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Everest North Side Expedition:  Dick Bass, Jim Wickwire, Dick Bass, John Roskelley

Generations On Everest Re-cap

Update: May 21, 2003; Summit Day: One by one, beams of light from our headlamps cut through the darkness. Pemba sat up near the door of the tent, found the pot, lit the stove and began melting ice for water. He was quick and efficient. Pasang Gelu tucked the bottom of his sleeping bag under himself to avoid knocking over the stove and leaned back against the tent wall, while Jess and I sat up and started fumbling with clothing and gear.

Within 20 minutes, Pemba had a steady boil bubbling in the pot. Jess and I poured hot water into our cups, which were full of oatmeal. We ate it, like it was our last meal. Our Sherpas preferred their own food. First they made a sweet tea and then mixed in tsampa, barley flour, until they had an eatable paste. After the four of us were done eating, we each had a cup of hot tea, which completed our midnight snack.

After pulling on my boots and fastening my neoprene overboots, I wiggled into my climbing harness, and then checked to ensure we had at least 2,200 liters of oxygen in each tank. After what seemed like endless false starts, everyone was dressed, hooked-up to their oxygen system and ready to leave the tent.

The wind had picked up during the night. Although the weather had been perfect when we went to bed, when we left the tent at midnight the wind was blowing 10 to 15 miles per hour and snowing about an inch an hour.

I was the last to leave the tent. Jess was putting on his crampons, while I searched under the fresh snow for mine. Even though we had modified our neoprene overboots in Spokane to fit our crampon bindings, it wasn’t easy to get them to stay on. Finally, at the risk of frostbite, I removed my gloves and was able to hold the front bail tight enough to the welt for the bindings to take hold and stay put. Jess and the Sherpas were ready to go as I tied into the rope just behind Pasang Gelu. Jess was tied in 30 feet behind me, while Pemba followed in the rear.

I’m not in the habit of climbing in bad weather, especially at extreme altitude. The decision to make a summit attempt that day or wait for better weather had to be made as we left the tent. If we went for the top and failed because of bad weather, the chances of another summit attempt were slim. Once we used up the oxygen at the high camp, it would be very difficult to get more from Advanced Base.

“Pasang,” I said. “What do you think? Do we have a chance in this weather?”

“The winds aren’t too bad,” he replied. “And with the snow, the temperature is warmer. We should go.”

I didn’t like it. But then again, he had been on the route before and knew the terrain. He was an experienced Sherpa. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“Okay,” I agreed reluctantly and looked at Jess. He gave me the thumb’s up.

Emerging from the dozen tents pitched above ours, numerous Chinese climbers were getting ready to leave camp. Their headlamps cut through the falling snow as they donned crampons and tied into their ropes.

“Pasang, get going,” I said. “We’ve got to get on the ropes first.”

He took off quickly, following an old, frayed fixed line that ran diagonally up a ramp of loose rock and compact snow and ice. We climbed steadily at two to three breaths per step. Ten minutes into the climb, I heard Jess shout for us to hold up. His crampon had popped off his boot.

Wearing bulking down clothing and an oxygen mask that prevented him from seeing his feet, I knew it would be faster for two of us to work on the crampon. I quickly dropped back to help and held the front binding bail in place, while Jess snapped the back binding onto the large heel welt. We were on our way again within minutes.

Although there were many vertical steps of rock 10 to 30 feet in height, it was not difficult to follow the ramp. Not only were the rock strata close to horizontal, which produced good holds for our hands and feet, the ice was perfect for crampons and ice axe when needed. I kept looking above me to determine how far we were from the Northeast Ridge, but the beam from my headlamp would just reflect off the snowflakes. There was no distinction between rock and sky in the pre-dawn hour.

About an hour into the climb, I noticed Pasang was weaving slightly and having difficulty keeping a reasonable pace. I caught him at a short vertical rock wall to ask him if he was okay, but one glance told me the story; he was climbing without a headlamp because he had left it at camp; had taken off his expedition mitts because he couldn’t grab his ascender; and, the main reason for his slow pace, he was not using bottled oxygen. His mask was stuffed into his pack.

