When we finished our climb without oxygen up a previously unclimbed route on the Kangshung Face of Everest, Mountain Magazine in the U.K. was where all real climbers wanted to be published.
So I wrote up the account while still recovering from frostbite and with some raw brain cells undoubtedly still evident in my writing, they kindly accepted it and put it in print.
My much shorter magazine account of our climb is here with a few edits from the original, but otherwise a personal view written just a few weeks after our expedition finished, starting with a short intro. by Stephen Venables and then later in the account, his notes from his incredible final solo without oxygen to the top, becoming the first British person to summit without oxygen.
The Nine Days of NEverest
Intro. by Stephen Venables –
“I had to accept the invitation to join Robert Anderson’s expedition to the East Face of Everest. It would of been worth going if only for the chance to visit the magical Kama valley; the discovery that there really was a justifiable new route up the mountain and that we could go climbing was a special bonus.
It was also a vindication of Robert’s presumptuous vision. I say presumptuous because the face had been done only once before, in 1983, by a large mechanised team, succeeding only on the second year’s attempt and using oxygen on the successful summit bids. There would be only four of us and it would be impossible to carry up oxygen.
Robert’s presumption was tempered with canny judgement. By attempting the slightly smaller buttress to the left of the 1983 route we could reduce the technical and logistical problems. And we knew that the hard technical climbing would end at about 6500 metres, leaving only 2350 metres of easier-angled ‘high altitude wallowing’ to the summit.
The final 850 metres would be up the 1953 route from the South Col – undoubtedly the easiest way of surmounting the final pyramid. It would be very very hard work, but the plan had the right theoretical ingredients for success. – Stephen Venables.
The Nine Days of NEverest – exerted from the original article in Mountain Magazine, U.K.
We were away by 2:30 a.m., 4,000 vertical meters (13,120 feet) of climbing, starting at just under 5,000 meters elevation, in front of us.
The glacier was a well worn trod, the crevasses already fallen into, the headlamps showing their true colours. But this was the last time (how many times had we said that?) across the glacier and up “the ropes.”
The ropes – up the ropes, down the ropes, another rope. We’d fixed the buttress, all 1,000 meters of it in seven days. That’s when we learned about NEverest. Up at 2:30 a.m., into that crucial, crystalline high altitude you could you only get on a glacier at over 5,000 meters, (16,400 feet).
Then the storm, the porridge, the biscuits, the cold still there, never retreating. And the Kangshung Face – the “I’ve only been done once, big expedition, two attempts, one to the top” history. What were we doing?
Meanwhile we were four: Paul Teare, Ed Webster, Stephen Venables and myself. Either brave, stupid or perhaps naive – we were simply looking for good climbing, a good route, only a new route, without extra people, weight, or things – read oxygen. But the mountain happened to be Everest, read “Never rest”, which we did.
We’d fixed the buttress so fast we thought we were on to easy ground. But one thing Everest seems to do better than any mountain is get harder just when you expect it to get easier. Meanwhile, between the four of us, we’d put in lead after lead of ‘”hat was the hardest pitch I’ve done, why’s this next pitch look harder, isn’t it your lead,” climbing, and should have been on to the slog and bog slopes. But the mini-buttress connected to the maxi buttress, had a 10 meter wide, 30 meter deep crevasse constructed of blue-green ice and house-size hanging chunks.
Stephen came down saying it looked like a Tyrolean. I said it was crazy. After all, who’d ever heard, of a Tyrolean at over 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) in the middle of an over-sized ice jungle perched at the top of 1,000 meters of vertical? I’d done one Tyrolean in my life, part of an Outward Bound course 15 years previous, so had a vague memory of the rigging and forces, enough to know they were more scary than fun. And we still had to get to the other side just to get the anchors in.
