American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Himalayan Schoolhouse Expedition

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1964

The Himalayan Schoolhouse Expedition

David B. Dornan

The Aid Program

This expedition of 1963 was a continuation of the scientific, educational and mountaineering activities begun in 1960-61 by Sir Edmund Hillary, sponsored by the World Book Encyclopedia of Chicago (See A.A.J., 1962, 13:1, pp. 69-98.) At the end of this first expedition, a schoolhouse was erected for the first time in the village of Khumjung, the home of many high-altitude Sherpas. The enthusiastic reception on the part of the Sherpas toward this rather hastily constructed schoolhouse impressed upon Hillary the genuine concern and need of the Sherpa people for modern education. He accepted petitions from two other villages for schools and promised to do what he could toward raising the money. Thus two years later, five New Zealanders, two Americans, one Britisher, and one Indian found themselves being enthusiastically received in Khumjung as the members of the "Schoolhouse Expedition”. For five of us, it was the first time in the Himalayas, the others having been on the 1960-61 expedition.

The most immediate task upon our arrival in Khumjung was not one of our construction projects, but rather the urgent vaccination of all the Sherpa people against smallpox. A porter of the American Everest Expedition had unknowingly carried this disease up from the lower valleys of Nepal, and subsequent to his death, there arose the danger of an epidemic. Over twenty Sherpa people did die from smallpox, but between our two doctors and their medical orderlies over four thousand Sherpas of the Solu Khumbu were vaccinated. Some of the vaccine was borrowed from the American expedition; more was airdropped by the International Red Cross. The most effective vaccine was found to be made in Russia.

In the meantime the rest of us went to work on the newest Khumjung public works project. This consisted of a time-and-effort-saving pipe-line to carry water down from its source, about a mile away, to the outskirts of the village. The pipe was of light weight polyethelene which had been carried in 160 miles by our porters. The problems, besides adjusting to hard labor above 13,000 feet, were constructing a small dam to contain the flow of snow melt, laying the pipe out in such a way as to eliminate all the dips which would cause air-locks, and then constructing some barrier that would protect the pipe from grazing yaks. Solving these problems was at times very frustrating, and it was not until the very end of the expedition that the containing tanks in Khumjung were completed. Khumjung’s twin city of Kunde desired a similar water system, the distance of their source being about one half mile from the village. With our experience at the Khumjung waterworks, however, the Kunde system was done in a more professional manner. We did not anticipate, however, digging up the god of the Kunde water source in our dam construction; this god turned out to be a high-dwelling frog.

The first school constructed was in the village of Pangboche, the last year-around habitation on the way to Mount Everest. The school was built on a ridge directly above Pangboche overlooking a magnificent 180° panorama of the Everest group in the north, around to Makalu and Ama Dablam in the east, to Kangtega and Thamserku in the south. Local Sherpa styling and construction were utilized as much as possible. However, we installed a roof of imported corrugated aluminum and fiberglass sheeting, and instead of stone the front was of wood construction containing numerous windows. Immediately upon our arrival in the village about fifty children were signed up as students, and one of our schoolmasters brought in from Darjeeling began instructing them in temporary quarters. The eagerness of the children for the schools and the enthusiasm of the Sherpas in helping us to build them, continually overwhelmed us and was constantly a source of satisfaction.

The second school that we constructed on this expedition and the third one for the Khumbu area was in the village of Thami, near the Tibetan frontier on the Bhote Kosi river. In our work on this project, we were sometimes in conflict with the desires of the local communist agitators, but the finished school was more beautiful than the other two and the crowd for the festive opening was very large. Our school openings were grand occasions with the head lama from Thyangboche monastery giving blessings to all.

Our final project was the remodeling of a room in the Khumjung gompa (community religious center) to serve as headquarters for our two doctors during the monsoon months. During the expedition and the monsoon following, the doctors ran a medical clinic and made a survey of the health condition of the Sherpa people. Between working on these projects and our climbing activities, the expedition members participated in several enjoyable parties with the Sherpas of Khumjung and other villages; one of the most memorable was a day set aside for contests of sports. This day saw Sherpa climbing races as well as the sahibs defeated in tug-of-war.


