American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Everest International Peace Climb

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1991

Everest International Peace Climb

Jim Whittaker

Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.—Goethe

OUR GOAL was to place three climbers, one from each country, on the top of the world. They would demonstrate that through friendship and cooperation high goals can be reached. We chose our enemies to climb with—the Soviets and the Chinese. This was before glasnost, before perestroika, before the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, before Gorbachev went to Beijing. We would hold the summit of all summit meetings, enemies becoming friends.

When I first went to the Chinese with this idea, they said, “Mr. Whittaker, we have not had Soviets in our country for thirty years.” “Exactly,” I replied. “What an opportunity.” I explained that we would fund the climb for world peace. To see our countries united toward a common goal would be a symbol for the whole world.

It took a trip to Moscow and another back to Beijing to get permission for the Soviets to join. Then the Chinese said they could not participate—their climbers lacked the skills and experience of the U.S. and Soviet climbers. I guaranteed that the three countries would go together to the top. If one country’s climber had to turn back before the summit, the other two would turn around and a new wave of three climbers would try. I then invited their team to Mount Rainier to get acquainted. If they would send strong climbers used to working at high altitude, we would teach them enough technique to scale Everest. Six months later, they accepted my proposals and agreed to be 100% participants.

Our expedition had five climbers and five support people from each country. Each team had a leader, doctor, interpreter and Base Camp organizers. My wife Dianne Roberts was Executive Director, working full-time to raise our $1,100,000 budget and coordinate the many details. I was leader of the American team, Vladimir Shatayev led the Soviets and Losang Dawa the Chinese.

At endless protocol meetings, the leaders and deputy leaders discussed every detail of strategy—both on and off the mountain. Shatayev suggested one overall leader so that decisions on the mountain could be made quickly without going through six leaders and three interpreters. I held out for three leaders withequal power. Finally Shatayev declared, “We’ll solve this problem democratically. We’ll vote!” So the Chinese communist and the Soviet communist voted me the overall leader.

The Chinese and Soviets landed in the Northwest in June, 1989. On Mount Rainier, we hiked to the Nisqually Glacier and set up camp. I saw a candy wrapper on the snow, picked it up and said, “We’ll leave this place cleaner than we found it.” The Chinese and Soviets were astonished as we carried out that promise—even collecting, bagging and hauling out by toboggan all our human waste. Early on, we decided that our climb for peace should also be a climb for the environment. Environmental degradation is as much of a threat to the planet as war. The twentieth anniversary of Earth Day would be April 22, 1990. Could our climbers aim for the summit on Earth Day?

The first hour we were together on the Nisqually, one of my team came to me and said, “You know, Jim, these guys are just like us.” Climbing on Rainier was a great opportunity to get acquainted. We did the mountain by five routes and began to communicate with each other.

At the end of the session, as we headed back to Seattle, Shatayev turned to me. “Our country is going to lose face,” he said. “How?” I asked. He told me the Peace Climb team had been in the United States and was going to China, but not to the USSR. We must all come to the Soviet Union for two weeks to climb on Elbrus. I told him the Americans had used up their vacation time on Rainier and that it would be very difficult to go. Looking puzzled, he said, “What is vacation?” I explained that climbers in the United States do not get paid by their governments, like those in China and the Soviet Union, that we had to work at other jobs to make a living. But he insisted. So I raised our budget for airfares and asked my climbers to try to get two weeks off in September. We managed to send seven of our team to Elbrus for further team building and face saving.

Five month later, on February 24, our three teams met in Beijing for the trip through Lhasa and across the Tibetan plateau to the Rongbuk monastery and Base Camp at 17,500 feet. Our supplies totaled twenty tons, half food and half equipment. We would be self-sufficient at this elevation for over two months — a small city of mountaineers from three diverse cultures who would trust their lives to each other on the highest mountain on earth.

I was surprised by the weather patterns we experienced on the mountain. In 1963, when I climbed Everest, no storm lasted more than three days. Yet here we were getting hit by week-long storms back to back. But as we fought the elements and our own weaknesses and misunderstandings, we welded into one strong team committed to a common goal.

During a severe storm, we abandoned Camp III at 21,500 feet. It was a grueling twelve-mile descent to Base Camp. Somehow, I tore a calf muscle. The doctors thought it a more serious condition, thrombophlebitis, a blood clot, which could be life-threatening at this altitude. I reluctantly left the mountain and the team to seek medical aid in Kathmandu. Eventually I ended up in a hospital in Bangkok, where they determined I had no clot. Ten days after leaving, on April 20, I rejoined my team.

There were injuries and delays. Soviet Viktor Volodin tried to climb too high too fast without proper acclimatization and suffered cerebral edema, which prevented his further participation. A few days after Earth Day, La Verne Woods became sick at Camp IV at 23,500 feet and was escorted off the mountain by the Soviets with whom she was climbing. In Kathmandu, the doctor diagnosed thrombophlebitis and pulmonary emboli. He said she would probably have died with 24 hours if she had not descended.

