American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Tibet, Everest Attempt via Hornbein Couloir and Tragedy

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1989

Everest Attempt via Hornbein Couloir and Tragedy. L’Esprit d’Equipe had post-monsoon permits for the Great and Hornbein Couloirs on the north face of Everest. We concentrated on the Hornbein Couloir so that Benoit Chamoux might try a ski descent from the summit and one or more of us an “express” ascent. The same route was climbed in 1986 by Swiss Loretan and Troillet in 401/2 hours from a camp at 5800 meters. We arrived at Base Camp at 5200 meters on the main Rongbuk Glacier on August 14 and two days later set up Advance Base near a lake at 5500 meters, a beautiful setting but perhaps a little too high for complete recovery between stints on the north face. I lost more weight than on any previous Himalayan trip. On the morning of August 21, we were awakened in Advance Base by an earthquake which lasted about 30 seconds. In the Everest region the quake caused avalanches everywhere, stripping couloirs on the north face down to ice. An avalanche from Changtse blew gravel through a cache camp we had at 5800 meters and destroyed a tent. On the 23rd we set up Camp I in the middle of the glacier between Changtse and Everest at 6150 meters. We fixed line to 7000 meters and by September 1 had set up Camp II at 7300 meters under a large rock where we found remains of a Spanish camp. After a night there for acclimatization, we descended to Advance Base to prepare for the first summit attempt. On the 6th we had five climbers, Benoit Chamoux, Nicolas Compredon, Georges Sichap, Mauro Russi and me, photographer Pascal Toumaire and filmer Michel Parmentier back in Camp II and Soro Dorotei and Josef Rokoncaj in a makeshift Camp III at 7750 meters. In a similar manner to our Annapurna climb, Russi and I started from Camp II at 10:30 P.M. setting a track for the five Frenchmen behind, while Dorotei and Rakoncaj began at one A.M. to break trail to the Hornbein Couloir. By 3:30 A.M. Russi and I caught the other two at 8000 meters. At 8200 meters we were much less than 24 hours into the climb from the base of the face and a 36-hour ascent was still well within our reach. We had acclimatized above 5000 meters for only three weeks, but we were feeling strong and still climbing, without oxygen, at 100 meters per hour above 8000 meters. The surroundings began to look less and less like a couloir and so we stamped out a ledge in the snow to wait for better light. By five A.M., it was clear we had missed the couloir. Chamoux, Russi, Parmentier and I descended to Camp II and the others all the way to Base. The next morning, the four of us reascended to move Camp III near the base of the Hornbein Couloir. We hoped to go on the next day, but the weather changed and on the 8th we had to descend in a white-out. By the 15th we were all back in Camp III at 8000 meters ready to try in the morning. It had been —27° C in Camp II the night before and we were unwilling to set off from Camp III before six A.M. On the 16th it was clear and windless but the couloir is deep enough not to get sun before noon. Dorotei turned back from 8300 meters with cold hands and feet. Exhausted by three continuous days of trail-breaking on the previous attempt, I realized early that the summit was not within my reach and gave up at 8450 meters. Russi and Chamoux were still climbing strongly and reached 8650 meters by three P.M. They waited there until four P.M. for Rakoncaj and Compedon who had the line for fixing the exit from the couloir onto the west ridge. With Toumaire and Parmentier still moving up, Chamoux made the cautious decision to bring the entire team down. We agreed that this would be the last attempt, but Parmentier insisted on staying in Camp III to try again. The last radio contact with him was on the 20th. He was at 8400 meters. Efforts to reach him on the 22nd were thwarted by a storm. At the end of September, the Spanish west-ridge party found his body at 7700 meters on the north face. Parmentier had a very small aerobic capacity (V02 of 37) and climbed slowly if he did not have anyone to break trail for him. However, he was taking a respiratory stimulant (Almitrine), which enabled him to stay at 8000 meters without deteriorating as fast as most climbers. On K2 in 1986, he spent six continuous days near or above 8000 meters and made it back down. On Everest he had already been at 8000 meters for six continuous days at the time of the last radio contact. Perhaps his supply of Almitrine ran out. The team did not use artificial oxygen anywhere on the mountain. I avoided pulmonary edema (previous episodes in 1981 and 1987) by using dexamethasone above 6000 meters.

Steve Boyer, M.D.

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