American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Kangshung Face of Everest

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984

Kangshung Face of Everest

James D. Morrissey, M.D.

OCTOBER 8, 1983—It was a day of patient dread and wild exultation, a day of incredible humor and expectant waiting. On this day those two elusive phantoms, dream and reality, met at the summit of Everest as three Americans walked side by side to the highest point on this Earth. The Kangshung or East Face, the last unascended face of Everest, had been climbed. The next day three more would retrace their steps to the summit while four more awaited their chance. Their chance never came as high winds and heavy snow drove us off the mountain.

But let us reflect upon the events which led to this achievement. In 1979 Eric Perlman solicited the aid of Dick Blum in obtaining a permit to climb Everest from China. Blum secured permission and invited Louis Reichardt to select a team and route. Blum was overall leader and Reichardt was climbing leader. Andrew Harvard made a solo reconnaissance up the Kangshung Glacier in the fall of 1980 and emerged with some remarkable photographs. The climbing team elected to attempt the East Face after studying them. We were given permission to climb the oft attempted north ridge as an alternative. In August of 1981 the American team embarked on the first attempt. The very difficult buttress leading to the upper slopes was climbed, but only a handful of climbers wished to proceed further on the avalanche-prone slopes above 21,500 feet. We retreated with the proviso that some of that group would launch a second attempt as soon as possible. The Chinese Mountaineering Association was very generous in holding the mountain for us until 1983. (Details of the 1981 climb may be found in The American Alpine Journal, 1982.)

Friendships, enthusiasm, infirmity, and chance brought together climbers, engineers, and a Basque cook for the 1983 attempt. Jim Bridwell, rafting across Borneo, developed an obscure but potentially fatal illness and never arrived in Base Camp. Dave Breashears opted to go home after one day on the trail out of Kharta for personal reasons. Accompanying us as Liaison Officer and interpreter were Mr. Wang Fu Zhou and Mr. Tsao. Both were with us in 1981 and were very positive forces throughout both expeditions.

The usual madness: fund raising and begging for food and equipment helped fill the void between attempts. We left San Francisco on August 10, 1983—almost solvent.

Memories of Beijing and Chengdu are obscured by the deluge of Mao Tais we were expected to consume at daily banquets. The Chinese are great hosts.

A few days in Lhasa, Tibet (elevation 12,000 feet) served to prepare us for the minibus ride over 16,000-foot passes enroute to Kharta, the end of the road. A spectacular trek into the Kama Valley and then up the Kangshung to our Base Camp at 17,000 feet allowed us to acclimatize further.

We were a large family of brothers coming home. There was a closeness which was so tangible you could feel it. An optimism which was audible in the laughter made more raucous by a few shots of Jack Daniels. Kim Momb and Chris Kopczynski blazed a trail across the glacier, six miles of brutal load hauling to Advance Base Camp. Advance Base was a noisy place; occasionally gusts created by the frequent avalanches threatened to flatten the camp. Ten Tibetan porters assisted us in carrying loads that far.

In 1981 almost five weeks were consumed in climbing the 4000-foot buttress guarding the upper slopes of the mountain. It is a fearsome jumble of unstable rock and knife-edged ridges. Rockfall was a constant companion and more than once we had near misses on the lower buttress.

George Lowe had done much of the leading in 1981. In the rocky areas most of the ropes were in good enough condition to risk jümaring. An alternative method involved free climbing while dragging a Gibbs Ascender clipped into the old fixed line. Almost everyone had a chance to lead. Chris Kopczynski and Dave Coombs led the horizontal ridge. Kim Momb continued higher up, and because he was the youngest, he had the “privilege” of jümaring up the old ropes on the overhanging 800-foot Lowe (upper) headwall. It was a gripping but memorable experience.

During the ascent of the buttress we twice fired a rocket with a messenger line attached from Pinsetter Camp (20,000 feet) down toward the glacier just above Advance Base. Both attempts failed so we lowered our sights and succeeded in getting a line from Snow Camp at 19,000 feet down to 18,000 feet. We then pulled a 10mm highline up and following that a ¼-inch line which was to carry the loads. A tiny Honda engine allowed us to ferry everything to Snow Camp in a mere two days. John Boyle and Jay Cassell were our official engineers, but the gang was full of ingenious schemes for improving the system. In any event it worked and saved us from physical attrition. We could have carried the loads to Snow Camp in the same time it took us to perfect the winch.

