American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

In This Short Span: A Mountaineering Memoir

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  • Publication Year: 1974

In This Short Span: A Mountaineering Memoir, by Michael Ward. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1972. 304 pages, 40 photographs, 5 maps. £3.75 (about $9.00)

By his own account Michael Ward was the first British climber seriously to advocate an approach to Everest through the Western Cwm and South Col. In 1951, with Tibet closed and Nepal only just beginning to open, that was the only logical route; but the scant reports from previous expeditions were discouraging and the older, supposedly wiser heads in British mountaineering shook in vigorous negative unison when the brash young medical student proposed the climb that was to bring so much glory to Hillary, Tenzing and what was left of the British Empire. To begin with he planned only a modest reconnaissance expedition, financed mainly by the climbers themselves; but approval of the elite Himalayan Committee was needed before he could even hope for permission from Nepal. Reluctantly, the Committee did agree (years later he was to learn that they sanctioned the trip only because they were certain Nepal would turn him down).

The trip itself, led by Eric Shipton, was an extraordinary success: the dreaded icefall at the lower end of the Western Cwm was attacked and defeated, revealing that the virgin South Col was surmountable; an enormous area of high Nepalese real estate was explored and mapped; and very clear photographs were made of Yeti’s monstrous footprints plodding down the glacier. (The Yeti story is underplayed and is therefore all the more convincing. They could even see where the creature had clawed its way across crevasses, evidently conducting a solo reconnaissance of his own—perhaps in quest of another mountain as large as Everest but less crowded.)

In the 1953 ascent of Everest Ward had a dual role as climber and medical officer. In reality he wore three hats, since he was also conducting extensive physiological research. Samples had to be taken, physical performances, measured, records kept. He also had to fiddle with oxygen equipment, some of it newly and poorly designed. Thus, Ward had little opportunity to go beyond the Advanced Base Camp, although he was as well qualified and conditioned for climbing as any member of the party. In justice, Everest should have been Ward’s prize, but if he felt the least bit cheated, it doesn’t show.

Ward’s physiological research, although it does not seem to have led to any spectacular discoveries, was unique and important, and became the major focus of his climbing. In 1960 he organized and directed a scientific research laboratory that was housed in a small prefabricated building in a valley a few miles south of Everest, at 19,000 feet. There, together with several other scientists, he spent the winter of 1960-61. In February, with three others he climbed Amadablam, at 22,494 feet just a baby among the Himalayan giants; however, their route included several tough pitches of mixed free and aid climbing, and the descent became extremely difficult when one of the Sherpas sustained a compound fracture of a tibia.

There were still worse medical problems in an attempt that spring on Makalu (27,790 feet). There, Ward and another mad physiologist managed to drag a bicycle ergometer and other exotic machines up to a camp at 24,500 feet, where they fumbled and fidgeted and bicycled, watching the dials while gale winds shook their tent. Meanwhile, an assault party made good progress until, just a few hundred feet below the summit, Pete Mulgrew collapsed, spitting “dark red blood in large gobbets.” About this time, Ward himself became deliriously ill from altitude and exertion, another man broke an ankle, a Sherpa had a nervous breakdown, and several others were more or less incapacitated by injuries and fatigue. Read the book to discover how it all came out.

The book includes several other climbing and exploration stories, some from periods earlier in the author’s life, some later. Ward comes across as a modest, temperate man, and he writes well. The photographs are uniformly good. Maps of Nepal and Bhutan in the endpapers are virtually illegible; other maps are only sketches.

Grant Barnes

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