“Pasang, I know you’d like to climb Everest without oxygen, but this is not the time,” I said. “You’re putting the whole team at risk. Put on your oxygen or turn back.”

He didn’t argue.

I took off my pack and found my extra pair of gloves, then helped him with his oxygen mask and regulator. As I adjusted the flow of Pasang’s oxygen, Pemba climbed up to us and took the lead. I told Pasang to come last, and then went second, followed closely by Jess. Pasang brought up the rear and, based on his pace, was obviously having difficulty with the altitude. Jess slowed his pace to shine his headlamp where Pasang needed help.

At 2:30 AM, we reached the top of the Northeast Ridge. The wind was still blowing steadily and there was about two inches of fresh snow on the rock. Despite the hour, I could make out distinct shapes and landmarks on the ridge close by. We walked along the ridge crest on hard packed snow for 50 yards before ducking beneath a tall rock outcrop.

There, huddled beneath a rock overhang in a fetal position was a climber. I thought at first he was bivouacked there, but then, after shining my headlamp to his face, realized he was dead, frozen in place, his hands clutching an old oxygen bottle. Pemba stepped over the dead man’s fluorescent green Koflac boots, which still had crampons attached, glanced back at me as if to say, “I bet you didn’t know he was here”, and moved on without a word. I followed, thinking how close we are to his fate. A few seconds later, I heard Jess exclaim, “Whoa! Did you see that? I thought he was sleeping!”

We passed the First Step, a minor rock obstacle, without a problem. Two hours later we were at the bottom of the infamous Second Step, a 90-foot vertical rock wall, hung with a dozen old, multi-colored ropes and a 15-foot aluminum ladder near the top. The Chinese had put the ladder at the most difficult section during their 1975 ascent. It was still in good condition.

The Second Step is technically the toughest section of the climb, if it is climbed without the use of ropes and the Chinese ladder, which of course, isn’t done. So difficult is the ridge at this point that it’s here where it’s believed Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irving, two British climbers who attempted this route in 1924, turned back and were never seen alive again. Mallory’s body was eventually found by the 1975 Chinese expedition near our high camp on the North Face at around 28,000 feet. Irving’s body has never been found.

I thought the Sherpas would have trouble ascending the fixed ropes up the steep wall, but they didn’t. The four of us were on top of the wall within a half hour, just as dawn broke. Above us, about a quarter mile and 500 vertical feet, was the summit, taking shape in the early morning light.

Ten minutes up the ridge from the Second Step, we stopped to eat a candy bar and drink some water. Fifty feet below us was another corpse and our second grizzly reminder that even a minor mistake could be fatal at this altitude. Jess, Pemba and I were feeling warm and strong, but Pasang was still a concern. He hadn’t picked up his pace by using oxygen and seemed spaced out. We would have to keep a close eye on him.

The Third Step was nothing more than a few short vertical steps. We climbed these easily and then continued up a 400-foot snow and ice slope on the summit pyramid. Even though some parties had stayed on the ice along the ridge, we followed the main route that led out over the North Face and traversed a series of rock ledges. These backtracked and led us to the Northeast Ridge again and less than a hundred yards from the summit.

To the east were immense cornices, gigantic waves of frozen ice that seemed ready to crash and cascade down the Kangchung Face at any moment. To our right was the North Face, a steep, wind scarred rock face cut by icy gullies from top to bottom. We walked along easily on the slightly upward sloping ice, taking care not to get too close to the corniced ridge, but staying away from the North Face as well.

Thirty feet from the summit, I waited for Jess. Together, we walked the last 20 feet to the summit of Everest.

I didn’t fight back the tears. There was a lot of stress built up inside me that seemed to want to climb out right there. It had been a long journey from saying, “yes, I’m going”, to standing on top, but it was worth the trouble. Unfortunately, Ed had died, but that led to Jess being invited. Then I had to tell his mother, which was tougher than climbing Everest. And, I couldn’t just walk off from my job without making arrangements. The summit released them all. It was the first time I had ever cried on the summit of a peak. And, Jess cried with me.

