Mt. Everest Jubilee; an overview of events on Everest 50 years after its first ascent. Although some of the records discussed below actually took place on the Tibetan side of the mountain, it was felt appropriate to keep this overview of pre-monsoon Everest events on all flanks of the peak more or less complete.
It seemed the whole worlds attention was focused on Mt. Everest this spring to mark the 50th anniversary of its first ascent. Not only climbing magazines but also periodicals of general interest devoted pages or even entire issues to it, and new books were published.
Nepalese organizations including the government sponsored a series of events and the King conferred honorary Nepalese citizenship on Hillary in recognition not only of his pioneer ascent with the late Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, but also for his tireless work over the following decades in bettering the lives of the people living in the Everest region with the construction of schools and hospitals and renovations of Buddhist monasteries. Hillary is the first foreigner ever to be made an honorary citizen.
On the 8,850m mountain were half the 137 expeditions attempting to climb any Nepalese Himalayan peak over ca 6,500m. The Everest teams numbered 35 on Nepal’s side and 34 on the Tibetan slopes, and all but two of them attempted the standard routes via the South Col and southeast ridge from Nepal or by the North Col to the north face and north ridge. (By comparison, the largest previous numbers, in the millennium spring of 2000, were 27 on Nepal’s side and 29 on the Tibetan side.)
Neither of the two expeditions to non-standard routes succeeded, but one demonstrated that it is still possible to find an unclimbed route on Everest and even perhaps a previously unattempted one. Ian Woodall, originally from Britain, and his wife Cathy O’Dowd, South African, both of whom had already summited Everest from its south and north sides, went with just one climbing Sherpa to try to forge a totally new route on the huge east face in Tibet. They had chosen one of three ribs between the so-called American buttress, near the south end of the vast face, and the east ridge in its middle.
But when the couple reached base camp, they found massive avalanching of hanging seracs in the area of the ribs and concluded that an attempt would require a fast, non-stop alpine- style effort, which they were not prepared to make. So they tackled the east ridge, a forbiddingly steep and difficult feature, which had defeated the two teams who tried it previously. They chose as their approach a snow ramp leading to the ridge from its southern side. However, O’Dowd and Ang Gyalzen Sherpa gave up at an altitude of just 5,800m on the ramp, 200m below the ridge. They had not brought gear to fix rope in deep snow, and after Woodall had become ill, only two climbers were still active.
In terms of numbers of climbers, expeditions ranged from just one independent individual on someone else’s permit, to nearly 80 members and Sherpas from a joint Indo-Nepalese Army expedition to both Everest and its immediate neighbor, Lhotse. Climbers came from all over the world: Iceland, Estonia, Georgia, Andorra, Bhutan, Kuwait, South Africa, New Zealand, and Ecuador, as well as from the usual countries such as the U.S., Britain, Spain, and Japan.
There might have been even more. A London newspaper reported that a British team had been forced to cancel their plans to go to the north side because by the time they wanted to reach Everest in early May—a rather late date—the Chinese government had already closed Tibet to all entrants in order to prevent the acute respiratory illness known as SARS from spreading into Tibet. A few Romanians also were refused entry to join a team already there. (The border was reopened on July 1.) And when Hillary heard about plans by two New Zealand and two British skiers and skateboarders to race down the mountain from 7,000m to mark the anniversary of his ascent, he described the idea as “rather dangerous … and not appropriate.” They did not turn up.
Base camp at the Nepalese foot of the mountain was a sizable village of tents housing 441 climbers on the 35 Everest teams, plus their base camps staffs, members and Sherpas on other expeditions, 10 for Lhotse’s west face and one for Nuptse’s north side, bringing the total expedition personnel to at least 600. And then there were the staffs of a satellite communications tent, several small cafes, a medical clinic, a massage parlor for a brief time, some shops selling soap and t-shirts, plus numerous trekking groups. The total population at base camp perhaps occasionally reached the same figure as the entire population of the area’s largest village, Namche Bazar, which is about 850.
One notable visitor was Reinhold Messner, who was appalled by the scene. He noted that tents stretched one kilometer from the bottom end to the top, and that the cafes were well patronized by the Sherpa “Icefall Doctors” who were trying to forget their dangerous daily task of repairing the Khumbu Icefall route, as seracs toppled over and crevasses widened.
Climbers on the Nepalese side complained this spring of having to wait a long time to go up or down the Hillary Step, where there were many others ahead of them in the queue: one leader reported that it had taken his summit party two-and-a-half hours on May 26 to climb the fairly short distance from the south summit to the top, whereas it would normally have taken them only one hour. An American, who frequently leads teams on the south side of Everest, believed that the competence of this spring’s climbers was lower than before, and he cited the specific case of members belonging to a Japanese expedition as being “really, really slow.”