So Ed Webster and I went exploring, down into the bowels of Everest’s backside, rappelling into the depths of Everest. At the base of the crevasse, Ed sunk an ice screw, and one of the over-sized airplane-sized ice wings perched on the lip had enough and exploded down. Ed leapt aside to my amazement and as I wondered how deep he would be buried, he said, “I’m right here Robert.” Between the the time the ice screw pounding set loose the ice and it fell 30 meters, Ed had covered 8 meters and lept back beside me.
“Right,” Ed said, and proceeded to spend the next 3 hours aiding straight up 30 meters of overhanging blue ice to the upper lip. The next day we returned, I anchored the downhill side ropes and made the inaugural swing across on a single thin strand of one of our last climbing ropes.
With a set of snow stakes implanted on the far side, I ran out the rope a lead above just to get away from the lip, then trailed another rope back across the crevasse. It was minimal, but I figured we would only need to use the Tyrolean a few times each, so it would have to do. The Tyrolean had taken us three long days to fix, Ed and I living minimally at Camp 1, and we retreated to Base exhausted, but with the way to the upper slopes of Everest now secured.
Although it had taken 7 days to fix the first 1,000 vertical meters, once it was done and we were now acclimatised and on our summit bid, we could cruise up in five hours. Passing quickly over a few lower angle cliffs, led us to Stephen’s Step, an 80 meter vertical head-wall.
Stephen had completed a bold lead on our first day of climbing, putting us a good third of the way up the buttress. I’d been on a big expedition to the West Ridge Direct on Everest previously and one thing it taught me was the best way to climb Everest is fast. Which means when you need to fix rope, you tie into 100 meters of 9 mm and run it out. You avoid anything that might slow you down, like time-consuming protection, and pray you will find solid anchors at the end of it all. This plan worked very well when climbing, though the occasional anchor could only be described as highly suspect. As Paul commented on one pitch, “It’s like climbing a loose shelf of library books, for protection I just pick up a rock and then put it back down on the piton.”
From Stephen’s Step we roped into the bottom of a huge gully, the Scottish Gully – a 200 meter slash that was the key to the upper slopes. We’d seen it while researching the route and thought it might hold a way to keep out of the huge trough that funneled avalanches from the upper slopes. It did – most of the time and we learned when to hide in camp after big storms to avoid the real tumblers; or most of them anyway.
An avalanche descending 2 kilometers of vertical on the Kangshung Face would hit the bottom third of the route no matter what. We decided our desire to reach the top far out-weighed our fear. More importantly, we’d all been up enough new routes to know when one turns from being an idea to a reality, the feeling when something you’d dreamed of opens up; there’s a way around the impossible – just barely, and if all else fails, pretend that 30 meters of over-hanging ice at 6,700 meters is all part of the plan (otherwise known as the Webster Wall).
So our summit climb, day one, covered the real climbing, the kilometer of rope, dodging the rocks and the ice chunks, into a well stocked Camp I. We perched on the mushroom ridge, the glacier at our feet and the summit now a mere 2,000 meters above us.
When you are after the summit, enthusiasm tends to know no bounds. So we were up at midnight, away by 2 a.m., which was good. Waist deep snow, refracted heat, and then a snowstorm saw us struggle into Camp 2 at 7,400 meters very late in the day. We’d made one carry to here a week previously, but heavy storms had buried all our tracks. Still, the tents were soon up, brews on, Paul and I in one tent, Ed and Stephen in the other.
New ground and the first chance to compete our new route to the South Col. The “sneak in the back, whoever thought of this route, isn’t it grand, where the hell did you come from, are there only four of you” grand scam. But first we slogged, then we climbed, as the ice under snow went black, the packs went heavy and the angle kicked back. Then the afternoon storm hit a few hundred feet from the col. We climbed on, cresting the col on to the windiest place on Earth. Another 12-hour day, now at 7,900 meters, packs full of everything, heads full of nothing.
The South Col – a huge expanse – why is everything on Everest so big? We NEverested the night away, the tents balloon-like and bouncing in the wind, the stoves slopping water about from their hanging perches. A few ghosts wandered past the tents, fragile in the wind, vivid in our minds.
