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Everest 50: Getting high on the mountain
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Climbers are a different breed. They could easily be excused for having a god complex. From lofty perches and nearest the heavens a mortal can be still planted to terra firma, mountaineers stand astride jagged, snowy peaks posed triumphantly, ice axe in hand. The Ourea. Conquerors of the cliffs. Precipice princes.
So why do they always look so glum on the top of Everest?
Photographs of those atop Mount Everest so often illustrate a weary traveler. A few hardy climbers muster a drained smile but most don’t even bother to remove their goggles and oxygen mask. Jim Whittaker remembers posing for his shot on top of the world on May 1, 1963. He was the first America to do so, and later was ushered about the country as a national hero. He couldn’t wait to get down.
“On Everest, there is no feeling of exhilaration or achievement. Just the thought of getting down,” Whittaker said in a recent phone interview. “The minute we set foot up there I was thinking, ‘Pound in the flag, get the picture and get off.’”
In fact, the man they call “Big Jim” for his 6-foot-5-inch frame, remembers thinking, “Just snap the thing,” when his Nepalese Sherpa guide Nawang Gombu fumbled with the camera for the iconic shot published in National Geographic. Gombu had never held a camera before then.
Mark Jenkins climbed Everest in 2012 on assignment for National Geographic. It allowed the Wyomingite closure, 26 years after his failed attempt to summit in 1986. The accomplished climber, author and contributing writer for National Geographic recalled his 15 minutes of fame much the same as Whittaker.
“Everest is so high and it’s two months to get there, and when we got there it was 20 below with the wind blowing hard,” Jenkins said. “You’ve got 15 minutes on the summit, usually. And most of that time you are conscious of the fact that you are only halfway. You’ve still got to get all the way down and through the Khumbu Icefall.”
Mount Everest 101
Everest is the planet’s tallest peak. To gain access to its crown is not so much a testament to one’s climbing acumen but a test of will. Without weeks of acclimation, the Average Joe couldn’t survive five minutes sipping coffee at Camp IV (26,000 feet above sea level) at the saddle between Everest and Lhotse. Most spend two to three months straggling about the mountain, still called “Chomolungma” by native Tibetans, fidgeting with their ropes, adjusting their crampons and learning to breathe air so devoid of oxygen it supports only a handful of earth’s life forms.
But how tough is it really?
Everest has been summited by a blind man, a double-amputee and a 13-year-old. Two octogenarians are in base camp right now, vying to be the oldest to the top. Everest has been paraglided and skied. Helicopters have landed on it. On May 30, 2005, Everest hosted its first wedding ceremony (The bride wore North Face).
The approach hike is now accompanied by bed and breakfasts that feature yak steaks and beer specials. “Luxuries that we could only have dreamed of in 1963,” Whittaker commented. For $100,000, there are guide agencies that will feed you, rub your toes warm and practically carry you to the top.
And when shown enough disrespect by plebian plodders looking to check off a bucket list item, Everest kills without discretion. CEOs, doctors, climbing legends, and even Sherpas born in its shadow, are counted among the 220 fatalities and at least 150 frozen cadavers that still call Everest their grave. A freak storm killed nine in one day in 1996. A total of 15 died that year. Everest has tallied at least one death every year since 1969, except in 1977. Already, four climbers have perished on Everest this year – three of them Sherpas.
Exact figures are hard to come by, but at the end of the 2011 season Everest had been successfully climbed by at least 3,142 distinct climbers on 5,104 recorded occasions. Success rates have improved dramatically since the modern commercialization era – 77 percent of all recorded ascents have taken place in the last 12 years. At the end of 2006, the success rate for Everest attempts was 29 percent. The fatality rate was 2.05 percent. About 4.3 people die on Everest for every 100 that summit.
Improvements in technology, gear and the age of commercialized guiding have made Everest safer and more easily scaled. A record 633 ascents were recorded in 2007 alone. One-hundred-sixty-nine climbers made it to the top in one day (May 23, 2010), more than had summited in the 31-year period between 1953 and 1983.
Nearly all attempts to summit are made via two main routes – the Nepal-originating southeast ridge and the Tibet-originating north ridge run.
The mountains are calling …
“This is a hell of a planet,” Whittaker said. “It’s magical and mysterious, and we don’t know the half about it, or why we’re here. Get out there and taste it.”
Mountaineers are of a collective spirit. In Whittaker’s day they were mostly European. Whittaker said guys like he and Willi Unsoeld, Jake Breitenbach, Barry Corbet and Glenn Exum were among the few in the United States who were roped in to the sport of climbing. As REI’s first full-time employee and eventual CEO, Whittaker remembers all the climbing gear he sold out of their 10-by-20-foot headquarters in the 1950s came from overseas. Only Eddie Bauer’s down clothing and sleeping bags came from the United States.
