Everest, summary of events during the pre-monsoon season. Once upon a time—a decade ago— everyone knew that the period of good weather for summiting Everest was between May 5 and 15. Commercial expedition leaders set from the 6th to the 10th as their target. Later in the 1990s the weather pattern seemed to push the favorable period to later in the month, from the 18th to 25th, but never as late as June. That is, until 2004, when two Russians made the first June ascent, on the first day of the month. In 2005 a number of teams summited in June, after weeks of waiting for suitable weather, and didn’t leave their base camps until the second week of the month.
Commercial expeditions were back in strength, and many were receiving daily forecasts via satellite from well-known meteorological centers, such as Bracknell in England. They wanted to know about impending snowstorms but were particularly looking for predictions about wind velocity on Everest, in order to know when there would be three or four continuous days of gentle breezes. They could then plan to send members and Sherpas up to the highest camp for summit bids. But not only commercial teams were closely following the forecasts; the small two-member parties did their best to learn what predictions the others were receiving.
The problem was that the forecasters were constantly getting it wrong. On the basis of inaccurate predictions, especially for the southern side of the mountain, climbers were going up and down like yo-yos and even trekking below base camp, tiring themselves out and becoming increasingly frustrated. Some independent climbers ignored the received wisdom, made their attempts to reach the summit, failed, and went home. “If it wasn’t snowing, the wind was blowing,” said one, who gave up waiting for a break in the weather. Other climbers, both independents and members of larger groups, stubbornly stayed till late May and early June. Many of these were finally rewarded with success.
On the north side a few teams summited on May 21 and 22, but then there was a gap until the 27th, after which parties continued to succeed until June 5. On the south side no one reached the top until May 30. This and the following day were those on which almost all successes were achieved; the others went to the summit on June 2 and 5.
This does not include the claim by a French helicopter pilot, Didier Delsalle, to have taken off from Lukla airfield, landed his Ecureuil on the 8,850m top of the world on May 14, stepped out of the cockpit, and stayed there for over two minutes, before flying safely back to Lukla. The Nepalese authorities denied his claim and invited him to leave the country for breaking rules.
A large number of unhappy climbers aimed to reach the top in the normal way, on their own two feet. They belonged to an unprecedented number of 101 teams on the mountain: 49 on the Tibet side, 42 on the Nepal side. They ranged in size from one foreigner without Sherpa support to an expedition on the northern side with 27 members and 36 supporting Sherpas and Tibetans.
In spring 2004,64 teams went to Everest and only 10 (16%) failed. In spring 2005, out of the 101 groups an astonishing 48 (48%) failed to put anyone on top. There were 326 summiters in spring 2004, but in 2005 only 306 men and women claimed success.
An Australian climber figured how to beat the weather on the south side: go around to the north. Piers Buck originally planned to make a traverse from south to north and had permits to do so. He had gotten to only 7,500m on May 16, when the weather became unsettled for many days. However, on the north side people started getting to the top on the 21st. So he left the team he was with on the southern side, flew by helicopter to Kathmandu on the 23rd, and went by road to the north side’s base camp. He summited on June 5 as a member of the expedition with which he had been given permission to descend.
Another late arrival at base camp on the north side climbed without any Sherpa support or bottled oxygen. Marcin Miotk was on an unsuccessful Polish expedition to the south face of Annapurna I and returned to Kathmandu in mid-May. But instead of going home he went to Everest, was at base camp on May 18, and made two summit bids. On the first he climbed with two Austrians but turned back at 7,900m, on June 1, because of strong wind. His second try was a success. Climbing alone from advance base camp, he was on top at 2:30 p.m. on June 5, the last person to summit during the season.
Back on the south side it was a miracle that massive fatalities didn’t occur on May 4, when a huge avalanche of rock and ice crashed down from the west shoulder. It hit tents pitched at Camp 1 just above the top of the Icefall, but few people were occupying this camp at the time. Those in camp or nearby received relatively light cuts and bruises, except for a Sherpa whose back was injured. Numerous tents and the gear inside were lost.
Elizabeth Hawley, AAC Honorary Member, Nepal