Paul awoke with an “I’m going to die soon” look, his head rattling with traces of cerebral edema. He was off down the hill in half an hour, leaving before we had time to think about who should go with him. No thoughts of remorse over the leads he’d put in below to get us this high, 100 meter run-outs that had exhausted us even jugging up them. High altitude cares not for difficulty. It takes your brain and your body before you have time to even get scared if you are not quick.
Stephen, Ed and I brewed and ate through a tent flapping, minus 30 c. day, pretending to rest. Occasionally the thought slid in “You are on the South Col, you’ve done the route, this is it.” But it faded just as quickly, the water spilled, the tent bowed down and dropped spin-drift down my neck. Darkness came, and cold, like icy spider fingers, inhabited the tent.
We were up, cheating on day 5, starting at 11 p.m. Never has cold been so cold as the unexpected cold at 8,000 meters.
It cut through all my underclothing and the 1000 sacrificial goose feathers stuck to my body. With oxygen we would of been eating, sleeping and warmer, not to mention thinking a bit clearer. Without it we simply suffered. The flat part of the South Col passed quickly, though I still wondered why I’m so slow on flat ground.
Then we head up. Rock steps, snowy terraces, steep parts to makes us wish for daylight. The cold is too cold, the dark too dark. But there is a little ticking thought in our brains, a headlamp to follow, NEverest, the route is finished, a quick dash to the summit? We are all still feeling too good to complain.
Sunrise May 12th. We’re just below the ridge, about to cross back to Tibet. Ed pauses for pictures, Stephen is breaking track ahead, I make a mental note of the Japanese tent we’ve passed at 8,300 meters – just in case.
I’d never thought of it before, but every climber should know their way from the South Col to the top of Everest. I realise I don’t, and it’s a bad time to wonder why there isn’t a decent guide book. Another problem is that the brain has gone onto autopilot. Still in climb mode, visibility as far as the eye can see, altitude now 8,400 meters.
We break out onto the ridge at the top of the Kangshung Face; Tibet is back in view, the Kangshung Glacier , so far below it’s history. We’re flying, closer to heaven than earth. Slowly treading upwards. Stephen breaks trail, Ed a bit behind, I’m on his tail. We hustle through 28,000 feet, the snow too deep, mushing upwards, the afternoon storm rushing upward over the South West Face, the mists rising, the health going, 3:30pm. Ed goes past me in reverse, headed down, his decision made. Three thousand feet and 17 hours of climbing from the South Col have turned it into a long day.
Stephen was over the South Summit above me, disappearing into the clouds. Ed faded below. Loneliness on Everest is the loneliest, loneliness. But I’ve been almost this high before, three years before on Everests’ West Ridge Direct echo back and I’m not about to stop now.
The South Summit rounds off, but I’m lost, well and truly, wandering, until I realise I’m over the South-West Face, peering off 2,000 meters through the clouds into the Western Cwm. It’s 4:30 p.m., the Rolex is the only thing still working. Another circle of disillusion puts me back on my same tracks. I’m comfortable enough at high altitude to feel safe, but my vision extends about 2 meters into the blizzard.
Stephen’s footprints are nowhere. I sit down, thinking I’ll wait – all night if necessary, for the weather to clear. My fingers soon say otherwise, numb to the core, the warmth refusing to go anywhere past the centre of my body. Stephen is nowhere to be seen – I simply hope he is okay. The decision to go down is as much a realisation that I’ll be frozen soon, as a determination to get down safely. So I set off boldly down what I realise quite quickly is the South-West Face. An interminable slog leads me back to the ridge and over to the proper descent. I half glisade, half slip and stumble through the deep snow along the ridge at the top of the Kangshung Face before I descend below the storm and see Ed far below.
