Everest Revisited: The International Himalayan Expedition 1971
NORMAN G. DYHRENFURTH
“… THIS time, as we left Base Camp on May 25, 1963, it was all different. The job was done; the challenge had been met at last. I knew I would never return. Everest has been friend and foe for the past eleven years, but now the time has come to turn my back on it. … All that remains is the return to that ‘other’ life. …” My foreword to Americans on Everest was written from the heart. And yet, I would have done well to recall something Oscar Wilde once said: “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” When the dream of a lifetime has become reality, when the ultimate goal, no matter how unattainable it seemed in childhood days, has been reached, what can one do to find and meet a new challenge? Once the fleeting instant of fulfillment has passed, what then?
The Southwest Face of Everest starts at 22,000 feet and ends in the 29,028-foot summit of the world! There can be no doubt as to its offering the greatest challenge possible. Such a climb, if successful, would surely rank among the most significant ever attempted in Himalayan mountaineering.
Unlike American Mount Everest Expedition 1963, International Himalayan Expedition 1971 was — for better or for worse — an experiment in understanding and cooperation among nations. As difficult as this may seem in the light of present world affairs, the two international expeditions of my parents in 1930 and 1934, my own IHE 1955 to Lhotse, and Thor Heyerdahl’s more recent Ra adventures provide ample proof that the seemingly unattainable is within human reach. IHE 71 was composed of representatives from thirteen nations — more than I had initially contemplated. Through the addition of a BBC film crew of nine and an Australian journalist, we ended up with a total of thirty! Time and space do not permit a detailed account of how the project evolved, but the September 1971 issue of Mountain, a highly respected British publication, covered this and other aspects in considerable detail. Let me just say that the three years it took to organize AMEE were child’s play compared to the almost insurmountable problems of finance, team composition, equipment and food selection for as international a venture as ours. And yet, despite the expedition’s total budget of a quarter million dollars, each team member’s personal assessment was limited to five hundred dollars.
My good friend Lieutenant Colonel James O. M. Roberts, Kathmandu-based Himalayan expert “par excellence”, agreed to joint leadership. We decided on a two-pronged assault. While one team would attempt the Southwest Face Direttissima, another was to ascend the West Ridge beyond the American Camp IV — West along its entire length. This would be a departure from the route pioneered by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld who traversed part of the Tibetan North Face, ascended the Hornbein Couloir and Yellow Band before they crossed towards the right back onto the West Ridge proper. IHE 71’s proposed “pincer movement” offered the climbers the challenge of two very difficult new routes. In addition, it was to provide the Face climbers with an “escape hatch” in case of emergency, comparable to the Exit Cracks of the classic Eigerwand route beyond the White Spider.
Everyone was offered his choice of route. Strong preference for the Face climb was expressed by the Americans Gary Colliver, John Evans and Dr. David Peterson, Britain’s Dougal Haston and Don Whillans, Japan’s Reizo Ito and Naomi Uemura, Toni Hiebeler from West Germany, and Leo Schlömmer from Austria. For the West Ridge were Austria’s Wolfgang Axt, the Swiss husband-wife team Michel and Yvette Vaucher, the Norwegians Odd Eliassen and Jon Teigland, the American David Isles, and India’s Major Harsh Bahuguna. Initially France’s Pierre Mazeaud and the Italian Carlo Mauri joined the team to attempt the Face, but as time went by they asked to be transferred to the Ridge. Remembering the benefits derived from AMEE’s training camp on Mount Rainier, I scheduled a similar get-together of IHE’s multilingual team for September 1970 on Switzerland’s Jungfraujoch. Lack of funds forced me to cancel this important program at the very time when European newspaper reports had us fully sponsored by the United Nations and NASA!
Most team members met for the first time in Frankfurt on February 13 for the Trans World Airlines flight to India. Thirty-six tons of equipment and provisions had reached Bombay by sea. From there it was moved by road to Kathmandu, thanks to the hard work of Harsh Bahuguna, physiologist Duane Blume, and John Evans. On February 16 all but Mazeaud and Whillans — who were to join us later — were assembled in Nepal’s capital.
