American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Once Around Everest

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1983

Once Around Everest

Ned Gillette

EVEREST, the “third pole”, is still the ultimate lodestone for most mountaineers. While climbers are seeking new ways to gain the summit, Jan Reynolds and I decided to put a different twist into our expedition to the world’s highest peak. We tackled it horizontally instead of vertically, thus becoming the first to circle Everest. The Mount Everest Grand Circle Expedition was a new way of looking at an old subject. It was the Camel Expedition of 1981/1982.

Traditionally, mountaineering teams are tied to one Base Camp. But we were free, like mountain gypsies, to rummage through the most magnificent terrain on earth, always on the go at elevations above 17,000 feet. And we had the chance to immerse ourselves in two exotic cultures—Tibet and Nepal.

Our trip was broken into two halves: the first in Nepal during the winter, the second in Tibet in the spring. The reason for this is that the border is closed, and Everest stands astride the two countries. Our orbit, put together like two halves of a clamshell, took four months and covered 300 miles (including the approaches to and exits from Everest). Jim Bridwell, Steve McKinney, Craig Calonica and Rick Barker supplied expertise during different segments.

As a classy way to touch the border and begin the Nepal leg, we climbed Pumori, a 23,442-foot pyramid just west of Everest. In the Himalayan winter, jet stream winds descend onto the tops of the highest peaks. “To survive in winter in the prevailing conditions above 8,000 meters is a hazardous game, to climb in them nobly treads the borderline between will-power and insanity.” (Mountain, #72). Considering ourselves more adventurous than insane, the reasonable height of Pumori well suited us. The ascent, led by Bridwell, followed a new line to 22,000 feet. It was moderate but sustained in difficulty, with steps up to 80°, and was located several hundred meters to the right of the major icefall on the east face. The original ascent route was then followed from the northeast ridge to the summit.

We failed on the first attempt at the northeast ridge. We thought we were in a race with the coming winter storm season which ordinarily hits at Christmas, so dashed up the route with little acclimatization and minimal food. One camp was established at 21,000 feet. The mountain was in perfect condition— hard snow, accepting ice, and bare rock. Although the price for climbing in the winter is cold and wind, there are compensations. Little of the year’s precipitation arrives, lessening avalanche danger substantially.

It was difficult to discover from “authorities”, whether local or foreign, if this winter was a benign oddball. Polish and British Everest expeditions experienced devastating conditions in the winters of 1979-80 and 1980-81. The fact is that the winter of 1981-82 saw no major storms from mid-November to January 23. Virtually every day was climable at elevations below 7,300 meters. Above, we could only guess. For a month we watched Everest across the Khumbu from Pumori. Although it was often crowned with severe lenticular clouds, there appeared to be enough reasonable days for the summit, even well into January. The conclusion must be that a good winter presents viable climbing.

Meanwhile, back at Base Camp, Christmas was a bit sullen. We had let Pumori go without a good fight. Our second assault of seven days, featuring smarter and tougher climbers, saw Camp II placed on the northeast ridge at 22,000 feet, and the summit reached on January 6, 1982 by Bridwell, Reynolds and myself. To the north, Tibet looked like a defoliated Nevada. High winds and extreme cold dictated a rather brief sojourn. Custom one-piece climbing suits designed by The North Face and made of Goretex and Thinsulate worked nicely. This was the first major winter ascent by Americans in the Himalaya.

Thirty hours after the mountain was cleared, the lower route was swept by a colossal avalanche of collapsed ice séracs. The ensuing silence was broken by Jim’s gentle summary, “Well, that’s luck.”

At this point most expeditions head home, but we now climbed over three passes of nearly 20,000 feet (Mingbo La, West Col, Sherpani Col) to swing around to Makalu on the east side of Everest and finish the first half circle. Miraculously, the weather still held. Original plans had called for skiing this section, but no new snow had fallen for the past two months and glacier surfaces were rock hard. We simply strapped on crampons and tramped across.

At Makalu our luck deserted us. The weather broke. Hopes of relief evaporated when our hard-working Sherpas failed to meet us. Civilization stood five storm-riddled days to the south, and the trek out, without food, added another episode to the high-altitude crash diet plan. Logical a path may be when laid out from lowland to mountain, but this sensibility escapes the traveller that first chooses to follow it in reverse. Clues were submerged in deep snow, calling for clever sleuthing. Neanderthal camping was the order of the hour as we elected to sleep in caves under giant boulders in order to build fires.

In April and May we were back at the circumnavigation (fondly referred to as the circumskition). Negotiations with the Chinese Mountaineering Association were remarkably easier than during our foray to China in the summer of 1980. Then it took nine days in three separate cities; this time, one-half day in Beijing. (Incidentally, indulging in benign political skullduggery, we purposely neglected to tell either Nepal or China about the entire circle until after completion of the expedition. They both were most delighted in the concept.)