After four unsuccessful expeditions, taking over a year and a half of my life, I was finally standing on top – with my son, who was not even born when I made my first attempt on Everest in 1981. At 20 years of age, Jess had become the youngest American to summit the highest point on earth.

It was blowing hard, snowing and the visibility was cut to a few hundred feet. The temperature was around 20 degrees below Fahrenheit. Despite the bad weather and virtually no visibility, we were elated to be there. Jess and I hugged and congratulated each other, and then each of us grabbed Pemba and hugged him. Pasang Gelu was still five minutes away.

Pemba pulled from his pack a string of brightly colored prayer flags, a Buddhist tradition for significant events. He attached them from another expedition’s previously placed anchor, and then strung them 15 feet to the summit. They were in line with a dozen other strings of prayer flags that had been placed throughout the years.

Meanwhile, I pulled out my digital Nikon and took a few photos of Jess, then he and Pemba, on the summit. I couldn’t take my gloves off for too long for fear of frostbite, so I took only a few more photos before putting the camera away. After what seemed like an eternity waiting in the cold and wind, which was probably only five minutes, Pasang Gelu joined us on top. We congratulated him, let him enjoy the moment, and then started our descent. At the first rocks, both Jess and I grabbed a few small, fist-sized pieces of gray limestone, put them in our packs and continued on our way.

Despite the continuing storm, the descent was much easier and faster. Just below the summit, on the rock ledges that traversed back to the Northeast Ridge, I tried descending without bottled oxygen. My mask’s bladder, that exchanges oxygen with the natural air, had filled with ice and was pulling my mask off my face every time I looked down or moved my head. Not only was it annoying, it was dangerous. Within minutes, I found myself getting dizzy. Jess noticed the change in my coordination and yelled at me to put my mask back on. I did so, but the mask, with the full bladder of ice, made my trip down the ridge a potential disaster.

At the Second Step, we encountered 30 to 40 climbers, mostly Chinese, who were having a difficult time climbing the ropes. One Chinese woman in particular couldn’t seem to negotiate the step-over away from the ladder onto a newly laid rope. Other climbers were literally stacked up behind her waiting for her to make the move so they could take their turn.

The Chinese climbers were stacked-up like cordwood. They were not about to move aside and let us descend. We couldn’t wait there for hours, so I grabbed an old rope and hand-lined down alongside the group, weaving in and out of them. Some of them were more than gracious enough to step aside, but some were not. It took me just a few minutes to reach the bottom. I continued down the ridge along the fixed lines to get out of the way of the 10 to 15 climbers still waiting to start up. I couldn’t see Jess, but I knew he would be behind me shortly. Pemba and Pasang Gelu ended up far behind us. They were uncomfortable with hand lining down old ropes, so had to stay at the top of the Second Step for almost two hours.

I was running out of oxygen when I came upon a climber sitting in the snow on one of the ramps.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m alright,” he said, “but my partner down there has a broken leg. I’ve radioed down for a rescue group and they’re sending one up. I’ll be staying with him.”

Even in my hypoxic state, I knew that a rescue crew was a long shot. There was no one left at the high camp and the rest of us were barely able to get down ourselves. Even if a rescue team did get mobilized, the terrain made it impossible for more than one person at a time on the rope.

I looked at the climber below me and could see that he was moving, but not on two legs. He was scooting along holding his one leg hanging down over the side of the rock ramp. I climbed down to him. It was a British climber who we had met earlier at Base Camp.

“What did you break?” I asked him.

“My ankle. How does the route look down there?” he asked.

I walked past him and could see he was above one of the 10 to 20-foot drop-offs. Fortunately, not only were there a few of the old ropes our group had used on our ascent, there was now a new 8 mm perlon line that the Chinese had just put in as they ascended.

“Are you in a lot of pain? I asked.

“It hurts quite a bit,” he admitted.

I usually carry injectable demoral, but had mistakenly left it at the North Col. But as I thought about it, I realized it was probably best he felt the ankle, rather than eliminate the pain. Besides, no one was going to be able to get him down off that ridge - but himself. He needed to be fully awake and cognizant of his situation. The altitude and terrain would prevent anyone else from physically carrying or supporting him.

