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Sherpa Everest Expedition

Sherpa Everest Expedition

Peter Athans

ON MAY 8, THREE MEMBERS of the 1991 Sherpa Everest Expedition attained the wind-scoured summit of Mount Everest or Sagarmatha, the peak’s Nepalese name. I accompanied the trio of Sherpa mountaineers. Just one year before almost to the day, I had reached the world’s highest summit for the first time. I later wrote this about my second ascent to the roof-top of the world.

“As Apa, Ang Temba and Sonam Dendu traversed the tightwire of the southeast ridge above the south summit, I stopped to change oxygen cylinders and take a moment’s break. Throughout the morning, the wind’s ferocity seemed only to gain momentum and render every motion the more precarious. Watching the three steadily ascend the short, though abruptly precipitous Hillary Step, I was filled with an even greater admiration and respect for the Sherpas than I had possessed before this, our fourth and last summit attempt. While Sonan Dendu fixed the new 7mm rope over the step for our descent an hour later, I began moving again with the renewed vigor which rest and oxygen bring at 28,700 feet. The three Sherpas climbed out of sight above the step and I was left alone to get on with the business of ascending the exposed, steep summit ridge. The wind rendered the climbing more difficult than I remembered from the previous year and I found myself concentrating on the pick of my ice axe and crampon front-points. To the southwest, the sky had perfect clarity and 15,000 feet below I could faintly perceive the clearing in the wooded hillside near the Tengboche Monastery. Yet to the east, toward the summit of Makalu and into Tibet, the wind from the north flooded the air with the whiteness of driven, dispossessed snow.

“Reaching the bottom of the Hillary Step, I attached my ascender to the new green rope that Sonam had left and began climbing the final obstacle before the summit. Halfway up the 40-foot-high step, I could only marvel at what Sir Edmund Hillary, whose name now graces this climbing problem, accomplished in 1953. Once at the end of the fixed rope and on easier ground, I was relieved that the summit was a scant ten minutes away.

“In short order, I could see Sonam, Apa and Ang Temba taking photographs and tying fluttering white prayer scarves (called Kata in Sherpa culture) on an abandoned yellow oxygen cylinder. As I reached the Sherpas, I could hear Temba radioing Lopsang in Base Camp, passing the news of our success. While Lopsang returned the congratulations and gave a cautionary word aboutdescending carefully, I photographed our little group on the summit. Throughout the day, beginning with our 2:30 A.M. start, I thought we would certainly return unsuccessful to Camp IV on the South Col. The extreme cold and relentless wind seemed insuperable problems. A team composed of anyone other than Sherpas certainly would have chosen descent rather than continuing in the maelstrom of stinging, blinding snow. Only through their strength, determination and commitment did the team succeed in placing the first team organized by Sherpas on the summit.”

We four climbers then descended together to the last camp at 26,000 feet, rested for about half an hour and then continued down to Camp II at 21,300 feet. The ascent was Ang Temba’s first time on Everest’s summit, Apa’s second and Sonam Dendu’s third … but their May 8 ascent had significance beyond the accomplishment of three individuals. Their climb was a tribute to the Sherpa people, honoring the efforts of Sherpas from the past, commemorating 70 years of climbing on the world’s highest mountain. From the British pre-war attempts on Everest from Tibet, to the success of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953 and up to the present, the Sherpas have made an indelible impression on the history of Himalayan mountaineering. Now, with the success of the 1991 Sherpa Everest Expedition, the Sherpa team had contributed significantly to the identity and pride of their culture.

Everest had not posed the optimum of climbing conditions in the premonsoon period of 1991. Fierce high winds, snowfall and extreme cold had forced back three previous summit attempts of some of the strongest living Sherpas. April 20, 26 and May 3 were the team’s earlier dates of attempting the summit, but only one of those bids even left the tenuous security of the last camp on the South Col.

The expedition was a collaboration between Sherpa ways and American means and organization. The germination of the idea began with 36-year-old Lobsang Sherpa, who resides in Kathmandu, has worked in the trekking/ mountaineering industry since the age of 11 and has participated in no less than two dozen expeditions to 8000-meter peaks. With the assistance of Americans Steven Matous, Ron Crotzer, William Lane, Dr. Charles Jones and me, Lobsang organized the complete expedition from our February 25 arrival in Lukla to our departure from there on May 18. The team arrived in Base Camp at 17,600 feet on March 8. The route through the Khumbu Icefall was completed by March 24 and Camp I at 19,800 feet was inhabited on March 25. The route below Camp I was abnormally tortuous as a result of an extremely dry winter and required several extra days in fixing bridges of aluminum ladders over dozens of crevasses occupying the usually moderately angled glacier. Camp I was established on April 2 and, enjoying.good weather but icy conditions on the Lhotse Face, the team of Sherpas established Camps III and IV on April 7 and 14. Excellent collaboration between the Sherpa expedition and the New England Everest team rendered the establishment of the route easier.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Mahalangur Himal, Nepal.

Ascent: Mount Everest, 8488 meters, 29,028 feet, by South Col route. First expedition organized by Sherpas. Summit reached May 8, 1991 (Apa, Ang Temba, Sonam Dendu, Peter Athans).

Personnel: Lopsang Sherpa, leader; Tenzing Tashi, climbing leader; Sonam Dendu, Ang Temba, Ang Pasang, Ang Chumbi, Apa, Rinzing, Nima Tashi, Gyalzen, Lhakpa Gyalu, Ang Nima, climbing team; Onchu and Karma, Base Camp cooks and support; Americans Peter Athans, Steven Matous, Ron Crotzer, William Lane, Dr. Charles Jones.