“Climbing has become mainstream. It was a rebel activity in the ’70s when I started doing it,” Jenkins said. “Now, climbing is fractured into all these specialties: ice climbing, bouldering, indoor sport climbing, technical, high-altitude, mountaineering.”
What it takes to join the 8,000 Club – members are alpinists like Whittaker’s son, Leif, who have scaled all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) – is “legs and lungs,” according to Jenkins. Seasoned mountaineers who make epic climbs have learned the finer aspects of route-finding and endurance training but what they’re in it for, what they can never get enough of, is an intimate connection with Mother Earth and what the French refer to as esprit de corps.
“It’s the brotherhood of the rope,” Jenkins explained. “When you are having a strong day you might carry someone’s pack. When they are feeling strong, they will help you. It’s about camaraderie and trust. And style is substance. How you climb the mountain is ultimately all that matters. The process is the whole point of it. Not just the fact you stood on the summit.”
Whittaker agreed. He said he climbs for the fun, fresh air and breathtaking sights of new places. He enjoys sharing that with fellow mountaineers. Climbers will go to war with their alpine mates, but they’re careful about who they tie on to.
“You can’t be arrogant in the mountains. If you’ve got an ego going I’m not gonna hook up with you ’cuz you’re headed for trouble,” Whittaker said. “You know, people who walk around wearing those t-shirts that say ‘No Fear.’ They should say ‘Know Fear.’ You don’t overcome the mountain, you never will. You aren’t climbing it to prove yourself, really. Climbing mountains like Everest – it’s an ego destroyer. True mountaineers climb to know their weaknesses; to realize what a little speck they are on this incredible planet.”
“The ‘Great Spirit’ instilled fear in you so you stay alive,” Whittaker said. “I’ve had people tell me they could never climb because they have a fear of heights. Well so do I, and that’s precisely why I’m still here. You have to be aware of what nature and your body is telling you. Know the limits of your ability.
“I’ve been turned back on a hell of a lot of mountains. You have to remember: the mountain is probably gonna be there tomorrow. Like my son Leif says, ‘To summit is optional, to get down is mandatory.’”
As a guide during college in his home state of Washington, Whittaker summited Mount Rainier at least 80 times with clients. He learned to leave enough in the tank for the return trip. “When we guided we always anticipated we might have to get the client off ourselves,” he said. “We knew we had to keep a reserve to carry someone out. And we carried people out, eight or 10 miles sometimes. So you learn how to do that. The more you climb the more you learn.”
An experienced mountaineer is a rare find and a delicate balance, Jenkins says.
“In old school mountaineering, you make too many mistakes, you die,” Jenkins said. “You have to know when to turn around and fight another day. It’s the old cliche: good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”
High and mighty
What makes Everest so tough is the elevation. The best time of year to climb is May, before monsoon season shifts the jet stream and its sustained 100-mph winds from north of the peak to directly over it. Even in good weather, climbers are braced for temps far below zero and winds that will freeze water bottle contents in minutes.
At sea level, the concentration of oxygen in any gulp of air is about 21 percent. At Everest’s peak the oxygen level is less than seven percent, a third of what flatlanders are used to. Blood-oxygen saturation at extreme altitude is so low the body goes into a self-defense mode: all but the most vital functions are shut down. Brain activity is retarded. Food is no longer digested properly. Breathing is accelerated from 21 breaths per minute to 90. Exhaustion can occur from the simple act of inhaling and exhaling.
“You are dying,” Whittaker said. “On Everest, we ate 5,000 calories a day to maintain musculature levels, but you don’t have the oxygen. I was in great shape at 34. I weighed 205 when I left for Everest and was strong as hell. I was 175 pounds when I left the summit. It was all muscle lost. I had no fat to begin with. We had these huge chough [crow-like birds] who feasted on our poop because the food was barely metabolized, and it was all good.”
Of the thousands that have climbed Everest, only a couple hundred have successfully done so without oxygen. The mountain is littered with hundreds of discarded oxygen canisters even after a massive cleanup effort in 2010 removed an impressive amount of litter. Oxygen keeps climbers warmer and more lucid. And mistakes are what kill climbers.
“You do dumb things. You get dumber the higher you go. You are not operating on a full deck of cards,” Whittaker said. “You don’t really realize you are losing mental ability. It is a subtle thing. I was above 21,000 feet for over a month – in an area that can’t support life.”
Whittaker got his first taste of climbing on an indoor artificial rock when he was a Boy Scout in Seattle. He drives an Expedition (what else?) with the vanity plate “29028” – the elevation of Everest – bought for him by his wife Dianne on his birthday a few years back. He was chosen for the 1963 expedition primarily because of his experience on Rainier – a tricky mountain with notoriously impetuous weather.
“Rainier’s no picnic,” Whittaker said. “Half the people who attempt Rainier don’t make summit. It can be as miserable as any place in the world sometimes. The funny thing was, while we were going through our shakedown on Rainier in preparation for Everest, we were twice knocked down by storms. I was thinking, ‘Geez, how are we going to climb Everest when we can’t even get up Rainier?’”