A second hauling system above Pinsetter on the overhanging wall was a continuous line with a haul sack top and bottom. The load to be lifted to the top was loaded into the bottom bag and the top bag filled with snow until it was just a shade heavier than the load below. Up came the load with very little energy expended in the process.

Eight hundred feet above the headwall was Helmet Camp (21,500 feet). Four climbers occupied this camp. Twice daily they descended to the dump site at the top of the winch and struggled back up the very steep ice flutes to Helmet Camp. We gradually increased the number of occupants of Helmet to assist in load carrying until all thirteen climbers were safely settled at 21,500 feet. This was one of the keys to our success. It seemed incredible that the entire team was healthy and capable of carrying loads above the buttress. The good health may be attributed to the fact that none of the physicians (we were three) wanted to get stuck evacuating the ill and infirm. The frequency of maladies was inversely proportional to the number of practicing physicians.

More than 2000 pounds were cached at Helmet. As the last members arrived there, half the group broke trail with the loads to Camp I at 23,500 feet. It was late September now. You could feel the press of winter in the ice forming in the water bottles at night. Almost every afternoon the clouds rolled up the valley and swallowed us on the avalanche-prone slopes of the upper mountain.

We divided into three teams of four, four and five men. Each team carried two days and rested one. The rest day was optional and many members chose to carry. We alternated rest days. Above Camp I the altitude began to take its toll. Carl Tobin was struck down by frostbite at 25,000 feet. Andy Harvard broke a few ribs and contracted pleurisy at Camp II (25,000 feet) during a fit of coughing. Dave Coombs began vomiting nearing Camp II. He probably had cerebral edema. Dave Cheesmond on his first Himalayan expedition developed the early signs of pulmonary edema after breaking trail and carrying from 23,500 to 26,000 feet in one day, a high price to pay for exuberance. He descended all the way to Advance Base Camp and recovered very quickly, returning a few days later ready to make a summit bid with the third group. These afflictions made it necessary to do some shuffling between teams and we lost one, perhaps two, days because of it, but with everyone so eager there was no problem getting Camp III at 25,800 feet occupied. We had several golden days in early October. From our perches high on the face we could look north to Tibet, seemingly flat now from this perspective, its ochre landscape stretching to the horizon. To the east we could see Kanchenjunga, a black mass against a sheet of gold as the sun rose over eastern China. For several days not a cloud was visible. We rushed to take advantage of this window in a rapidly deteriorating weather pattern.

On October 7 Carlos Buhler, Kim Momb and Louis Reichardt tucked themselves in for the night after an afternoon of pushing fluid and calories. Their single tent was perched behind a small ice cliff, the only protection on a vast slope which was a set-up for slab avalanches. They arose at three A.M. brewed up and set out at 4:30 A.M. Breaking trail was difficult in the knee-deep snow. It took six hours of agonizing slogging before they finally crested the southeast ridge at 27,800 feet. What they saw was a first on Everest. Directly in front of them were seven down-clad figures painfully working their way upward, with no food and no water, struggling to make the first Japanese oxygenless assault.

Snow conditions improved considerably. The slope below the south summit was much steeper than anyone anticipated, approaching 45° for 1000 vertical feet. The Hillary Step was in good condition. An old fixed rope was available, so with one foot on the rock and another on the snow it took only moments to surmount this obstacle. At 2:30 P.M. a joyous trio reached the summit. Kim Momb, on the radio, related that you could light a candle on the summit. Lou Reichardt was wearing only polypropylene underwear and a windsuit. The altimeter, which we thought was well calibrated, registered 27,500 feet.

After the usual photos of the flags, they descended and at the Hillary Step encountered the Japanese who were just starting up. The Americans tried to dissuade them from proceeding because of the late hour. Several turned back and accompanied them to the south summit and below. A Sherpa a few paces behind Reichardt slipped and plummeted 5000 feet to the Western Cwm without uttering a sound. Two others from that group would die before the sun rose on October 9.