This formidable mountain rises above the village of Pangboche and its new schoolhouse, and lies eight miles southwest of Mount Everest. The east side of the peak presents the only practical climbing route on the mountain. From a frozen lake at 17,000 feet the east face rises in a series of rock ribs and buttresses to a snow plateau at about 20,000 feet, then the summit pyramid caps the peak at 21,463 feet. We found a relatively easy way around the first rock band at the base of this face by way of a little pocket glacier and icefall. This brought us to 18,000 feet where we later established an attack camp and where our 2500 feet of fixed line began.

The initial stages on the mountain were prepared by Wilson and me, with great help from four Sherpas lead by Ang Temba of Khumjung. The original goal of this team was to find an aesthetic route up the mountain, but after one try on a steep rock buttress the less restrictive plan of just plain getting up had more appeal. It is not impossible to do beautiful technical routes on these high peaks, but for the first attempt on a peak like Taweche the easiest way proved hard enough. In three climbing days we had 1000 feet of fixed line up the peak; then on April 21 Gill and Ellis joined the party and the next day the four of us put in another 1000 feet of line reaching nearly to the southeast ridge. Thus far it had been mixed climbing over predominantly fourth-class but snow-covered rock, and sometimes steep and poorly consolidated snow. The fixed lines, which were anchored every 120 feet usually to rock pitons, were installed primarily to enable the Sherpas to carry up loads and establish a camp on the snow plateau, and secondarily to provide an easy avenue of escape under storm conditions.

It was not until May 2 that we were able to continue our attack upon the mountain, this time in full strength with Frost and Houghton added to the party. Gill and I pushed a few hundred feet up the ridge, finding that the major rock difficulties were still in front of us. On this day a difficult rock step had been turned, but the following day the second and even harder rock step, as difficult as the climbing on Higher Cathedral Spire in Yosemite Valley, was climbed by Gill and Wilson. Finally on May 5 we were in position to have loads carried up to our proposed camp on the snow plateau at 20,000 feet. The Sherpas Ang Temba, Pemba Tarkay, Pangboche Tenzing, Lakpa Norbu Kunde, Siku and Phu Dorje made the carry; Ang Temba stayed at the high camp with Gill, Wilson and me. The loads were hauled up the two rock steps and relayed over the final ice bulge by us four, while the other Sherpas descended the fixed lines by themselves.

The two following days, May 6 and 7, were the only fine days we had on the mountain. The first was spent recuperating from the carry and breaking trail through the deep, soft snow of the plateau. May 7 was the day of our determined attack upon the summit. The final steep 55° slopes of the mountain required careful step cutting on dubious snow. About a foot and a half of snow had to be cleared off the surface before one could cut a step, and it was never certain how good the step and the ice-axe-shaft belay would be. One of the most difficult leads on the mountain was the last lead on the summit face, getting over the steepened slope and cornice onto the summit ridge. Once on the summit ridge, however, we had easy going as expected, but only for a couple of rope lengths. Then after one lead onto a narrow, corniced and contorted ridge of feathery snow we decided to leave the last two hundred feet of the mountain unclimbed. Near our high point Ang Temba left a Buddhist prayer flag tied on a willow he had carried up for this purpose. The flag had been given to us by the head lama at Thyangboche, after some of our Sherpas had some bad experiences with the god Taweche, upon whose mountain we were climbing. This happened even though we had all gone through a ceremony at the Pangboche gompa offering appeasements to the god Taweche, represented there by a truly frightening mask.