In the beginning everything went well. We had a total of forty Sherpas and around 830 low-level porters working in three echelons. In addition, a British Islander was most graciously placed at our disposal for daily transport flights to the Sherpa village of Lukla, where Sir Edmund Hillary had built a small airstrip. In the light of later developments, the following diary entries may be of interest: “… The team is wonderful! Despite a few problems of language and semantics, the group works extremely well together, and morale is very high. There are times, of course, when things get pretty hilarious, what with everybody talking at once in Nepali, Norwegian, German, Japanese, French, English, Italian, Polish and what have you! The signing of more than 6000 Everest postcards too can be both funny and tedious. Yvette Vaucher took on the job of getting everybody to sign cards each evening and every free moment. We all agree that Yvette is not only charming, but an excellent addition to the team.… (O quae mutatio rerum!)
Base Camp was established on March 22 at 17,800 feet. The battle with the dreaded Khumbu Icefall seemed fiercer than ever before. Jake Breitenbach met his death here in 1963, Phu Dorje in 1969, and six Sherpas of the Japanese Ski Expedition in 1970. Some excerpts from my diary: “… April 4: The team is magnificent! The men work exceptionally well together, and general morale couldn’t be better. Yesterday Camp I (20,500 feet) was established, the entire route through the Icefall is fixed and secured. Today Dougal Haston, Don Whillans, Harsh Bahuguna, Reizo Ito and Carlo Mauri move up with eight Sherpas to spend the night at Camp I. Tomorrow they’ll set up Camp II (Advance Base) at about 21,600 feet. Everyone is relieved and grateful, that the terribly dangerous route has been put in at last, and without any accidents. There continues to be complete harmony among the team members, not the slightest indication of any friction whatsoever …”And yet, the news media spoke of constant bickering, total lack of cooperation, and the obvious inability and unwillingness of so many “stars” to adjust to the framework of a team!
Toni Hiebeler, Duane Blume and I moved up to Camp II on April 14. Here the two routes separated. On April 9 the Japanese and Britons had established Camp III-SW at 23,000 feet. Wolfgang Axt and Michel Vaucher solved the last problems of the West Ridge approach on April 12. Earlier attempts to shorten the American route by way of a steep ice couloir had to be abandoned.
The Icefall underwent almost daily changes, and supplies were slow in reaching Camp II. Time and again ladders and bridges had to be repositioned or replaced. As the “lower ferry” gained momentum, a bottleneck developed at Camp I. At first it was thought that the “upper ferry” could make two carries a day from Camp I to Camp II, but this proved to be impossible. Advance Base was placed further up the Western Cwm than previously, and one trip a day was all we could expect from our excellent Sherpa team. Provisions continued to be rather scarce at Camp II, and our “cuisine” left something to be desired. There was no reason, however, why some of the sah’bs could not do some load-carrying themselves, as was done many times by the men of AMEE. But this would be “Sherpa-work” and could not be expected from certain European “stars”! By way of comparison it should be mentioned that Chris Bonington’s Annapurna South Face Expedition had only six Sherpas on the mountain, with the climbers themselves doing the bulk of load-carrying.
In the light of Murray Sayle’s deplorably inaccurate and misleading account entitled “Defeat on Everest” (Life, July 2, 1971), it seems important to set the record straight:
“… April 15: Harsh visits my tent that evening. He has worked very hard for the past few weeks. With Reizo Ito he was first to set up Camp I at the entrance to the Cwm. Now he proposes to move up with Ridge “Coordinator” Wolfgang Axt to establish Camp III-West. Harsh looks tired and drawn. I beg him to go down to Base for some rest as soon as possible. He is eager to pioneer the new West Ridge route, but promises at last to return to Base right afterwards.
“April 16: Wolfgang and Harsh move up towards the Ridge and set up Camp III-West at about 22,600 feet, much lower than the American Camp in 1963. Carlo and Pierre deposit ropes and hardware halfway, while Michel and Odd place ice-screws and construct a long, horizontal rope-traverse which will shorten the route by as much as an hour.