Kim Momb, descending rapidly below the south summit, ran out of oxygen at 27,000 feet and arrived back at Camp III around six P.M. He was met by Chris Kopczynski, George Lowe, Dan Reid, and Jay Cassell. After a quick brew he descended to Camp I where we had a great dinner and Kim, who was in remarkably good shape, related the details of his summit day.

Louis Reichardt and Carlos Buhler were exhausted when they arrived at Camp III but were well cared for by Dan Reid and company. All six were stuffed into the VE24 like sardines in a can. When the alarm went off at one A.M., George Lowe, Jay Cassell, and Dan Reid prepared to leave. Kopczynski who had been to the summit in 1981 with the Medical Research Expedition decided to descend with Lou and Carlos because of a terrible headache. The summit three climbed unroped as the trio had the day before. George, feeling very fit, forged ahead in the footsteps of the previous day’s team and reached the summit in less than seven hours, descending all the way to Helmet Camp the same day. Dan and Jay were on essentially the same time schedule as Lou and Carlos; they too arrived back at Camp III exhausted but no one was there to brew up for them. While approaching and descending from the summit, both sustained significant frostbite of the fingers. Jay will probably end up with two fingers shorter than he would like.

During the seven A.M. radio call of October 10 from Camp I, Chris Kopczynski, Dave Cheesmond, and Geoff Tabin expressed enthusiasm for a third summit attempt on the 12th. From my solitary aerie at Camp II it was obvious that a major storm was moving in from Nepal and India, and I expressed that opinion. They really wanted a shot at it, so I agreed to meet them around noon at Camp I, 1500 feet below. After waiting for Dan Reid and Jay Cassell for several hours, I descended to Camp I. The storm hit at about eleven A.M. Jay and Dan elected to stop at Camp II and went onto oxygen to prevent further damage from cold.

One camp below, Kop, Dave, Geoff, and I spent an enjoyable afternoon telling stories and stuffing ourselves. At intervals we prayed for the storm to desist, but it didn’t. A minor oversight was that we only had three sleeping bags for four men. We solved the problem by making the old man—me—go without one. A few heavy parkas sufficed.

The next morning dawned with no improvement in the weather. Two to three feet of unstable snow blanketed the already treacherous slopes. Dan and Jay waded down to us, tired after pushing through waist-deep drifts. We descended as a group with Kop on a leash in the lead, triggering avalanches. Within 100 yeards of Helmet Camp, Dan Reid, his glasses fogged, walked off an ice cliff and plunged fifty feet into deep snow. His momentum had carried him across a large crevasse in the process. He couldn’t move because cracks opened around him whenever he even took a deep breath, so we threw him a rope and belayed him up.

The foul weather continued. We rappelled the entire buttress on the 12th in a long and arduous day. The last to leave were Dave Cheesmond and George Lowe, who spend a great deal of time and energy cutting the ropes on the 800-foot buttress. Advance Base Camp was abandoned on the 14th and stripped clear by the 17th.

In Lhasa we had a truly moving ceremony when all members received the Khata, a white silk scarf, the highest honor given in Tibet. During the banquet later that evening a distinguished gentleman remarked on the glorious reports given to him by our Chinese friends, Mr. Wang and Mr. Tsao. Several Mao Tais later, one of the members rose and toasted the congregation and explained the key to our success to our hosts.

“The ties which bound us one to another, the ties which brought us to this mountain, Chomolungma, Goddess, Mother of the Earth, were as fragile and beautiful and intricate as a spider’s web. The ropes we carried, the ones we climbed on, were our web. Above the buttress we no longer needed ropes but the web was still there, more delicate in the cold thin air, perhaps, but somehow more binding. It was a web of selflessness and trust but through it and around it, the center of it all was one word, and the word is love. That’s what took us to the summit and that’s what brought us all back.”

There was nothing else to say.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Tibetan Himalaya.

New Route: Mount Everest, 8848 meters, 29,028 feet, via Kangshung (East) Face. Summit reached on October 8, 1983 (Buhler, Momb, Reichardt) and on October 9, 1983 (Cassell, Lowe, Reid).

Personnel: James D. Morrissey, leader; John Boyle, Carlos Buhler, Jay Cassell, David Cheesmond, David Coombs, Andrew Harvard, George Lowe, Christopher Kopczynski, Kim Momb, Louis Reichardt, Daniel Reid, Geoffrey Tabin, Carl Tobin.

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