In spite of these illnesses and the extremely poor weather, we continued to push our route and set up camps above the North Col. The setbacks only served to make us work harder. We came to know each other in many ways. Removing garbage from the roof of the world pulled us together as shoulder to shoulder we dug huge pits and buried not only our own debris but that of many previous expeditions as well.

The Soviets had provided us with exceptionally light oxygen cylinders made of titanium. They also brought along titanium pitons and ice screws. We were pleased to see this precious metal used for this peaceful enterprise rather than MIG warplanes. Most of the team made carries above 26,000 feet on bottled oxygen to establish Camp VI.

Ian Wade, the American climbing leader, enlightens us on relations between members of the team. “Just as memorable as the expected struggles with the elements were the struggles with different climbing philosophies between the three countries. Based on their style of climbing on the 24,000-foot peaks of the Pamirs, the Soviets favored fast, light-weight pushes to as high an elevation as possible. This was followed by a recuperation period as low as possible at the 17,000-foot Base Camp. Thus, a seven- to ten-day cycle resulted in too few loads getting to the high camps. The Tibetan and American climbers favored a climb-high, sleep-low style with alternate rest and carry days. Eptitomizing our conflicting styles, I vividly remember a Soviet climber making the fastest ascent to date (2¼ hours) to the North Col and leaving his four-kilogram load before publicizing his accomplishment and heading down to Base. A week or so later, the entire Tibetan team carried full packs over the same route in an hour and a half!

“Our differences in tactics were frequently debated and were a matter of humorous exchange between the climbers. Although the disagreements were never resolved, we achieved an acceptance of each other’s views which allowed us to continue climbing together. From my perspective, as climbing leader, there were as many differences between individuals within a national team as between national groups. Differences because of age, gender and life-style were common to each of the three countries. This diversity, coupled with linguistic difficulty of sharing one’s deepest hopes and fears with our companions, helped our eventual success. We all assumed the other countries to be unquestionably fit, eager to be on the first summit group and free from doubts about the sanity of the undertaking!”

With six camps stocked, it was agreed that the first assault team would carry Camp VII on their backs, set it up, spend the night and go to the summit the next day using bottled oxygen. We had been praying in at least four languages to our respective Supreme Beings for a change in the weather. Back home, Dianne hadeven enlisted some friends of the Hopi and Navajo to “move the wind.” As we prepared for our first assault, the weather turned clear and calm. Our weeks of hard work in the winds and storm paid off.

Most of the team was still strong, healthy and dedicated. We decided to try six for the summit, two from each county. Two ropes meant one group could turn back and we would still fulfill our goal of having one climber from each country on top together.

On May 7, on a perfectly still day, Robert Link, Steve Gall, Sergei Arsentiev, Grigori Luniakov, Gyal Bu and Da Cheme stood together on the highest point on earth, demonstrating to themselves and the world what cooperation between deadly enemies could achieve. After placing the two from each country on top together, we were free to try for the summit in any style we wished—with or without oxygen, from Camp VI and VII. Incredibly, we had three more days of good weather, and fourteen more successful ascents.

We succeeded far beyond our wildest dreams: no deaths; 20 to the summit; first Soviet woman to the summit; second Chinese-Tibetan woman to the summit; five ascents without bottled oxygen; two tons of garbage removed from the mountain. To climb Everest is difficult. To do it with former enemies, through interpreters, and to place at least three of each country on the summit were said by many to be impossible.

When we returned to Lhasa on May 25, the schools were closed in celebration of the Peace Climb and 5000 school children lined the roads to the Potala. They had drums, bugles and colorful bundles of artificial flowers; the growing season is short at 12,000 feet. They gave us a wonderful welcome. We were moved to tears. It is the children that we honor with this climb. We inherit the earth from our parents and grandparents, but we borrow it from our children. It is only fitting that we try to make it a better place in which to live in peace and harmony with all things.

We took some of the strongest mountain climbers in the world and had the most successful climb in Everest’s history. What if we took the best scientists, engineers, agriculturists—regardless of nationality—and sat them down with interpreters to solve the problems of global warming, acid rain, starvation? We could save the planet!

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Mahalangur Himal, Tibet.

Ascent: Everest, 8848 meters, 29,028 feet, North Col to Northeast Ridge; Summit reached on May 7, 1990 by Americans Robert Link, Steve Gall, Soviets Sergei Arsentiev*, Grigori Luniakov*, Tibetans Da Cheme, Gyal Bu; on May 8 by American Ed Viesturs*, Soviets Mstislav Gorbenko, Andrei Tselinshchev*; on May 9 by American Ian Wade, Tibetans Gui Sang (f), Da Qiong, Ren Na, Luo Tse; and on May 10 by American Mark Tucker, Soviets Yekaterina Ivanova (f), Anatoly Moshnikov*, Ervand Ilyinski, Aleksander Tokarev and Tibetan Wang Ja. (Those marked by asterisks climbed without bottled oxygen.)

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