The upper part of Everest SW face.
Each day exact checks on what food and equipment were in each camp had to be matched against the number of Sherpas available for carrying and what was required for upward progress and maintenance of present positions with safety margins. Radio messages, regarded somewhat ambivalently at first, were prolonged when the chain became extended and front progress almost too fast, especially when oxygen and an alarming number of faulty regulators had to be juggled into the calculations. This operation depended of course on our Sherpas, whose particularly high morale and enthusiasm were key factors in the whole expedition; the unprecedented quantities, so quickly built up at Camp 5, were an indicator of the support coming right through from Base Camp and the organisational efforts of Chris Bonington, Mike Cheney, Adrian Gordon, Dave Clarke and our Sirdars Pertemba and Ang Phu.
Yet, in the midst of the apparently inexorable machine-like activity, the mountain was large enough for one to realise that it would not require much to reverse the tide of circumstances carrying us forward so well. A few days out in front could emphasise the contrasts. Early morning outside Camp 5, the eye would be greeted by a glow suffusing across the horizon, Cho Oyu tipped with rosy orange, Pumori, now a pimple, emerging out of the dark stillness below and the fringe of Gosainthan and its Tibetan neighbours in the distance. Conscious of fiddling with freezing crampons and oxygen apparatus in the half-light and then, cocooned in a semi-somnolent shell, the rhythmical shuffle, pull, plod and gasp up the ropes to the previous day's high point. Fix a few more rope lengths until no more was left and then easily slide down in the bright light to excavate a snow platform and erect the next box, so more rope instead of box platforms could come up from Camp 2.
By the time we reached the Rock Band on 19 September, progress was well in advance of that on previous attempts and even the most optimistic computer estimate on Chris's multicoloured graphs. From below and from air photos it was not possible to see whether the left-hand gully provided a route through the Rock Band, as it was so deep and well concealed. The breakthrough came on 20 September when Tut Braithwaite and Nick Estcourt cramponed into the bowels of the Rock Band. They encountered some difficult mixed pitches whilst entering and climbing up the gully, including an ice-clad chockstone that succumbed to a few pitons for aid. In the curling mists of the afternoon it had the haunting atmosphere of a Scottish gully with dark looming walls soaring upwards from a narrow snow bed. Then Nick and Tut dumped their empty oxygen cylinders and climbed across a remarkable ramp, loose and difficult, that led out from the gully rightwards to the top of the Band.
Braithwaite climbing the ramp to the top of the Rock Band
Down in Camp 2 awaiting developments, an anxious call came from Camp 1 that it was collapsing; Hamish strode off to a Canute-like investigation. A bunting-like bird hopped about outside the mess tent whilst those within disposed of roast yak with relish. When Tut and Nick eventually arrived back off the Face, the crowded superbox felt like the Padarn Lake Hotel as they talked and gesticulated about their high-altitude acrobatics. Temporary feelings of anti-climax at lack of news and non-involvement with action above soon dissolved into euphoria. In only one day, the crux of the route and stumbling block of 5 earlier expeditions had at last been climbed and success seemed near.
On one long relentless day Mike Thompson, Mick Burke, Chris Bonington, Ang Phurba and Pertemba carrying vital ropes, fuel and oxygen, supported Doug Scott and Dougal Haston in establishing Camp 6 on a slim crest on the snow-slope above the Rock Band. At last it was possible to look across that much dreamed-about great traverse, and up the gully to the S Summit of Everest. Above, the wind was blowing ice particles off the summit ridge, shimmering in the sunlight. The support team took a long look from their 8320 m eyrie and then, with supreme altruism, turned back down to Camp 5 as the sun declined behind towering anvil clouds over Nepal. Doug and Dougal were left excavating a perch for their tiny green box. After spending a day fixing 400 m of rope that wavered around spurs and over steep rock steps, they were back again and were poised for their final attempt, the Alpine commitment of leaving the end of the safety line and forging for the summit. And at the back of their minds, they were aware of the other teams moving up the face below them, snapping at their heels, eager for their chance.
The next morning the BBC cameraman Ian Stewart, plodded dedicatedly up the W Cwm. He pointed his telephoto lens at two figures 1800 m above him moving steadily across the top of the Rock Band. Occasionally a dead man on one of their waists flashed a sense of immediacy down into the Cwm.
