulfed me, I attempted to distil some essence from my confused thoughts. Why had we continued on up to the summit instead of turning back? What, if anything, had we accomplished? The ascent of a mountain with no name!? Why? I found an answer in these words written by George Leigh Mallory. ``Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves .... To struggle and to understand - never this last without the other; such is the law.....''

Copyright George Mallory II, 2/02/96

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