“April 17: After a night at Camp III-West, Wolfgang and Harsh move up across snow and ice slopes to the crest of the Ridge at about 24,000 feet. They can see no serious problems as far as the rocky portion of the Ridge itself, where AMEE placed its Camp IV-West at 24,600 feet. But Wolfgang admits — in a later radio contact — that the present Camp III-West is too low and must be relocated. During the descent they discover an ideal spot for a couple of tents at about 23,100 feet.
“April 18: Radio contact at eight A.M. Wolfgang is concerned about the weather. From his position he can see ominous cloud formations to the northwest. He and Harsh plan to move camp to the higher location before rejoining us at Advance Base. I try to get them some help from others of the Ridge team, but those not plagued by sickness and altitude problems are not very eager to move up. Pierre, Carlo and the Vauchers complain once again that much of their gear is still at Camp I, and that the Sherpas are too slow in bringing up supplies. I suggest descending to the lower camp en masse to make a big carry ourselves, but the four “Latins” consider this beneath their dignity. No “Sherpa-labor” for them! Disgruntled, I decide to set an example, pick up my Kelty-pack and head for Camp I, where I discuss the supply problem with Dave Peterson. Dougal Haston, Leo Schlömmer and Toni Hiebeler had gone down earlier for some rest at Base. With two oxygen cylinders — one each for Face and Ridge, in fairness to both teams — I begin the ascent towards Camp II. The weather turns bad, soon the “Valley of Silence” is blotted out by a raging snowstorm. As I pass underneath the nearly vertical walls of Nuptse, I hear the ominous sound of a powder snow avalanche. No time to get out of its way! With crampons and ski poles I anchor myself to the steep slope. The snow masses swirl against and around me, but I can hold my ground. A few deep breaths, and I resume the climb through white-out and storm, groping my way along the route marked by willow-wands. My Sherpa Ang Lakpa has been much worried about his Bara Sah’b and meets me halfway. He shoulders my heavy pack, and together we move on. A couple of duffel bags lie alongside the trail, abandoned by a sick Sherpa. Ang Lakpa intends to pile them on top of his load, but I don’t let him. Once again I shoulder my own Kelty, and on we go. The red marker-flags are too far apart, for a while we lose our way among huge crevasses on the right, but then we get back on the right track. Suddenly there are screams from above, to our left. Harsh Bahuguna! Again and again we hear the screams, and we answer until our voices give out.”
Meanwhile Wolfgang reaches Advance Base around five, alone, and utterly exhausted. His hands and feet are frostbitten. “Bahuguna is still up there!” Within minutes a rescue party of Odd, Michel, Don, Pierre, Carlo, Peter and Ang Phurba sets off. The storm is frightening, and night just around the corner! To double-time from 21,500 to 22,300 feet is torture at best, but in this weather! Odd is first to reach Harsh, then Michel. Michel recounts: “… His condition is desperate. He has lost one mitten, his face is covered by a thick crust of ice. His chest harness and carabiner are clipped onto the long fixed rope placed there by Odd and myself the day before. A few meters more, and Harsh would have reached easy going. But his state of exhaustion was so complete that he couldn’t even get warm clothing out of his rucksack. Soon Whillans catches up with us. Meanwhile I have put Harsh on a rope and managed to unhook him from the rope-traverse, while Odd belayed me. There are only three of us. The storm is more violent than ever. Night has fallen. To carry Harsh across the steep ice is impossible. We lower him towards a small crevasse which might offer protection from the wind. Our rope has run out. It would take many more of us to carry him.… Harsh is unconscious.… Odd begins to cry.… We have no choice but to retreat. On the way down we meet the others. What agony and terror, this descent through night and storm.…”
We meet in the big tent, a demoralized, dejected group. I ask for details of the rescue attempt. Pierre Mazeaud, lawyer and deputy of the French National Assembly, is quick to accuse Wolfgang of murder through negligence, but I warn him and implore everybody not to draw any hasty conclusions. Wolfgang himself — on the advice of Dr. Peter Steele — has taken sleeping-pills and knows nothing of the tragedy.