While on the Taweche side of the Imja Khola valley, we would look across to Kangtega and shake our heads over any possibility of a reasonable climbing route. And not until June, after everyone agreed that the monsoon had started, did we have time to turn to an attempt on this peak. Nevertheless, four of us, Frost, Gill, Wilson and I, with the Sherpas who had proved so good on Taweche, set out on a five-day march to the base of the east face of the mountain. Our only hope for finding a route stemmed from a Polaroid Land photograph made by Gill during his reconnaissance trip into the Mingbo Valley in late May. With two Sherpa companions he ascended an unnamed 19,820-foot peak to get a look and a photograph of the hitherto unseen eastern flanks of Kangtega. It appeared that a possible icefall perhaps led to snow slopes that would connect with the summit cone.

The march into the Inukhu valley was not without its excitement as we took porters over a snow covered 15,500-foot pass in a storm, and then dropped down to 10,000 feet and a semi-tropical rhododendron forest. The walk up this valley increased in beauty and adventure as we came to Tanuk, a yak pasture of several hundred yaks, where beautiful unclimbed peaks surrounded us. One of the naks (female counterpart of yak) was bought for fresh meat on the mountain, and the beast was taken nearly to our Base Camp at 17,000 feet. The weather on the final two days of our march had been excellent and was to continue good for the next four days. On June 3 two of us established a route up the initial icefall of the peak and on June 4 the entire party established Camp I at 20,200 feet. The Sherpas carried up heavy loads, and left the four sahibs there for the assault.

Nowhere on the peak was the climbing of great technical difficulty, but the trail breaking in a foot of snow, and the altitude and sun took most of our energy. And the final climb, too, proved to be strength-sapping and dehydrating as we toiled up the glistening, snow-covered glacier under a high June sun. Several large crevasses were crossed via snow bridges before the final 50° summit slope was reached. Directly below the summit we were surprised by surface avalanches set off in the process of step cutting, but it hardly broke the monotony of the climb. We arrived on the summit ridge only ten yards distant from the actual summit but only one member had sufficient desire to clean away the loose snow in order to get on top of the last few of Kangtega’s 22,340 feet. That afternoon we returned to Camp I and the following day stayed in our sleeping bags until the Sherpas arrived from Base Camp and aroused us sufficiently to take the camp down, and start us on our way back home.


This expedition was very interesting in several respects. Although most of us in the group were climbers, we became more enthusiastic and interested in our aid program than the mountaineering activities. Rarely has an expedition actually spent so much time among the Sherpa people, in their homes and among them as friends. And never has an expedition given so much to them in terms of actual community improvement and hope of a better future for their children. We gained from them too; we learned how to relax and enjoy our work with our fellow man. We learned how to laugh more easily and saw that some of our valued possessions are of no real value at all. We found perhaps for the first time people who are actually good, and we found ourselves doing good without being self-conscious or hypocritical.

For the above reasons we did not consider our climbing achievements very great. We think, too, that climbing on Himalayan peaks of this size can and should be done in a more aesthetic way. With present day equipment and modern climbing techniques it is certainly possible to climb them in alpine, rather than classic Himalayan style. With fixed ropes, and with Sherpas doing all the heavy work there is little adventure left on these peaks. Sherpas should be used only for carrying supplies to the base camp; or they should become equal members of the climbing team, carrying equal loads in one-push assaults on the mountain, and receiving equal privileges off the mountain. The future of Himalayan climbing lies in the application of alpine and even Yosemite techniques on these great peaks. The problems are tremendous, for the Himalayas are the greatest mountains on the face of the earth, and they will someday afford the greatest climbing adventures — when man is ready to accept the challenge.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Eastern Nepal.

Ascents: Unnamed peak in Mingbo Valley, 19,820 feet (Gill, Hakpa Norbu, Pangboche Tenzing), first ascent.

Kangtega, 22, 340 feet (Dornan, Frost, Gill, Wilson), first ascent.

Attempted Ascent: Taweche, 21,463 feet (Dornan, Gill, Wilson, Ang Temba), to 21,300 feet.

Personnel: Sir Edmund Hillary (leader); Desmond Doig (English); Bhanu Bannerjee, (Indian); Murray Ellis, Phil Houghton, M.D., Mike Gill, M.D., Jim Wilson (New Zealanders) ; David Dornan, Tom Frost (Americans).

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.