Whittaker felt confident and strong coming to the Himalayas. He had trained for the climb for two years. He was in peak condition. He said judging by what he knew he could do on his hometown hill, a mountain whose 9,000 vertical feet he had scaled in less than six hours, he figured “no problem.”
Yet Whittaker remembers being gassed on the first day in base camp putting up rope ladder on the initial set of ice walls. He couldn’t believe how much the altitude robbed him of his strength and stamina. By day two, his will was sapped as well when climbing partner Jake Breitenbach was killed in the treacherous Khumbu Icefall – a forever shifting glacier that shears off building-sized chunks of ice called seracs right out from underneath climbers with no warning. They found his rope, followed it, digging furiously, five feet into the sheer ice blocks that covered Breitenbach until they could dig no more. They cut the rope and left him to forever rest in his icy tomb.
Whittaker recalled the day 50 years ago that he made his renowned ascent. He and Gombu were waylaid by storms for two days at Camp VI, just a little more than 1,500 feet from the top. They didn’t have enough oxygen to last one more day, and they were growing more and more fatigued just waiting for a break in the weather.
Whittaker and Gombu left at 4 a.m. in a blizzard, hoping it would break. He remembers later, New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary, the first man to scale Everest a decade earlier, was in a nearby village teaching school children at the time. Hillary looked up at the winds blasting a snow plume off Everest’s peak that morning and said, “Nobody will climb today.”
But Big Jim was already closing in on the top. His oxygen canister was spent. Gombu had a little left. Each motioned the other to go first. The Sherpa knew Whittaker was making history and demurred. Whittaker became the first American to the top and the 10th overall to summit. He posed for the iconic shot and climbed back down to his tent at 27,245 feet above sea level where he crept into his sleeping bag and fell fast asleep with his crampons still on.
Upon his return to America, Whittaker said he was stunned by the reception. A ticker-tape parade in Seattle was followed by an invitation to the White House from John Kennedy. Whittaker became a close friend to the Kennedy family. Two years after Whittaker’s famous ascent of Everest, the Canadian government named its country’s highest unclimbed peak Mount Kennedy and invited Robert Kennedy to be the first to summit. The natural choice of a guide was Big Jim.
“The three of us [Whittaker, Kennedy and alpinist Barry Prather] stood there about 50 feet from the top, and I stepped aside,” Whittaker recalled. “I said to Bobby, ‘It’s your mountain.’ God, that was a great moment. The sun was out, planes were circling overhead, and the tears just froze on my parka right there in the middle of the Canadian Yukon.”
Three years later, Whittaker was one of the pallbearers at RFK’s funeral.
Everest ethics and controversy
Global warming has melted a significant amount of snow and ice on Everest in recent years. Tons of trash and discarded equipment litter the mountainside, and more than a few decomposing bodies lie scattered at all elevations as a foreboding reminder that rescue is not usually possible.
“I think it’s an exaggeration to say people are left to die,” Jenkins said, referring to more than one occasion where fellow climbers have
abandoned a still living mate. David Sharp took shelter under a rock overhang known as Green Boots Cave and was passed by a number of climbers as he sat dying. Sharp ended up sitting down right next to a green-booted Indian climber named Tsewang Paljor, who had been frozen in time there since 1996.
Hillary called the Sharp incident “horrifying” and couldn’t believe the callous, get-to-the-top-at-all-costs climbing that seems to be the norm today.
Beck Weathers should have been fatality number 16 that same year. He was left for dead by climbing partners who were positive he was gone. Weathers somehow recovered and walked back to Camp IV like a ghost where he promptly died again, only to recover once more. After being plucked off Everest by the highest helicopter rescue ever performed, he survived but lost his right arm, most of his fingers and toes and his nose to frostbite.
“There are some rare instances where there is simply no choice, but you have to very careful to generalize one incident out of thousands,” Jenkins said. “What isn’t publicized are the many small acts of kindness like fixing someone soup or taking their pack. That happens all day long. Mountaineering ethic still says, ‘Take care of your fellow man.’”
Jenkins said he has been involved in two high-altitude rescues and getting people through the icefalls.
“Once they’re frozen, though, and they’re dead; it’s very difficult and dangerous getting them down. It will take six people getting a 200-pound statue frozen in position down off the mountain. In terms of the bodies on Everest, it is the old burial-at-sea rule. I question that on Everest at this point because there are too many bodies now.”
Jenkins’ talk on Friday night will look at where Everest is 60 years after the first summit.
“It’s unlike any other climb on the planet,” he said. “It’s got basically two approaches and 90 percent of the trips are commercially guided for a clientele that, well, half of the people don’t have the experience to be there. Everest stands alone in good, bad and ugly ways. And it’s got real issues.”
BONUS Video: Discovery of George Mallory?
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BONUS Video: Eddie Bauer commemorative 50th anniversary video short
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