American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Complete West Ridge of Everest

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1980

The Complete West Ridge of Everest

Tone Škarja, Planinska Zveza Slovenije, Yugoslavia

OUR REQUEST FOR permission to climb Mount Everest had already been sent to the Nepalese government in 1974. Between April 9 and May 5, 1978 Stane Belak, Štefan Marence, Roman Robas, Nejc Zaplotnik and I investigated a difficult but relatively safe approach to the Lho La, figured out how we could transport loads up the last 650 feet of the face below this pass, arranged with Mountain Travel for a capable party of Sherpas, tested technical and safety equipment and studied the possibilities of supplying the climbers with as much fresh food as we could. Preparations in 1978 finished with the selection of the 25 members, who assumed the responsibility of the tasks of purchasing the food and equipment, organizing the transport of men and loads, in short, the whole organization of the expedition.

The party was also accompanied by two radio operators, two newsmen, a TV cameraman and a painter. Police Inspector Yogendra Thapa was appointed as the Nepalese liaison officer. Ang Phu, as sirdar, was in charge of 19 Sherpas, 3 cooks, 3 kitchen boys, and 2 mail runners. For transport from Kathmandu to Base Camp we had at our disposal 700 porters. We left Yugoslavia with 18 tons of equipment at the end of February, 1979, departed from Kathmandu in four parties between March 10 and 14; the last of the party arrived at Base Camp at 17,500 feet on March 31.

Already on March 29 we started fixing ropes and ladders between Base Camp and Camp I at 19,850 feet at the edge of the Lho La, a job that went on until Camp I was established on April 6. The upper part of the rock was of difficulty of UIAA Grade IV and V. We erected a winch on the last 650 feet, which lifted six tons of supplies. Camp I consisted of tents and snow caves and could house 40 people.

While supplies were being gathered at Camp I, from April 7 to 14 work went ahead in preparing the route to Camp II at 22,200 feet. Above the Lho La there was 45° to 55° ice and UIAA Grade IV rock. Camp II could house twelve people. Climbing difficulties were less between Camps II and III. Camp III was established on April 18 below the top of the western shoulder at 23,800 feet.

From the western shoulder a gentle and easy ridge led for a mile and a half to Camp IV, established on April 27. The American route of 1963 joined ours along this section, rising from the Western Cwm. At Camp IV the American route turned onto the north slope to the Holbein Couloir, while ours continued up the west ridge proper.

It stormed from May 3 to 7 and so we could not establish Camp V at 26,650 feet until May 9. The difficulty of this section was UIAA Grade II and III.

On May 10 Viktor Grošelj and Marjan Manfreda set out on a summit bid but were forced to retreat from 27,225 feet because of route- finding difficulties, oxygen valve problems and frostbite. However they fixed rope on the first hard pitch (UIAA Grade V). On May 12 Dusan Podbevšek and Roman Robas also had route-finding problems and did not get much over 27,225 feet.

On May 13 the brothers Andrej and Marko Štemfelj and Nejc Zaplotnik set off from Camp V in strong winds at -35° C. Marko had to retreat because of a faulty oxygen bottle valve, but the other two progressed quickly. After several tries, they climbed the second hard section (one rope-length of V and two of IV), rejoined the American route and reached the summit of Mount Everest at 1:51 P.M. They descended the American route and the Hornbein Couloir to reach Camp IV late in the evening.

The last successful summit party, Stane Belak, Stipe Božic, who filmed the whole ascent, and Ang Phu, were delayed a day by snowfall. On May 15 they left Camp V. Being three, they were slower than the previous party, reached the top at 2:30 P.M. and started to descend. They were forced to bivouac in the open air at over 26,900 feet in the Hornbein Couloir.

The last summit party, Borut Bergant, Ivan Kotnik and Vanja Matijevec, had spent the night in Camp V. When they made no contact with the descending party, the three decided to cross to help them. They found them just below the Hornbein Couloir. In spite of the bivouac, they seemed in good condition to make their way down. However on a 35° snow slope Ang Phu slipped, and making no effort to arrest his fall, slid some 6000 feet to where we found him dead the next day.

In consequence of the accident and because oxygen supplies were exhausted, climbing efforts stopped. Between May 17 and 20 we evacuated the camps and left Base Camp on May 21. We were back in Kathmandu on May 27.

There are now five different routes by which Mount Everest has been climbed. Ours is the only one from the Nepalese side that ascends directly, avoiding the Khumbu Icefall and the Western Cwm. We believe it will be an attractive route for others because it does not enter the icefall, but technical difficulties accompany the climber almost to the very top and it is exposed to strong winds all the time. Zaplotnik now belongs to the half dozen climbers who have climbed three 8000-meter peaks, while Belak and Andrej Štremfelj have climbed two 8000ers.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Mount Everest, Nepal.

New Route: Mount Everest, 29,028 feet, via the entire West Ridge, May 13, 1979 (Andrej Štremfelj, Zaplotnik); May 15 (Belak, Božic, Ang Phu).

Personnel: Tone Škarja, leader; Stane Belak, Tomaž Jamnik, Evgen Vavken, Igor Tekavcic, Bojan Poliak, Roman Robas, Zvone Andrejcic, Štefan Marence, Stipe Božic, Borut Bergant, Muhamed Gafic, Viktor Grošelj, Stane Klemenc, Francek Knez, Ivan Kotnik, Marjan Manfreda, Vanja Matijevec, Vlado Mesaric, Dušan Podbevšek, Muhamed Šišic, Andrej Štremfelj, Marko Štremfelj, Nejc Zaplotnik, Jože Zupan.

As we go to press, we have just received news of the first winter ascent of Mount Everest. Despite -40° temperatures and high winds, the Poles, Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki reached the summit on February 17, 1980. Ryszard Szafirski and leader Andrzej Zawada were beaten back from 26,750 feet on February 13.

Climbers who are interested in keeping up with mountaineering history as it happens will want to subscribe to IWA TO YUKI, Japan’s foremost mountain magazine. Articles in Japanese about climbing in all parts of the world are summarized in English. It contains numerous photographs, many in color, valuable maps, diagrams and topos with English captions. There are six regular issues and one special mountaineering annual issue each year. Annual subscription: 7600 yen. IWA TO YUKI, Yama To Keikoku Sha Co. Ltd., 1-1-33 Shiba Daimon, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105, Japan.

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