The gloom sets in and we head for the Japanese tent at 8,300 meters, to dive inside out of the wind. It’s dark, we’re perched on an ice shelf in a pile of frozen Japanese food wrappers. It’s pitch black. Were worried about Stephen. People aren’t supposed to cap off three days of load carrying with two days above 8,000 meters without oxygen. Every hour I decide I’m too cold to stay and I wake Ed. He convinces me a descent in the dark is more foolish than being cold. I agree, for an hour. Everest is lonely too. A voice, a friend is needed, to keep the brain from freezing.
Ed and I were away at dawn, picking a careful path though the rock terraces, The mountain was big and empty above us, Stephen having been swallowed. We’d agreed we were all alone above the South Col, our air-free expedition letting everyone have the same chance, take the same risks. But after three months together, the bonds we have now are much stronger than the ropes had ever been. Stephen had broken trail for us yesterday, in the back of our minds, we set out to break trail for him and show the way through the maze of rocks to the Col. I’d felt death in the mountains before, but it didn’t feel like that yet; just hovering, flowing in the wind.
I remembered waiting at JFK airport in New York in January when I’d first met Stephen. In the ensuing week we’d spent together, I decided he filled the one irrevocable criterion I’d had for every climber I’d invited on the expedition “could they get to the top of Everest without oxygen?” I didn’t want friends necessarily, or climbers I thought might help with fund raising, or good organisers. None of these criteria fit very well with most good climbers. So I got other people to do all that – either through volunteering or hiring them.
I’d seen too many expeditions fail due to expectations placed on people who had no experience in crucial areas. Besides, when I’d completed my list of climbers that I felt met the one criterion essential to getting up Everest, on a new route, without oxygen, it didn’t take long to contact the few on the list.
Stephen had reached the South Summit a good hour ahead of me. In deteriorating weather, he’d made it safely along the ridge, over the Hillary Step and on to the summit. A few photos, no view, and worsening weather turned him around quickly and he was headed down from the South Summit when darkness caught him. He’d been forced to bivouac just below the South Summit, but the intense cold and a light breeze had kept him moving. He’d found the high altitude ghosts kept sneaking in beside him on his small edges, and he’d be forced off to wander down and dig another ledge.
We saw Stephen high above in the couloir, through a haze of windswept cloud. It was a good excuse to sit down – and his thumbs upraised, even from a distance, immediately imparted a huge sense of relief.
Then we were all sitting together in the snow, rocks falling away to the Col, wind howling, very glad to be back together again. Ed shared out his icy water bottle and we finished it off.
The stumble, slip and slide commenced to the South Col as I led down between the rocks, Stephen in the middle, moving slowly but his intuition working to keep him more or less upright. By the time we were back in the tents with brews on, we’d been above the Col for 32 hours.
I was alone in my tent. The simpliest tasks took on mammoth proportions as my numb fingers fumbled with the stove, dropped water, tried and failed to open and shut zippers. Then there would be blank spaces of an hour or so, as my brain fumbled with the simplest decisions. But I knew one thing for sure – we’d been too high – for too long.
Alone at the Top by Stephen Venables
I had always thought that we were probably capable of climbing Everest without oxygen; my fears were about getting down again. However, at 1:30pm on May 12th, when I reached the South Summit, I was spurred on by an overwhelming conviction that I could make it to the top and turn round by 4pm. I had by now left Ed and Robert behind, and I was driven on by egoistic ambition, knowing that on this final stage we were each alone. I later heard that last December Ang Rita, climbing up here without oxygen, managed to hold his falling companion on a rope. But Ang Rita was vastly more experienced than any of us; I don’t think we were competent to move together, roped at 8700 metres.
Of course I was helped on the final section by the expected fixed rope on the Hillary Step, for which I had carried up a prussik loop. I reached the main summit just ahead of schedule and was on the way down by 3:50pm. And then of course, my plans started to fall to pieces. I had not made enough allowance for the blinding wind and snow. I suddenly found myself dangerously exhausted and terrified by oxygen deficit as I abseiled too fast down the Hillary Step. But I managed to control the panicky hyperventilation and carry on down, eventually groping my way through the stormy twilight, back up to the South Summit and over to the correct descent route.
