Asia, Nepal, Khumbu Region, Mahalangur Himal, Everest, Uncommon Events on Standard Routes

Publication Year: 2005.

Everest, uncommon events on standard routes. In the spring a Greek expedition sent one climbing team to the north side and another to the south to carry to the top their flags of the 2004 Greek Summer Olympic Games. They were the first Greek expedition ever to attempt Everest, and both parties succeeded in planting their flags at the highest spot on earth.

Another team on the north side had a novel sendoff. It was the first to go to Everest from the Indian navy, so the Indian defense minister, George Fernandes; the navy chief of staff, Admiral Madhvendra Singh; the expedition leader, a submariner, Commander Satyabrata Dam, and the 13 other expedition members got into a Russian-built submarine and submerged to a depth of about 75 meters in the Arabian Sea for the official launching ceremony.

Sherpas on the normal climbing route from the Nepalese side included one with a prosthesis on his leg, and another who claimed a new speed record in his ascent. Nawang Sherpa, 32, lost his left leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident six years ago, but that didn’t prevent him from getting to the top of the world this spring with an American, Thomas McMillan, who had arranged for him to have a high-quality U.S.-made prosthesis fitted three years after his accident. Nawang went to Everest last year and climbed as far as camp 2, testing his artificial leg. Now he was back, and with McMillan and three other Sherpas became the second amputee ever to reach the summit. (The first was an American, Tom Whittaker, who summited six years earlier, but Nawang had lost much more of his leg than Whittaker had.)

The speed climber was Pemba Dorje, who claims he raced up the 3,500 vertical meters from base camp on the Khumbu Glacier to the summit in only 8 hours and 8 minutes during the night of 20/21 May, climbing entirely alone and using artificial oxygen only above the last camp at 7,900 meters.

For this 27-year-old climber, it was his third ascent. He was now well acclimatized: he had just made his second ascent by the same route on the morning of the 16th in the company of a Swiss, Rupert Heider, and two other Sherpas. Furthermore, he said, he had spent about six months training intensively in Kathmandu before arriving at base camp on April 7. Nearly every day, he had cycled at least eight kilometers and jogged from one edge of the city to another; he had also gone rock climbing.

The announcement of this astonishing feat was received with some skepticism and was immediately challenged at base camp. In a satellite telephone interview with a newspaper reporter in Kathmandu, Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa renewed a controversy they had last year. Pemba Dorje made his first speed-ascent last spring and reported then that it took him 12 hours and 45 minutes to climb from bottom to top. Lhakpa Gelu said four days later that he himself had just spent only 10 hours and 56 minutes to do the entire ascent. Pemba Dorje charged Lhakpa Gelu with lying and insisted that it was he who had made the fastest ascent. Lhakpa Gelu countered with evidence to support his own timings, and after investigation, Nepal’s tourism ministry concluded that this man’s claim to the record was valid. This spring again, the ministry was looking into the validity of a speed-climb claim and in the meantime was not revealing which specific details they were trying to check, nor what information he had given them.

Some details do seem to merit looking into since, unfortunately for him, no one else was on the summit with him—indeed, no one else was on the summit at any time on the 21st— so there was no one to confirm what time he was there or any other details. Pemba Dorje said that when he stood on the summit at 2:00 a.m. that day, he saw lights from two or three headlamps of climbers coming up from the Tibetan side. Based on his knowledge of that side from the first time he had climbed Everest, he judged these climbers to be a little above the highest camp, which is normally at 8,300m.

But there are two problems with this: there almost certainly were no climbers above that altitude at 2:00 a.m.; on the 21st there was one man, a Bulgarian searching for his missing teammate, and he was there at around 5:30-6:00 a.m., when it was no longer dark. And even if there had been someone, that person could not be seen from the summit, according to others who have climbed to the top themselves. They explain that a small ridge not far below the summit obscures a view of anyone in the 8,300m area of the north side.

The skepticism that was voiced when the news of Pemba Dorje’s ascent broke was not based on these factors, which were not generally known, but on the question of whether anyone could lop four and a half hours off his own elapsed time of a year before. He said he had put himself through a rigorous training regime, but could that have cut his time by one-third? [His ascent was later ratified by the Ministry of Tourism.—Ed.]

One record that no one disputed was set by a well known modest Sherpa, Apa, who in the spring achieved his 14th Everest ascent at the age of 42. His nearest rival, Chuwang Nima Sherpa, who is five years younger, scored his 11th success last spring. Apa may not be unusually fast, but he is very strong. He has said that he does not climb Everest to set any kind of record, but to earn good money to support his family by doing the only kind of work he knows.

Another record in number of ascents was set by an American, Gheorghe Dijmarescu, who has acquired the habit of climbing Everest in the spring via the standard Tibetan-side route [his wife, 31-year-old Lhakpa Sherpa, also reached the summit to become the only woman to have climbed Everest four times—Ed.]. He became the only non-Sherpa to have gone to the summit every year for six consecutive years.

A useful permanent improvement to the standard northern route was a new ladder placed at the bottom of the Second Step at about 8,600m. It was installed by an expedition led by Russell Brice, a leader of teams on this route every spring. His ladder is wider than the old one, which was put there by Chinese climbers in 1975, and significantly longer. The old one was four or five meters long; the new one is eight meters.

Elizabeth Hawley, AAC Honorary Member, Nepal