The following morning he is last to enter the big tent. “Wie geht es Harsh?” (How’s Harsh?) he asks me. “Weisst Du es noch nicht? Er ist tot!” (Don’t you know? He’s dead!) Wolfgang is thunderstruck. He and Harsh had become close friends. This terrible death hits him harder perhaps than any of us.
I conduct an official inquiry in several languages, which is recorded on tape, in anticipation of later requests from the governments of Nepal and India. Everyone has a chance to be heard. Then I ask Wolfgang: “Why weren’t you roped together on your way down?” “There was no need, there were no difficulties at all. We had used our climbing rope the day before to secure a steep section on the way down. To save weight I left my harness and carabiner at the upper Camp III-West. At first Harsh went ahead. Around two o’clock the weather turned bad. Soon we were caught in a raging storm. When we reached the long rope-traverse, I took over the lead and got across it hand over hand. It was very long and tiring as hell. At the far end I waited for Harsh. Voice communication was impossible, the storm was too strong. I waited for a long time, perhaps an hour. My hands and feet had lost all feeling. Then I saw Harsh, moving very slowly. He was tied into the fixed rope with harness and carabiner. He groped his way around the last corner of the steep ice slope which separated us. He waved with one hand. Everything seemed O.K., no indication of any serious problems. By now I was really worried about frostbite and continued the descent. Just before I got into camp, I heard his screams and alerted everybody. I couldn’t have gone back up, I was completely done in.” “Why didn’t you stay with him?” “I had no idea how badly off he was. And even if I had known, what could I have done without rope and carabiner? Harsh did take his gear, but I would have had to go back hand over hand across that long traverse! I wouldn’t have had enough strength left for that, and my hands and feet felt like blocks of ice.…”
The tragic news did not reach Base Camp until the following day. In the continuing storm, radio communication broke down completely. Toni Hiebeler, himself fighting a losing battle with altitude sickness, wrote a farewell note: “My dear, kind Norman! You will be disappointed in me, but after Harsh’s death I could not and cannot continue — I am a physical and mental wreck. I can’t take a single step towards the mountain — forgive me. I must go home, because I am convinced that I can do more for you and the expedition in Munich than here, where I am nothing but a living bundle of misery... Dear Norman, I shall never set foot on the summit, but I have discovered a very dear human being in you, and I look upon you as my close friend — that is worth a great deal. My heartfelt thanks for everything! My thoughts are with you and the others, but mostly with you. Your Toni.” Shortly afterwards the world’s news media falsely announced that Toni Hiebeler had deserted the expedition and turned his back on me!
The snowstorm lasted a week, followed by acute avalanche danger. The supply lines were cut. Provisions at Advance Base became very scarce. The West Ridge team was completely demoralized. With the exception of Wolfgang Axt and David Isles, who still believed in their route, several wanted to switch to the “conventional” South Col “walk”. Odd Eliassen lost all interest in the summit itself and offered his support to the Face group. I tried to convince the “Latins” that Everest had already been scaled by five expeditions by way of the South Col. All told twenty-three climbers of six nations had reached the summit that way! I considered this colossal investment in time, manpower and money unjustifiable for a route which at this stage of Himalayan mountaineering is of little further interest. I implored them to throw all our remaining strength into the Face assault. All my pleas were in vain. Against my better judgement I proposed a vote to be taken: The majority of the original Ridge team was for the Col.
It became more and more obvious that Pierre Mazeaud and Carlo Mauri — keen supporters of the Face attempt before they switched to the Ridge — were in no way interested in an all-out team effort. They strove for personal glory as the first Frenchman and the first Italian on the summit. Also the Vauchers’ sole interest centered on the summit, particularly Yvette’s, whose dream of being the first woman on Everest awaited fulfillment. Suddenly the Face attempt was denounced as “not true Alpinism”, because of its prolonged fixed roping. This blatant hypocrisy on the part of the “Latins” in condemning it, when they had all joined the expedition to climb it, was a source of bitter disappointment to me. Despite serious misgivings I declared myself ready to lend support to their new project with everything I had personally learned about that route (up to 28,200 feet!) on three previous expeditions. Since people had lost confidence in Axt’s judgement, I replaced him with Michel Vaucher as the new “coordinator”. Soon Camp III-South was established — as many times before — at about 22,720 feet, and not 23,500 feet, as claimed by the “Latins”. From here all previous expeditions required at least three weeks of logistical build-up before summit attempts could be launched from Camp VI. It is difficult to comprehend how the “Latins” could convince themselves and the news media that they could have reached the summit within four days!
