American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Nepal, Mount Everest

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1953

Mount Everest. In 1952 the Swiss made two strong attacks on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest, one before and the other after the monsoon.

Following the route discovered by Dr. Charles S. Houston and H. William Tilman in 1950, and unsuccessfully attempted by the British under Eric Shipton in 1951, the pre-monsoon party went in to the mountain through Namche Bazar and on April 23rd reached the foot of the Khombu Glacier, where they established their base camp at 16,500 feet. From there a medial moraine led them easily to the site of Camp 1 at 17,220 feet at the foot of the wildly broken up icefall which rises 2,500 feet to the floor of the West Cwm. To find a route up this first major obstacle was no easy task. It was there that the British had failed the year before. The first two reconnaissances, made by Dr. Gabriel Chevalley, René Dittert, René Aubert, and Raymond Lambert, ended in miserable failure among the yawning crevasses and tottering séracs. André Roch, Léon Flory, Ernest Hofstetter, and J-J. Asper decided to make a last desperate attempt on the left side of the icefall which was overhung by a 5,000-foot slope covered with hanging glaciers and scarred by avalanche troughs. At first, this route seemed too dangerous because of the avalanche threat, but it was the very debris of the avalanches which filled many of the cracks and allowed the party to advance. Finally a last crevasse barred the route completely, leaving no way around. After descending into the crack and climbing the precipitous far side, the climbers managed to rig a rope bridge. From then on they crossed by means of a Tryolean traverse.

The work of reconnoitering higher began immediately, while the Sherpas, under the direction of several Swiss, brought load after load up the icefall. The pack route was not easy, as it led past towers of precariously balanced ice, over huge, ever-changing crevasses which they crossed on tiny snow bridges, through avalanche debris, up precipitous icy slopes. Twice pack parties were nearly caught by avalanches. The Sherpas were, however, more than equal to the task. Camp 2 was placed on a comparatively flat spot in the icefall at 18,370 feet, two and a half hours march from Camp 1. Camp 3, at 19,350 feet, was a half hour above the rope bridge on the floor of the West Cwm. By May 10th an average of six Sherpas a day had brought 60 loads up to this camp.

Meanwhile Dittert and Chevalley reconnoitered the glacier above and placed Camp 4 at the foot of the cirque that leads to the South Col at 21,150 feet. The supply system was extremely well organized. Seven Sherpas relayed loads from Camp 3 to Camp 4 early in the day and then returned to the rope bridge to receive loads there which they carried back up to Camp 3.

Camp 5 was established higher on the slope leading to the South Col at 22,630 feet. After Chevalley and Asper made a reconnaissance above, they retired in favor of Flory, Aubert, Lambert, and seven Sherpas, who were to make the first try for the summit. The plan was to set up camp on the South Col, send back three Sherpas, and run the final high camp up to about 27,500 feet.

After a false start in threatening weather the day before, the party set out on May 25th, but it was almost immediately crippled when one of the Sherpas had an attack of malaria and was forced to return. They advanced along the rocky spur they called the “Eperon des Genevois,” aided by ropes previously fixed by the reconnaissance party. At 24,000 feet they reached a cache and added supplies to their loads, but progress was slow, and 500 feet later, they had to send back two more of the Sherpas and add their loads to their own. As they did so, a sleeping bag slipped out of their hands and fell down the slope, lost forever. By seven o’clock they saw that they could not reach the South Col; a bivouac was inevitable. In a part of the spur slightly less steep than the rest, they carved out platforms which, though hardly adequate, did serve to hold two tents. For fear that they might roll down the slope in their tents, they stayed roped, left their crampons on, and did not get out their sleeping bags. All were in very bad shape by morning. Three Sherpas descended to pick up loads abandoned below while the Sirdar of the Sherpas, Bhotia Tensing, and the three sahibs continued on upwards. They reached the ridge at about 26,250 feet, some 400 feet above the South Col into which they had to descend. In Camp 6, on the col, they spent a much better night, but the three Sherpas were in such bad condition that they had to be sent back, while Tensing continued with the sahibs. On May 27th the attack continued along mixed rock and snow above the South Col. By three in the afternoon they reached the summit ridge of Everest at 27,550 feet. It was decided that Tensing and Lambert would spend the night there in a bivouac tent but without sleeping bags or stoves. They were equipped with oxygen. Flory and Aubert descended to Camp 6 to wait in support.

The night was miserable. The climbers had little food and it was very cold. The only water they could get was by melting snow over a candle. At 6 A.M. they left for the summit attempt, carrying oxygen equipment and a little food. The climbing was not difficult on the snow and easy rocks, but the weather was unsettled. They climbed over two bumps on the ridge and then reached a corniced portion where the snow was knee deep. They struggled on until they were nearly at the base of the summit rocks, only about 800 feet away, but they realized they could not make it and wisely started back. The descent was nearly as slow as the ascent, but by 3 P.M. they reached Camp 6. The next day the climbers were replaced by a second team who spent two days on the South Col without trying to go higher because of the wind and their own bad physical condition. Thus ended the pre-monsoon attempt.

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