Below the South Summit, I became confused by the drifting clouds on a black moonless night. I thought I was prepared, with my powerful head-torch, but that apparently, was not enough. So I joined that elite club of men and women who have spent a night out in the open near the South Summit of Everest. Most have survived. Some, like Tom Hornbein and Doug Scott, had the strength to keep their toes warm. I didn’t. But the rest of my body survived and my mind, despite the fascinating hallucinations (Eric Shipton was looking after my hands), managed to keep some sort of grip on reality and was able to direct me back down to Robert and Ed the next day.
Complete incompetence reigned and a belief we could slide down the buttress in a day was filed in our brains under “major excuses not to move”. By this time the stove had well and truly packed up, only hissing intermittently. Ed stumbled over to leap off the South Col first. I staggered behind, and Stephen wandered over after me. Ed was a good 200 meters down when I reached the cornice.
The slope below looked glisadable – anything to get down quickly with less effort. So I lept off, glisaded 10 meters (admiring my control), hit rocks, flipped over them and stumbled in the slope below, which then avalanched. As I cart-wheeled down the slope, taking breaths every time my head popped up, it really hit me that we were right out of control. Getting down was going to be a bit harder than expected.
Like any event when you are about ready to die, there wasn’t fear, just a lot of very fast thinking about how to get air, not break the body and stop with the head upright. The avalanche slowed and I realised I was standing in the middle of a 50 degree snow slope, only to become aware I had no ice axe, but I did have a spare tool; a quick reach for it – nope, they were both gone.
Definitely alive, but suffering from being over 2,000 meters above the glacier on a steep unstable slope, with only frostbitten fingers to stick in the snow. I looked up to Stephen perched on the Col and began yelling, but the wind tore the sound away. Stephen saw my tracks off the Col and having arrived after my avalanche, quickly realised this was the fastest way down and lept off in my tracks. Amazing what an Oxford education will do for you. Near catastrophe, as he glisaded gracefully, hit the rocks, flew through the air, and slid to a halt on the slope below, but still a good 50 meters above me. No more avalanches, but Stephen yelled down that his ice axe had been ripped off his wrist, nearly taking his Rolex with it. It’s good to see he still had his priorities straight.
The vulnerability I’d felt losing my tools must have hit Stephen at the same time. He asked me to wait for him in a tone that cracked through his characteristic British reserve. It gave me time to realise that the situation that had gone from bad-to-worse was now going from worse-to-worse. Little did I realize that it would be three days before things changed.
Stephen caught me up and we continued together – the orangutan brothers, dipping our hands deep into the snow and balancing on our crampons. Ed had left a ski pole behind and I rescued it, offering to break the extension in half for Stephen. I had big mittens over thin gloves, and offered those as well. We staggered off after Ed.
Darkness hit and we became apparitions wandering through the crevasses. I had a good excuse to rest as I waited to make sure and keep Stephen’s torch in sight. The cold started seeping in and the final stretch to Camp 2 was a shivering slog: peering ahead for a view of the camp, peering back to make sure Stephen’s headlamp was still flickering around the corners behind me.
We’d left tents at the Col so it was a simple matter to crawl into our sleeping bags. I spent an hour getting my boots off, and the sight of a large black toe on my left foot, with the rest numb and slowly changing colour, set the stage for increased determination to get down. However, that determination wasn’t translated into movement until the next afternoon.
What can you say about three Everest mountaineers, unable to sit up for very long without falling over and back to sleep, at 7,400 meters, with only a few bars of chocolate and one ice tool between them, who lie in the sun until it’s too hot to do more than crawl 100 meters down in the mist, realise death was more certain down than up and retreat to their hovel under the crevasse for another night? Stupid perhaps, but our collective energy couldn’t have powered a mouse. We settled into another night, the boots came off again with monumental effort and we curled up in our bags on the ice to watch the stars and shiver. We’d collectively decided the next day we’d have to go down early – or not at all.