Haston on the traverse above the Rock Band
Back in the boxes on the face everyone was relying for information as to their progress on radio reports from down in the Cwm. At Camp 5, Mick Burke, Martin Boysen and Pete Boardman and Pertemba were listening in every half-hour to progress reports. Mick peered out of the box doorway and up at the dark looming Rock Band 'Well, if they don't make it, they should have their first bounce around here'. Meanwhile, 600 m lower down Dave Clarke and Ronnie Richards crouched over their radio in the main street of Camp 4.
During the traverse, the watchers saw a large powder snow avalanche sweep down from the summit - it plummeted past the two figures now just visible to the naked eye from Camp 2. Then Doug and Dougal disappeared into the S Summit Gully. Hours later, at 3pm they reappeared briefly on the S Summit, only to move from view over the ridge into China. Occasionally a puff of snow appeared in the wind over the summit ridge. Soon the surmise was made by the watchers at Camp 2, Doug and Dougal were going for the summit. In the late afternoon light, 2 figures could just be seen moving, amazingly, unbelievably, up along the ridge. The light was failing and Chris crackled through the radio to the next summit bid team to prepare for a rescue and to load up with pain killers for potential frost-bite. How would Doug and Dougal survive a bivouac at 8,750m?
Next morning the second team found them inside the box at Camp 6, their minds still numb and speech slurred after a night without sleep and without much oxygen. But their imaginations were full of a lifetime sight - sunset from the summit - the interminable brown and silver rivers of Tibet, and a myriad of sunsets, sun shifting behind the plumed storm clouds of Nepal. They told of their near failure when at the foot of the gully Dougal's mask had frozen solid, blocking his oxygen supply and for an hour they had struggled to repair it. They told of the deep time-consuming powder snow in the gully, of the wind slab and the cornices, and of the Chinese maypole on the summit. They told of hallucinations in the snow-hole, of Doug holding a conversation with his feet, and of Dougal's conviction that Dave Clarke was with them, but without his usual issue of warm, life preserving down! However, unlike Doug, Dougal was wearing a down suit. In the heat of the afternoon Doug and Dougal were back at Camp 2, after 1,800m of sliding down the face on the ropes, involving a disciplined concentration on the ritual of clipping and unclipping their friction brakes with sensitive rewarmed fingers. Soon they were in the tender care of Dr Charles Clarke who, clad in a suit of red silk, swept around them with a bowl of warm water. In one bold and daring push Doug and Dougal had maintained the upward momentum of the whole expedition by reaching the summit within 33 days of Base Camp being established.
Despite the jubilation and the sense of personal success he must have felt at having co-ordinated and planned the ascent of the route, Chris now felt an added responsibility for the expedition. He intended to recognise the personal ambitions of the other team members and planned for 3 subsequent summit bids. And he was worried about Mick, who by mid afternoon still had not arrived at Camp 6 to join Martin, Pete and Pertemba.
But when Mick arrived at 4pm many fears were allayed. He was his usual chirpy self. He had been carrying extra camera equipment, had been readjusting the fixed line, had been helping Lakpa Dorje Sherpa whose oxygen apparatus had failed and his own oxygen had run out when he was 60 m below the Camp. He could see the hardworn line of Doug and Dougal's steps stretching beckoningly upwards. With the summit of the highest mountain on earth so accessible, what mountaineer would deny himself at least a try?
By dawn the following morning a chain of circumstances had been set in motion. Pete and Pertemba had reached the end of the fixed ropes and were convinced that oxygen difficulties had forced Martin and Mick to retreat. There was no-one in sight. They kicked away the spindrift from the tracks and moved unroped away from the end of the fixed ropes across the 300m traverse to the S Summit Gully. There they jumared gratefully up a fixed line hanging over a rock step in the gully. Looking down they could see a solitary sitting figure far back across the traverse and presumed it was Martin watching their progress before he turned back disappointedly to Camp 6. Meanwhile for those back at Camp 2 the view lacked the sunlit immediacy of 2 days before. The weather was changing and the cloud level was down to 8,200m.
At 10am Pete and Pertemba were standing on the S Summit but Pertemba's wayward oxygen set was re-enacting Dougal's ice block and it was 1 ½ hours and several cold fingers later before they began, roped now, to move along the summit ridge. They were not to be greeted on the summit by the shifting light patterns of a great panorama. Instead, visibility was down to 50 m and the sun was shining through the clouds above them. Pertemba attached a Nepalese flag to the maypole.