The original West Ridge team began to crumble: Axt had influenza, and Michel Vaucher developed what Dr. Steele diagnosed as a thrombosis in one leg. Both had to go down to Base, accompanied by our doctor and Yvette. Also John Cleare, Gary Colliver and Ian Howell were in very poor condition and had to descend. David Isles — by no means recovered from his bout with pneumonia — and the ailing Jon Teigland were also below. Neither was interested in the South Col route. Suddenly all that remained were Mazeaud and Mauri, both 42 years of age, expecting to reach the summit within a few days!
It was not until April 26 that Bahuguna’s body, which had been retrieved during a lull in the storm, could be taken down to Base. A funeral pyre was constructed at Gorak Shep, a few hours below, since Harsh Bahuguna was a Brahman and his religion demanded cremation within thirteen days of death. Harsh was much loved by us all, and his death affected everyone deeply. A commemorative carving was made on the stone that already bore inscriptions to Jake Breitenbach and Phu Dorje. Harsh Bahuguna’s ashes were then taken to Dehra Dun, his home town.
Jimmy Roberts had serious misgivings about the physical and moral decay of the team. The Khumbu Icefall continued to give us trouble, and the supply situation was becoming critical. Radio contact being highly erratic, he sent urgent messages by ascending Sherpas, imploring me to abandon all thoughts of two routes and to concentrate on the Face. Having reluctantly pledged support to the “Latins”, I found myself in a very awkward position. In my heart and mind I knew Jimmy to be right. Since high-altitude Sherpas share all dangers with their sah’bs and all too frequently pay for mistakes made with their lives, they were asked on the evening of April 28 to vote on the issue, in the presence of all sah’bs at Advance Base. This came as a surprise to the “Latins” who looked upon Sherpas as mere employees whose opinion mattered little. In 1963 our first team had reached the summit on May 1. This year all signs pointed to an early monsoon, in fact some “experts” predicted its arrival by May 15! To a man the Sherpas voted for the Face, and all sah’bs — with the exception of Mazeaud and Mauri — were in full agreement. We tried repeatedly to contact the Vauchers and Axt at Base to explain the situation fully, but once again our walkie-talkies let us down. This led to the absurd accusation that I had ordered a “diplomatic” breakdown of communications!
On April 29 Eliassen, Blume and I went down to Base, on the heels of Mazeaud and Mauri, who had convinced themselves of the existence of an “Anglo-Saxon plot” to deprive them of their “victory”. Upon our arrival the formerly so charming Yvette greeted me with “Voilà le salaud!” (Freely translated: “There he comes, the dirty rat!”) and proceeded to pelt me with snowballs which missed their target.
I discussed the situation with Jimmy Roberts and our Sirdar Sona Girme. The day before Jimmy had tried in vain to reach me at Advance Base. The Vauchers, whose knowledge of English is less than fragmentary, had picked up a few bits and pieces of the one-sided conversation. This gave rise to the absurd suspicion that Jimmy and I had planned all along to have only Haston and Whillans — and possibly the Japanese — reach the summit! Be this as it may, Jimmy Roberts, Sona Girme and I were in full agreement that the South Col plan must be scrapped and to put everything we had into climbing the Face. Hard hit and tired from the psychological and physiological stress of the past weeks, I asked Jimmy to announce our final decision. Whereas the majority of sah’bs and Sherpas were delighted, the “Latins” really let themselves go. There was talk of cowardice, dictatorship, lies, drunkenness, insults to France and Italy, bad organization, weak leadership and other niceties. Yvette threw stones at my tent and accused John Evans — who had come down ill — of collusion. The BBC-team came in for its share of the blame, being charged with falsification of radio messages and “pot”-smoking orgies. It should be made emphatically clear that not only is there absolutely no truth to those allegations, but the behaviour of BBC’s men was above reproach throughout the course of the expedition.