Sunshine fried our brains just after dawn, melting our bodies into lethargic puddles. But it felt so good after 12 hours shivering, pretending it was a beach or at least anywhere but Everest. Ed disappeared off the ledge first, a motivator just to see someone move. He said to get up, get moving, or die.
My mind wrapped slowly around these options, the real motivator in the end being it was my younger sister’s birthday and it seemed in bad taste to fall over. However, standing up now became a monstrous task. It caused dizziness, pain and then it was impossible to rest. On my third try I finally made it. A few steps – stop. The transition from lying flat to movement was too much and I sat down and rested. But boredom set in and the struggle was at least interesting.
By mid-day we were lost in mist, surrounded by crevasses, yet generally headed downhill. Several times I saw Stephen or Ed, then they disappeared. Huge crevasses appeared and the mist shrouded us so we were ghostly apparitions. The percentage seemed tipped well past 100 for us to fall in big holes, sit down for good, or just keel over. I’d barely eaten in 5 days and been sipping minimal amounts of water for 3. Still, the end of the day put us onto the fixed ropes, slipping across the Tyrolean. The rope was strung taught as a guitar string, the crevasse widening in our absence – if the rope had popped we would of still been on the hill.
Ed was headed to Advanced Base Camp, Stephen was with him and they disappeared rapidly. My headlamp had packed up, along with all other movable objects, including my body. For some inexplicable reason, I was feeling better, as if, having been through so much, there wasn’t anything else left to lose. The decision to keep moving was fully ingrained, my body left to follow my mind.
This was fortunate, because darkness and a rope buried above the Webster Wall left me an option of falling 90 feet, or cutting the rope above to descend with. Knives being non-existent, I struggled with a dull crampon to cut a piece of rope, but by 11 p.m. conceded another bivouac in the snow was the best alternative. Sleep never came, but the sun eventually did, tacked on to a stream of hallucinations that whirled around me all night.
Another dawn, descending to the ice cliff edge, the rope buried until it exited over the cliff, looking at my footprints and realizing how close I’d come to toppling off the cliff in the dark. Intuition and luck a good thing at times. Then the 1,000 plus meters of fixed rope – every carabiner clipped and and out of perfectly, the rope having to be wrapped perfectly every time. Down and down, avalanches rolling off and rocks flying past. The return to the glacier for the slog back to Advance Base Camp made me dizzy from all the flat ground. Joseph Blackburn, our photographer, thankfully met me and towed me back to Advanced Base Camp.
The transition from knowing you are dying to knowing you are living takes getting used to. The next day I hobbled over to see Ed and Stephen. Our bodies were very slow to recover, suffering a relapse once they were able to not worry about themselves and be looked after.
In the end it seemed like the perfect adventure. I’d managed to get us to the Kangshung Face, Stephen had broken trail to the top, Ed had inspired us to get down, Paul had gotten us up the long mixed leads of rotting rock and ice and would make sure we got back back down the trail and out of Tibet. We’d all had a good share of great climbing. Miriam would be dosing, bandaging and drugging us for weeks with more impossible demands than she’d ever get at a Bronx hospital, and Joe had 40,000 slides to make sure we didn’t forget it.
We didn’t say much, you don’t need to after climbing together for a few months and getting back together. It was a long walk out, Stephen and Ed riding along with some help from the porters, I rode on a small Tibetan pony. We certainly felt well enough to celebrate life at every stop.
Summary: A personal account of an epic ascent of a new route on the Kangshung Face of Everest by Robert Anderson, Paul Teare, Stephen Venables and Ed Webster, supported by Miriam Zieman and Joseph Blackburn at ABC and Norbu Tenzing Norgay, Miklos Pinther Sandy Wylie, and Wendy Davis on our trek to Base Camp.