The number of people who actually died on Everest this spring was remarkably low considering the large number on the mountain. Those who perished were just one Pole, Krysztof Liszewski, who fell to his death, perhaps blown off balance by the wind, one Nepalese summiter on the Indo-Nepalese army team, Bhim Bahadur Gurung, who was a victim of altitude sickness and fell into a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall—the 20th person ever to die in the Icefall—and Karma Gyalzen Sherpa who succumbed to altitude sickness.
Some noted mountaineers, including Hillary and Messner, have publicly voiced strong views that the numbers of people given permits to climb Everest should be greatly restricted. This is for a variety of reasons: safety of others, pollution of the mountain with abandoned oxygen cylinders, broken tents, and other kinds of rubbish, the belief that climbers on Everest—or perhaps any mountain—should be limited to preserve the adventure of their accomplishment. Some urge that only climbers who have already had the experience of summiting at least one 8,000m peak be allowed to attempt Everest.
By no means was everybody successful this spring: one-third of the 69 teams did not make it to the top. A long period of very bad weather with fierce winds and considerable amounts of snowfall resulted in many tents being destroyed, supplies of food and gear being irretrievably buried, people losing top strength over the days and weeks on the mountain, and time running out. A number of these groups simply gave up and went home instead of waiting patiently for better weather.
Nevertheless a record number of mountaineers did succeed when weather finally permitted. From May 20 to 31 an astonishing 251 people, foreigners and Nepalese, men, women, and one 15-year-old child, stood on the summit of Everest. It had taken 25 years for the 251st person to reach the summit—October 1988.
On just one day in 2003, May 22,103 summited. From the Nepalese side, there were 66 on the top that day, while 37 came up from Tibet. Before this season, the largest number on a single day was 89 on May 23,2001 (47 from the south and 42 from the north), and during that month of May, 182 from both sides.
Notable among the men and women who succeeded were:
* The first Arab, Zaid Aasa Al-Refa'i, a Kuwaiti.
* The first black from any country, Sibusiso Vilane, of South Africa. He said he did his climb to show other black people that they can do it too. “It was very exciting to be the first black on the summit … I am very proud.” He added that he would like to climb another 8,000m mountain, and this one he would do for himself.
* The first one-armed person, an American, Gary Guller, who found his biggest problem was keeping his balance, especially when descending the Hillary Step, since he had no left arm or prothesis to help steady him. (A Sherpa who has no hands, Ungdi Tshering, got no higher than 7,300m but claims he is sure he will be able to get to the top if he can find sponsorship for another attempt.)
*The oldest summiter, 70, Yuichiro Miura, a Japanese who became famous in 1970 as the “man who skied down Everest” when he made a dramatic partial ski descent. In his climb to the top, he used a considerable amount of artificial oxygen: while sleeping in Camp II in the Western Cwm at 6,400m and throughout the rest of his ascent to the summit and descent to Camp II. Miura was five years older than the oldest person before him.
* The youngest, Mingkipa Sherpa, who said she was only 15 years and nine months old. The previous record-holder was a Nepalese Sherpa boy, Tashi Tshiri, who was just over 16 years old when he summited in May 2001.
* The first person to reach the top for the 13th time, Apa Sherpa, who is 42 years old. He made his first ascent in May 1990, summited every year after that except in 1996 and 2001, and went to the top twice in 1992. He says he may go to Everest again, since this is how he earns a living.
*The fastest ascent—in fact two of them in just four days—on the Nepalese side by Pemba Dorje Sherpa on May 21/22 and by Lhakpa Gelu on the 25th/26th. Both used bottled oxygen in the final stage of their climbs. Lhakpa Gelu climbed alone, while Pemba Dorje had a friend with him from the South Col. They were challenging the previous speed record for an ascent on the Nepalese side set by another Sherpa, Babu Chiri (Tshering), who reported he had summited on May 21,2000, in just 16 hours, 56 minutes after he had left base camp the evening before. Pemba Dorje said it took him just 12 hours and 45 minutes to climb from bottom to top. Lhakpa Gelu said he himself spent only 10 hours and 56 minutes to do the entire ascent.
Pemba Dorje charged Lhakpa Gelu with lying about his times and continued to insist, in statements to both Nepal’s tourism ministry and to the press, that he had made the fastest ascent. Lhakpa Gelu countered with his own statement to the ministry and added supporting documents. The government’s liaison officer posted at base camp had recorded the time he set out at the start of his ascent; Apa Sherpa noted the time at which he himself reached the top, and
Lhakpa Gelu, Apa confirmed, had been there not much later. The ministry’s verdict was not given immediately, but no one doubts Apa’s evidence.
Lhakpa Gelu set up a brass Nepalese flag on an iron pole at the summit. As long as it stands, it can provide proof of success for anyone having a photo taken of himself standing next to it. The 1975 Chinese tripod provided proof for nearly a decade, and Lhakpa Gelu’s flag was doing the same this spring.
* Another first, but on a much less serious note: the first person to play a guitar on the summit, Vernon Tejas from the U.S. He strummed his 1.4kg instrument very briefly.
Elizabeth Hawley, Nepal