Roberts, Evans and I tried repeatedly to convince the four “dissidents” that their strength was needed, and that they should join the determined assault on the Face. All our efforts were in vain, they refused to listen to reason. They felt betrayed, let down and plotted against by the leaders and others of the party. On May 2 they left Base Camp for home, after Pierre Mazeaud had dispatched his famous radio message to Paris: “They expect me, Pierre Mazeaud, Member of the French Assembly, aged forty-two, to work as a Sherpa for Anglo-Saxons and Japanese. Never! It is not me but France they have insulted!” Quoted in newspapers around the world, this did indeed sound “the death knell of the expedition’s image of international good will.” During press conferences in Kathmandu and Europe, some of the most outrageous and libellous statements were made, but we were not there to defend ourselves.
In the meantime Camp IV had been established at 24,600 feet. On May 2 Whillans and Haston moved up towards Camp V and placed fixed ropes, in spite of storm, unusual cold and falling rocks. One of the three tents at Camp IV was swept away by an avalanche. Camp V was erected on May 5 at more than 26,000 feet, at an altitude where the Japanese in 1969 and 1970 had been unable to detect a campsite.
Around this time seven men contracted a strange glandular fever, with three others soon to follow. I had planned to move up to Advance Base on May 7 — my 53rd birthday — but I too was on the sicklist. Peter Steele was of the opinion that we would be unable to recover unless we headed tor home. To leave my own expedition at this crucial stage was no easy matter, and for me the world seemed to have come to an end as we began the trek to Lukla on May 8. The newspapers reported me evacuated by helicopter, and there was subsequent talk of mass-hypochondria. Careful clinical research proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that a rare adenovirus was no figment of our excellent physician’s imagination!
With Jimmy Roberts as sole expedition leader remaining at Base (and Face “Coordinator” John Evans fighting his way back to the heights after a few days of rest in Sherpa villages below), Don Whillans took over on the mountain. Faced with a team reduced to a fraction of its former strength, it was decided to abandon the original plan which called for a route through the center of the nearly vertical Rock Band. To force a way through this portion of the Direttissima and to secure it would have taken another ten days at least. The so-called “exit cracks” to the left turned out to be extraordinarily steep and dangerous ice gullies. Beyond Camp V the climbers were forced to take the snow ramp that leads to the right. The terrain became steeper and more difficult, somewhat like the mixed climbing found on the north face of the Matterhorn.
While Axt busied himself with the evacuation of Camps III-West and III-South, Evans, Peterson and Schlömmer lent support to the British and Japanese climbers as far as Camp IV. When Schlömmer suggested a change in the lead and asked Whillans for a Sherpa to carry some of his personal gear, Whillans turned him down. Infuriated, both Austrians returned to Base. In a bitter letter dated June 17, in which Schlömmer placed most of the blame for the expedition’s failure squarely on my shoulders, he wrote: “… we were only asked to carry, to help establish Camp VI — and then the two (Whillans and Haston) would set out for the top. For that we considered ourselves too good, instead of moving up we went down …” Dougal Haston on the other hand had this to say: “… You may wonder at Don and my tactics this year, but we realized when we left Camp II that day, that we would have to stay in front until it was finished one way or the other. The Japs gave us great support, especially Ito, but seemed lost a bit while leading … Naomi kept flashing up and down like a yo-yo because of his Mainichi thing (Note by NGD: The Japanese were sponsored by the Mainichi Newspapers) and consequently could not be relied on to give us constant support, but I have nothing but praise for Ito’s effort. From the day he reached Camp V he worked as a Sherpa with never a word of complaint. Three more of his kind and there would have been different headlines in the papers. While on the subject of personal performances, I can only express amazement at the performance of Schlömmer. Did he expect Don and me to put fixed ropes to 28,999 feet and then let him through, to be ‘King of the Hill’? A lazier bastard I have never met. Such a pity, because he was one of the fittest. His allegations about not getting a chance out front are completely false. He did not want to! When he wanted to join Don and me at Camp V, we sent down a veto. Why? He would not carry his personal gear. Wanted a Sherpa, and oxygen, this at a time when every load was vital. The day we carried the camp, Don and I used oxygen but carried a load of rope as well as our personal gear. Naomi and two Sherpas made it without oxygen, carrying a Whillans-box and cylinder. Altruism, as opposed to self-interest. So what use would a man like this be at the front? …”
Towards the middle of May Haston and Whillans established Camp VI near the top of the snow ramp, at a height of 27,200 feet. They received strong and unselfish support from the Japanese and our faithful Sherpas. Ito and Uemura carried oxygen to the highest camps without using any themselves. Seventeen Sherpas moved a total of 55 loads up to Camp V; six made the back-breaking ascent four times, and two carried without oxygen as far as Camp VI! And Michel Vaucher declared in interviews and newspaper accounts, the Sherpas had refused to move up the Face!
