I’m writing this on the sixtieth anniversary of Sir Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful climb of Mount Everest. Conquest was probably never the right word even if it is the one usually used. The mountain will remain long after all who ever climb it are long gone.
I was brought up with stirring Everest climbing stories as my English grandfather had been on two of the earlier British expeditions. The 1936 expedition was blighted by bad weather and they never got a decent crack at getting high but the 1933 one nearly made it. In those early expeditions, they were climbing from the Tibetan side as Nepal was closed to foreigners.
They just made one fateful mistake. They were climbing purists out of Cambridge and Oxford and wanted to climb the mountain the proper way. That is without oxygen or ‘English Air’ as their Sherpa Porters called it. They were badly advised that oxygen was of little benefit to the properly acclimatised climber so although it was taken to the lower camps, it was never used.
I have his memoirs open in front of me and see that he and Laurence Wager his climbing companion settled down for the night of May 30th in their tiny Meade tent at a height higher than any human had slept before some 1600 feet from the summit.
Attempted to sleep I should say as they had Tommy cookers which worked on solid methylated spirits which at that altitude gave only modest heat. He reckoned pressurised Primus cookers would have been better. This was important in what later became known as the death zone.
Their little stoves were very poor at melting the powdered snow so before they even had a go at the summit they were suffering from dehydration as well as oxygen deprivation not to mention exhaustion and lack of sleep!
The two of them set off next morning at 5.40am and with frozen boots could already feel the beginning of frost bite in their toes.
They climbed in good weather for several hours attempting to find a way to the top. Wager was having great difficulty breathing and the more freezing air he sucked in the more his lungs acted like a cooler.
Finally they had to decide to turn back as Smythe and Shipton would be using Camp V1 so they needed to get down to Camp V or certainly die. But they had climbed as high as anyone getting to 8573m (28126 feet) or 275m from the summit. It wouldn’t be until 1978; 45 years later that anyone would climb higher without oxygen when Messner got to the top without oxygen.
I used to tell the by then old grandfather he should have hardened up and gone for it. After all my woolshed is 300m and I walk it all the time. However my father was born the next year so it was probably a very good idea to turn back.
One interesting footnote in history is that on his way up that day he passed an ice axe just lying on a slab of rock. With oxygen deprivation he didn’t consider too much about the implications of this but retracing their footprints on the descent he had enough thought to reconsider.
They were as high as anyone had ever been except of course for perhaps Mallory and Irvine who had disappeared near here during their 1924 attempt. He looked at the landscape around him. The first step where Odell possibly had last seen the pair was 80 meters above him. No climber would have abandoned their axe here; it must have been the site of an accident. He realized that it had great historical significance so picked it up but later had to abandon his own favourite up there where it still lies as it was too dangerous carrying the two. The next day it saved his life during a glissade that got out of control.
The climbing establishment always claimed it was Irvine’s axe but Percy reckoned it could have belonged to either.
Sixty six years later using Percy’s description of the ice axe location, an expedition found George Mallory’s body, not Irvine’s who they were seeking down the fall line.
Like Hillary when the subject came up about whether Mallory had got to the top, he used to say a successful climb included getting back home alive.
I’ve now so inspired with these eighty year old tales that I think I’ll walk over to my woolshed. And back. Without oxygen.