Haston on the Hillary step
On their descent they were amazed to see Mick through the mist. He was sitting on the snow only a few hundred metres down an easy angled snowslope from the summit. He seemed cheerful, congratulated them and asked them to go back to the summit with him so he could do some filming. They declined thinking that since they were moving roped and he was so near the summit, that he would soon catch them up again as they pitched the descent. He asked them to wait for him by the big rock of the S Summit. Pete said 'See you soon' and they moved back down the ridge to the S Summit. Shortly after they had left him, the weather began to deteriorate. The sky and cornices and whirling snow merged together, visibility was reduced to 3 metres and all tracks were obliterated.
They waited nearly 1 ½ hours before deciding to go down. They very nearly did not get back. They had difficulty in finding the top of the gully, found the top of the fixed rope over the rock step in the dark and were covered by 2 powder snow avalanches whilst moving blindly down and across the traverse. It was dark when they found the end of the fixed ropes. Moving across the fixed rope, Pertemba lost a crampon and Pete fell down a rock step to be held on the rope. One of the sections of fixed rope had been swept away. Martin was waiting for them at Camp 6. He had turned back when his oxygen equipment had failed and his crampon had fallen off. Pete and Pertemba arrived back at 7:30 at night and the 3 of them were pinned down at the camp for a whole day and 2 nights whilst the storm continued unabated. Pertemba was snow-blind and Pete could not feel his feet. Martin suffered frost-bite in his fingers whilst clearing the snow that was burying the boxes as avalanches poured past and over the edge of the Rock Band.
When the storm finally cleared on the morning of 28 September there was no chance of Mick having survived. Camp 4 had been evacuated and half the tents at Camp 2 had been destroyed by the blast from an avalanche from Nuptse. Bonington ordered the mountain to be cleared. The climbers remaining on the Face began painfully to descend. Within 2 days the entire expedition was back at Base Camp.
What had happened to Mick? Perhaps the cornices on the Tibetan side of the ridge or the fragile one-foot wind slab on the Nepal side had collapsed, the fixed line over the Hillary Step had failed, or perhaps Mick, wearing glasses, blinded by the spindrift, had lost his way on the summit dome. He had taken a decision which any of the climbers on the expedition would have made, to try for the summit alone. To us, the question was - was the climb worth Mick's death? But back home, in the mountaineering press, other debates continue. Did Everest, its success, adventure and tragedy, transcend the ethical debates? Was a big, costly logistical pyramid of men and supplies justified in 1975 when so much was achieved elsewhere in the Himalaya that year by bold lightweight expeditions on Gasherbrum 1 and Dunagiri? Do the sherpas and their country suffer from the impact of involvement with such an onslaught of capitalist commercial risk-takers? Was it more than a 'vertically integrated crowd control?'
The summit ridge with the S summit and Lhotse
The expedition owed much of its success to good weather high up (that only broke just when the expedition was at its most extended). It owed its success to Chris's leadership, to Bob Stoodley and Ronnie Richards getting the gear out, to Dave Clarke organising the equipment, to Mike Thompson organising the food, to Tut and Nick climbing the Rock Band, to the cool panache of Doug and Dougal's summit push, to hundreds of helpers and well-wishers in Britain and Nepal, and to Barclays Bank. It owed its success to climbers working together and trusting each other as friends. And it owed its success to the Sherpas whose involvement with the expedition and its success was total and euphoric - no Sherpas had been killed on the mountain, a Sherpa had reached the summit, they had been paid well and given fine equipment, the climb was over early and there was still good money to be made in the trekking season. The effect on us of their inherent happiness and reliability was more powerful than the impact of any of our misguided Western values on them. The Sherpas had been treated as equals and mutual respect and co-operation resulted. Their success was our success and ours was theirs.
And the mountain? The great drifting snows of winter soon erase the marks of man's ant-like scratchings. Everest's beauty leaves a picturehouse of memories that last a lifetime. Yet, Everest is a big mountain and the SW Face in 1975 required heavyweight tactics. Access to its secrets is only achieved after a 600 m ice-fall and a 2-mile walk up the W Cwm at 6,400m. And high on its slopes there is only a narrow boundary between a controlled and an uncontrolled situation that can be crossed irreversibly within minutes. Beyond the fixed ropes there is total Alpine commitment.
And the publicity? No climbing of Everest can ever be a private affair. Everest, the myth, with its magic and history fills the corners of the minds of many people - as the sunset from the summit filled the minds of Doug and Dougal and as at the end of the expedition, the experience of Everest was a mixture of awe, relief, happiness and sadness for the long lines of climbers who toiled back across the freshly fallen snow, back down the W Cwm. Occasionally stopping and glancing back.
The full report can be read via the Digital Alpine Journal.