The bad weather continued, and exceptional cold rendered technical climbing all but impossible. The flow of supplies dwindled to a trickle. Another camp would have been needed above the Rock Band. When Whillans — at the end of a traverse to the right — reached the crest of the South Buttress, he could see moderately angled slopes leading up to the normal route just below the South Summit. Should they abandon the Face for the sake of a summit “victory” at the last minute? The public at large would no doubt consider the expedition to be a full success, but mountaineers think differently. The 1970 ascent by way of the South Col was judged a failure in leading Japanese climbing circles, since the clearly stated objective of the expedition had been the Face. IHE 71’s goal too was the summit by way of the Face, and not “victory at all costs”, by any route. Whillans acted accordingly and returned to Haston. Together they climbed 300 feet up an icy couloir in the Rock Band, fixing ropes. But then they too had reached the end of the line. There was still some oxygen left at Camp VI, but no more butane and precious little to eat. For more than three weeks they had lived at high altitude without coming down to Advance Base once — a world record and dramatic proof of their incredible toughness, as well as of the superb oxygen system developed by Duane Blume! The combination of snowstorm, intense cold, rockfall, avalanches and faltering supply lines put an end to the struggle. On May 21 news of the expedition’s failure was announced to the outside world.
But must we all hang our heads in shame for having to give up some 1500 feet from the summit, on the most difficult and dangerous route ever attempted on the highest mountain in the world? It took thirty-two years and twelve expeditions before Everest was first climbed by the easiest route! And while it is true that the cherished dream of a harmonious “cordée mondiale” remains unfulfilled, there is no reason to abandon all hope for the future.
Ken Wilson had this to say in “Post-Mortem of an International Expedition” in Mountain 17, September 1971:
“For a public and press weaned on mountaineering success, this year’s failure on Everest was unacceptable. The extensive advance publicity (particularly in the U.K.) made it inevitable that there should be extreme reaction to the project’s conclusion: scapegoats had to be found, and the expedition’s failure had to be accounted for in suitably sensational terms. When the failure was announced, many newspapers referred to the affair as a ‘fiasco’ while the procession of experts delivering instant criticism to press and television, added to the expedition’s poor image. Some of these pundits had expressed grave doubts before the expedition’s departure, others had stayed silent however, just in case Whillans and Haston might have somehow spirited themselves to the summit over 1800 ft. of hard climbing at extreme altitude. It was not until the reality of the expedition’s plight was finally revealed that they really let themselves go.
“Inevitably, it was the whole idealistic basis of the expedition that was challenged: ‘informed’ commentators gathered like vultures to discuss the supposed futility of taking climbers from many nations and trying to mould them into a unified team. The fact that a spirit of international fraternity has always been considered to be one of the supreme qualities of the climbing world was overlooked. Instead, it was suggested that the expedition’s leadership lacked realism in expecting climbers from so many different countries to operate together effectively.
“Of course, had the expedition been a success, eulogies as extreme as the present recriminations would have been showered on the stars. Whillans, no doubt, would now be polishing his top hat for a visit to the Palace, and Dougal cutting a disc; Dyhrenfurth might be under consideration for a United Nations appointment, and Madame Vaucher a hot favourite for the post of Switzerland’s first woman M.P.