Exploits in Tibet were fascinating rather than dangerous. Culturally, the treasures of this forbidden kingdom were finally opening to foreigners, even though there have been great changes since the Chinese occupation of 1950. To a large extent the old Buddhist civilization is disappearing before our very eyes. But there are oases. For instance, Lhasa’s Jo-Khang temple, some 1300 years old, has been reopened to pilgrims. Inside, it was overpowering. We were immersed in fumes of butter candles and endless deep chanting. Here was the essence of Tibetan Buddhism, which is a combination of their ancient belief in shamanism and blood sacrifice, Tantric magic and sexual rites, and the attainment of Nirvana through the help of enlightened Buddhas. The air was loaded with religious fervor, and we left exhausted.

Historically, our mountaineering route around the northern flank of Everest had much in common with the original 1921 British reconnaissance. That expedition searched for the most practical route up the Tibetan side of Everest. We would travel much of the same terrain.

This connection with the past was made all the more dramatic when members of Chris Bonington’s team (in to climb the east-northeast ridge) discovered inscribed stones near the Rongbuk Base Camp. They were pieces of a memorial erected nearly 60 years ago, and since destroyed by Tibetans. It commemorated those who died on the first three British Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924—and especially the tragic climb of 1924 when Mallory and Irving vanished with no trace.

Not all whose footsteps we echoed were afforded the luxuries of vast support teams. Facing the necessity of surveying north of the subcontinent, the British ingeniously trained Indians of the intellectual class to penetrate and map closed lands. These Pundits, disguised as pilgrims, counted measured paces with the aid of rosaries numbering only an even 100 beads and stored statistics on scraps of paper concealed in prayer wheels. On foot, alone, with little money and facing great danger of arrest and execution, their journeys covered thousands of miles and lasted up to four years. Pundit Hari Ram, coded #9 or MH, completed a half circumambulation of Everest in 1871 by travelling from Darjeeling to Kathmandu in a wide arc north through Tibet.

Mr. Ram most certainly did not stray into Tibet’s glacier terrain, so leaving a pioneering ski effort to us. (C.M.A. wrote in response to our request to ski-trek: “According to material we get, the ice-skating or skiing cannot be conducted at the Rongbuk Glacier. Please consider your itinerary.”) Confident, we stayed our course, and on May 2 skied at a leisurely pace up to the Lho La and the border, to the west of Everest. Looking across at nearby Pumori and down into Nepal meant the circle was finally closing. Our shouted toasts of “vodka, vodka,” went unanswered from the Russian Base Camp 2000 feet below. With scant trace of any Shangri-La powder, we negotiated a squibbled descent on cross country skis.

Now we swung around to the east of Everest by trekking up the East Rongbuk Glacier (climbing a lovely unnamed, unclimbed peak along the way, then finding more skiing in the upper basin), then over the Lhakpa La and Karp La, and into the unsurpassed pristine beauty of the Kangshung Glacier valley. We had seen Everest from all sides, and turned for home with a deep and intimate affection—a reverence—for the highest mountain.

The simple fact that we felt compelled to concoct such an extraordinary approach to Everest is in itself a comment on adventure in the 1980s. You can no longer be the first to climb the highest peaks or the first to explore blank spots on the map. Unsanforized, our planet looks appallingly small in comparison to our view of it at the turn of the century when it lay unwashed of a good deal of human accomplishment. Then explorers, heroically self-sufficient, still faced the terror of the unknown.

In an increasingly shrinking and competitive world, style is the essential ingredient of adventuring: taking new approaches to old subjects. There is still plenty left to do; we just have to use our imagination more since the old frontiers gave out.

Lindbergh started us off on this new adventurism in 1927 by dropping in on Paris. Plenty of people had crossed the Atlantic, but none with such dramatic boldness. Alone, yet married to modem mechanical genius, he forever reduced the world to comprehensible, conquerable proportions.

Today, mankind can jump into its machines and charge through the densest jungle or dive the deepest ocean. The systems of society distance self-sufficiency. But there is still a yearning to leave our signature upon a deed by our own skill, persistence and strength. We already know that we can fly over it or wheel through it, given a big enough support team.

The realities of the 1980s, in which there remain no true geographical explorations as once known, demand that adventure be contrived and maybe a bit strange if one is to leave new footsteps. The rules of the game are chosen by the players. It is by these rules of relative self-sufficiency that validity is acknowledged, brilliance praised. To be worthy, a challenge is often set back in time, excluding the use of mechanical assistance to better square the odds. But the final mark of success is returning better friends, as we did on the Mount Everest Grand Circle.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Nepal and Tibet around Mount Everest.

First Winter Ascent: Pumori, 7145 meters, 23,442 feet, via new route, East Face to Northeast Ridge, January 6, 1982 (Bridwell, Gillette, Reynolds).

Circumambulation of Mount Everest: Nepalese Section, December 1981 and January 1982; Tibetan Section April and May 1982.

Personnel: Ned Gillette, Jan Reynolds, James Bridwell, Stephen McKinney, Craig Colonica, Richard Barker.

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