I was almost out of oxygen and needed to move quickly to get to our cache of oxygen we had left on the way up near a landmark called “Mushroom Rock”. If I didn’t get to the cache, I would be in serious trouble. Without oxygen, the chances of getting cerebral or pulmonary edema would rise dramatically.

“Your teammate said there’s a rescue crew coming. I have to keep going. I’m almost out of oxygen. Good luck.”

I hated to leave him. But he would either make it down under his own power, or perish. There was no in-between. This wasn’t Mt. Rainier. At 28,500 feet, there was no room for error. Evidently, he had been at the bottom of a frayed rope. He and two other climbers were putting their weight on it. Perhaps the rope had broken; maybe someone had slipped. Regardless, one of the climbers above him had fallen on him, breaking his ankle.

A half hour later, Jess also came upon the injured Brit. His training as a guide made him want to stay with the climber, but he was completely out of oxygen and had started to feel hypoxic and in serious danger.

When he caught me an hour down the ridge, Jess was distraught with worry.

“I didn’t want to leave him, Dad,” he said, “but I was out of oxygen. What should I have done?”

“There was nothing more you could do, Jess,” I said. “His teammates will do what they can, but it’s really up to him to get down. There’s not a rescue team on earth that can get him off this ridge. If we had stayed with him, there would be three victims, not just one. “ (Footnote: The next day, a team of British Royal Marines met the injured climber at high camp, where he had dragged, rappelled and slid down to. From there the marines helped him down to Base Camp. Considering where the accident happened and what he had to do to get down, the British climber came out of his ordeal quite well. His tenacity and strength was remarkable and kept him alive and moving. His two teammates that stayed with him incurred frostbite on their hands and feet.)

Both Jess and I had picked up new bottles of oxygen at our cache and were feeling better, although close to complete exhaustion. We were at the point on the ridge where the route intersected the ramp that led down to camp. As we rested for the final descent, Pasang Gelu and Pemba caught up. All together again, we descended the ramp to camp and arrived at noon, 12 hours after beginning our journey. The weather had improved slightly and it was warmer at the lower altitude. I didn’t see any mobilization of men for a rescue crew, but I knew that would take time.

We were at camp long enough to have a quick cup of tea, pack our gear and start down. The descent to 25,700 feet took hours. We were completely exhausted and every step felt as though my legs would buckle under the heavy load. We encountered a multitude of climbers and Sherpas ascending the ropes to high camp. Climbers from Korea, Russia, the United States, Romania, France and a dozen other countries were nose to tail, slowly making their way up. We had to down-climb long sections of the route without the protection of the fixed rope to get around the climbers. Late in the afternoon, we finally got past the last of them and descended into camp.

The four of us were done in. An Irish climber we had befriended at Advanced Base boiled water and made tea for us. Jess ended up sleeping in his tent for the night, while I finally struggled to my feet and moved to our tent just 30 feet away. But, it was a major effort.

The next morning, May 22, the Sherpas packed up and left early. They were headed to Advanced Base Camp and wanted to get there before the sun heated the slopes. Jess and I loaded up with everything that was left and started down an hour later. The loads were heavy and awkward. Just short of the North Col camp was a 20-foot hill. I had to rest twice to get over it and into camp. Within four hours, we had reached the North Col.

After brewing a cup of tea and hydrating, we loaded our packs with more of our gear that we had left at the North Col a few days before and began the last leg of our descent, the 2,000-foot drop down the face to Advanced Base. Several hours later, punctuated by many rest stops, we walked into camp. Twenty-one thousand feet felt like sea level, but we were so exhausted it was difficult to appreciate the difference. We were down and, most importantly, without frostbite or injury.

After a day to pack gear and rest, the entire team of six Sherpas, one Tibetan cook boy and the two of us descended to base camp. The yaks followed with the gear the next day. Two days later, we left Everest base for Nepal and home, the end of one great adventure and the beginning of many more.

-John Roskelley



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