“Euphoric success or bitter failure — is such the coinage of the great mountaineering sagas of the ‘seventies’? Perhaps the sport is taking on a cathartic role, providing an adventure-starved public with a source of vicarious excitement and sensation. If so, the future for mountaineering is bleak.…
“… The main butt of all criticisms, of course, was Norman Dyhren-furth. Naturally, as leader, it is he who has to bear the brunt of failure, just as in 1963 he bathed in the pleasant aura of success. But this time he has almost been crushed by the recriminatory back-lash that followed the expedition.
“He has borne all this with dignity, however, avoiding the type of untidy fracas that followed last year’s Nanga Parbat episode. A generous man, he has been the first to excuse the outbursts made by his critics. He has done everything possible to provide the material for this article, despite the fact that the final verdict must inevitably go against him.
“Every leader has to be prepared to face the realities of failure. Lord Hunt was in the same position after his catastrophic expedition to the Pamirs in 1963. The long knives were out then, and now, in 1971, the no less prestigious back of Dyhrenfurth is the prime target. To describe either Hunt or Dyhrenfurth as incompetents, because their expeditions failed to justify the hopes invested in them, would be wrong, but it is possible that a hitherto successful expedition leader might sometimes bank too heavily on his charisma, neglecting some of the painstaking attention to detail that brought him success in the past.
“Despite suggestions to the contrary, it is clear that Dyhrenfurth’s motives in organizing the expedition were completely altruistic and stemmed from an idealism traditional to his family and typical of his Swiss/American background. It is easy to forget the sheer workload involved in organizing an expedition such as this without strong national backing. It was a tremendous achievement in itself to get thirty people from thirteen different countries to the foot of Everest with all the food and equipment needed to climb it. The majority of those people speak highly of Dyhrenfurth and are deeply grateful to him for giving them the chance to go to the highest mountain in the world. The expedition’s failure will leave him with a large personal debt to pay off.
“Quite understandably, Dyhrenfurth has been deeply hurt by the criticism and cynicism levelled at the expedition, particularly as the whole affair represented an attempt to further the friendship and understanding of mountaineers the world over. Superficially, it failed, but on closer inspection it is clear that many international friendships were formed. It has also been a salutary reminder not only of the harshness of the big mountain environment, but also of the whole new range of pressures that face contemporary mountaineers as they step into the public arena.…”
Summary of Statistics:
AREA: Eastern Nepal.
ROUTES ATTEMPTED: Mount Everest: Direct West Ridge and Southwest Face.
PATRON: His Royal Highness The Crown Prince of Nepal. PERSONNEL: Joint Leaders, Norman G. Dyhrenfurth (Switzerland-U.S.A.) and Lt. Col. James O. M. Roberts (GB). Members: Wolfgang Axt (Austria), Major Harsh Bahuguna (India), F. Duane Blume (U.S.A.), John Cleare (GB, B.B.C.), Gary Colliver (U.S.A.), Odd Eliassen (Norway), John Evans (U.S.A.), Dougal Haston (GB), Toni Hiebeler (West Germany), Ian F. Howell (GB, B.B.C.), David Isles (U.S.A.), Ned Kelly (GB, B.B.C.), Reizo Ito (Japan), Carlo Mauri (Italy), Pierre Mazeaud (France), Dr. J. David Peterson (U.S.A.), Leo Schlömmer (Austria), Dr. Peter R. Steele (GB), Ian Stuart (GB, B.B.C.), Jerzy Surdel (Poland, B.B.C.), Jon Teigland (Norway), Antony Thomas (GB, B.B.C.), Naomi Uemura (Japan), Michel Vaucher (Switzerland), Yvette Vaucher (Switzerland), Don Whillans (GB), Bill Kurban (GB, B.B.C.), Arthur Chesterman (GB, B.B.C.). Sunday Times reporter: Murray Sayle (Australia). Liaison Officer: Capt. Vishnu Prasad Sharma (Nepal). Geologist: Dr. Harka Bahadur Gurung (Nepal).