American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The American Bicentennial Everest Expedition

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1977

The American Bicentennial Everest Expedition

Phillip R. Trimble

IN late November 1975 I wrote Dave Fischer, the Political Officer in our Embassy in Kathmandu and a law school classmate, about the possibility of a permit for Cho Oyu. He responded, “Cho Oyu isn’t available but how about Everest?” My response was perfectly natural laughter.

For a few days I gave the matter no further thought, but subconsciously I was plagued by the question: What does he mean? After a hurried phone call to Dan Emmett and Arlene Blum, I dispatched a cable requesting further information. The sheer improbability of the venture was itself alluring.

It appeared that the French had surrendered their permit for the postmonsoon period of 1976, and we would have a chance. The obstacles were so staggering that it was best not to think too precisely about them. In December at the American Alpine Club meeting in Seattle, Arlene ascertained that Gerry Roach and Chris Chandler were interested. With a nucleus of five who had climbed Trisul the preceding year plus Chris, Gerry and Barb Roach, we began filing applications for endorsement by the AAC and the U.S. Government. The application process was completed with considerable speed, thanks to the cooperation of the AAC Expedition Committee, but the Government of Nepal didn’t issue the permit until March 19, following weeks of uncertainty and conflicting rumors as to the status of the various competing groups.

Meanwhile, if our venture was to have any chance of success, we had to get started. We realized in the abstract, and came to know concretely, that climbing Everest was at least 90% planning and logistics. The timetable was sobering: it was already late February, we didn’t have the permit, and yet would have to have food and equipment ready by May if we were to ship by sea. Delegation of responsibility was crucial to our success. The team was completed with the addition of Bob Cormack, Dee Crouch, Rick Ridgeway, Frank Morgan and Hans Bruyntjes.

Frank Morgan and Hans Bruyntjes lived abroad and consequently were not involved in the early activity, but came to the U.S. later in the spring to help out. Boulder became the operational center for the expedition and, in the course of about six weeks, approximately ten tons of food, equipment and supplies were ordered, assembled, packaged and shipped. On May 28, a Mersk liner departed Los Angeles for Bangkok where the goods were air-freighted to Kathmandu. The remaining four tons, mostly oxygen and related equipment, went completely by air in July.

Until this time the expedition had been financed primarily by the hopes and confidence of the climbers, and the indulgence of our suppliers and creditors. It was not until June that we concluded an arrangement with Columbia Broadcasting System, which provided financial assistance. The resulting addition of a film crew (Mike Hoover, Peter Pelafian, Jonathan Wright and Pete White went above Base Camp) compounded the logistics problems, particularly since food and equipment had already been packed and shipped for a “smaller” expedition. The Associated Press also sent a reporter, Jurate Kazickas, to Base Camp.

We arrived in Kathmandu around July 27. Dave Fischer, Mike Cheney, and Mountain Travel had organized the approach march and arranged a team of Sherpas. Approximately 600 porters were required to carry the gear to Base Camp. The team consisted of the eleven climbers, plus Joe Reinhard, an American anthropologist living in Nepal who served as interpreter and Advance Base Camp manager, and 34 Sherpas (not including 2 cooks, 3 assistant cooks, 6 mail runners, etc). Dilu Prasad Benju was our liaison officer, and we were the first Everest expedition to use a Sherpa as Base Camp Manager—Pasang Kame.

We departed Kathmandu on August 3. (The 600 porters were divided into three groups, leaving a couple of days apart, so that our party was a manageable 200.) The approach march followed the well defined, if somewhat muddy, track, reaching Namche Bazar on August 15. After a few days of organization, reorganization and acclimatization, the main group proceeded to Tangboche, Pheriche and Lobuche, pausing an extra day at each stop as precaution against pulmonary edema. Base Camp was established August 25.

After several days of sorting and issuing equipment, the first party entered the Khumbu Icefall on August 28.

Four days were consumed establishing the route to the site of Camp I at about 19,500 feet, with the lead party leaving progressively earlier in the mornings (shortly after midnight on the fourth day) and returning progressively later each day. We endeavored to conclude all climbing or load-carrying through the icefall by around ten A.M. or shortly after the sun struck the ice. After ropes were fixed and ladder bridges over crevasses established, Camp I was permanently occupied September 3. An advance party established Camp II (21,600 feet) on September 8, and immediately pushed to the site of Camp III (23,000 feet).

Camp II, which served as Advance Base Camp, was at the foot ofthe Southwest Face, while Camp III was located on a ramp on the lower part of the Lhotse Face. It was highly vulnerable to avalanche danger, was buried twice and therefore was not a popular place to spend time.

Following a six-day storm, during which climbing ceased, Camp III was firmly established on September 18, and Camp IV (24,500 feet), about halfway up the Lhotse Face, was placed on September 22. Meanwhile, of course, loads of food, oxygen and supplies were steadily ferried to Camp II. From there, in general, loads were carried directly to Camp IV, in view of the relatively short distances involved and in order to avoid the danger of staying at Camp III. Camp V at the South Col (c. 26,000 feet) was established by Dee Crouch and Frank Morgan on October 1. Camp V was then stocked for two assaults.

On October 5 the first summit team, consisting of Chris Chandler, Bob Cormack and Ang Phurba left Camp II (Gerry Roach and Dan Emmett suffered illnesses precluding an attempt by them at that time). They reached Camp V on October 6; Camp VI was established October 7; and the summit achieved on October 8. Ang Phurba turned back immediately above Camp VI because his oxygen system failed. A second summit team, consisting of Gerry Roach, Rick Ridgeway and Hans Bruyntjes, left Camp II on October 7, and stayed at Camp IV on the day of the summit climb. On October 9, they proceeded to the South Col, but turned back in the face of extreme weather conditions (winds estimated to exceed 100 mph and temperatures of less than —20°F). The summit team had descended safely, reaching their tent at Camp VI after dark (7:30 P.M.) on September 8, and continued on to below the South Col the next day.

Further summit attempts were not made in view of a number of factors. Each day the weather was steadily getting worse, and there was no reason to believe the trend would change. The Sherpas were exhausted, and most were reluctant to continue; they had heard of a storm prediction by the head lama at Tangboche and were anxious to get off the mountain. We would have had to regroup at Base Camp, an idea which did not generate enthusiasm. Most important it had been a successful expedition, and good to conclude it on that note.

Summary of Statistics:

Ascent: Mount Everest via South Col Route; summit reached on October 8, 1976 (Chandler, Cormack).

Personnel: Phillip R. Trimble, leader; Hans Bruyntjes, Netherlands; Arlene D. Blum, Chris Chandler, M.D., Robert Cormack, Dee Crouch, Daniel Emmett, Frank Morgan, Joseph Reinhard, Richard Ridgeway, Barbara and Gerard A. Roach.

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