It was 1985. The Nepalis gave one permit for Everest per route per year, and the Norwegians had the South Col permit. Dick Bass and David Breashears were allowed to tag along on the end of the permit so Dick could finish his Seven Summits.
Dick had already had multiple failed attempts on Everest, yet in the end climbing together but unroped, he and David successfully made the top, finishing the worlds first 7 summits. Considering the ropes are non-stop fixed from the South Col to the summit today, anyone questioning Dick’s ability on a mountain should perhaps give this a try.
Chris Bonington had been invited along by the Norwegians to oversee the logistics, proving well and truly that he was the master at this, putting them on top in record time. That the Norwegians had a handpicked team of their finest climbers certainly didn’t slow things down.
At the time, I was working in New Zealand, alternately writing ads to sell soap for clients of the multi-national advertising agency Ogilvy, and gazing out my office window at Auckland Harbour and dreaming of rocks.
A call came in from my previous employer, Bill Forrest in Colorado. There was a quick hello and a ‘how are you,’ then, ‘Do you want to climb Everest.’
‘Yes,’ I said.
There really was no questions to be asked, no conscious thought was needed. I was a climber. Everest was a big mountain. Like El Cap, it just seemed the natural thing to do. To go climb it when you were lucky enough to be invited was what you did.
Living in New Zealand, a man who would soon be my business partner, Daryl Hughes, said, “You should talk to Ed Hillary you know, he has climbed Mt Everest. His phone number is in the book.”
So I called and after a short talk with Ed about my plans, unprompted and out of the blue, he invited me over to his home.
His doorway had brass Tibetan horns in it, the lounge was covered in thick woolen rugs, the walls were photos of mountains and treasures from Nepal and his travels. We spent a few minutes on pleasantries and then he asked about the route we were doing. I knew nothing about the route, a néophytes oversight, so he proceeded to tell me.
I needed to do my research he advised, it was a hard route. He pulled out maps and photos and proceeded to educate me. Previously Everest had been mythical and distant, an unreal objective. Ed made it real. Like every mountain, and what I was to learn in far more detail when I plotted out our successful ascent of a new route on the Kangshung Face a few years later, a new route on a big mountain takes real in depth research.
Thus began a long relationship, with Ed helping me out whenever I was in New Zealand, from friendly visits, to British Airways press conferences to writing forewards to my books. Ed was always a climbers’, climber.
A few months later I was on Everest, on our hard route, the West Ridge Direct. It was also a route that made little sense, as it started in Nepal, went up to the Lho La in Tibet and then straight up for another 3,000 meters to the top. Its history was strewn with epics, at least one death and a history of a few very hard core Eastern European teams getting up, but all having to go over the top and down the South Col to escape.
Our climbing leader Jim Bridwell had singled me out at Base Camp, probably to see if I actually knew what I was doing – he’d invited his big wall friends from Yosemite and I wasn’t one of them.
We went up to camp out in a small tent on a rock pinnacle for three days and put in the winch. With a Honda motor, 200 meters of cable and some dubious pulleys, it would save us carting endless loads up the massive loose headwall that started with a few vertical ladders and ended on an ice sheet in Tibet.
Day one we roped up, Jim led up the few pitches to the base of the winch. We fixed ropes, strung cables. I learned how a big wall afficionado really does things, scampering up and down the cliffs putting in anchors under his direction. We rappelled to our tent perched atop the rocky ridge, cliffs on both sides reaching down to the glacier, cooked our one dish meal, huddled in the tent and listened to rocks tumbling off the heights around us. I listened to Jim’s stories of first ascents from El Cap to Half Dome to Alaska.
Day two I pulled out the rope and Jim just looked at me and said, “it’s okay, you can climb,” and we soloed 100 meters of rotten rich up to the winch. I guess I passed the test. I tagged along behind Jim realizing that his fame was well deserved, he flowed over the rock with a a singular symmetry that was beautiful to watch.
Back in Base Camp a few days later, David Breashears arrived with Dick Bass. Chris Bonington and the Norwegian leader Arne Naess led us in games of poker to while away the afternoons when we were not climbing.
1985 was the last year the Nepalis had restricted permits, so Base Camp was an exclusive home, with us on the West Ridge Direct and the Norwegians on the South Col. An occasional trekker struggled up the hill, we served them tea and off they went again. A small pack of dogs took up residence and howled the night away. We eventually befriended them and fed them just to keep them quiet. Now the trekkers are warned off from climbers fearing disease and the dogs are sent packing long before they reach Camp.
Guiding in 2010, it was all I could do to hide away a small friendly beast in my alcove for a few weeks, fearing she would be discovered and sent packing. Only a few well paid Sherpas kept her under wraps when I left Camp for the heights.
In some ways our Base Camp Circe 1985 was not unlike Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley, a climbers camp for climbers only. Climbers set out for the heights pre-dawn and returning for big meals and comraderie in the evenings.
We traded rock shoes and haul bags for crampons and ice axes, yet the intimate circle felt the same. Late in April the highly talented and coordinated Norwegian team summitted, followed a few days later by Bass and Breashears. The pressure was on to get up or go home.
Two weeks later Peter Athans, Jay Smith, Andy Politz and I all crawled back up to a god-forsaken tilted and icy ledge at over 8,000 meters on the West Ridge Direct and made two attempts at the summit from our Camp 5.
The clouds were all below us, our oxygen tanks fizzled uselessly and our MiG Russian fighter jet masks froze in rubber blobs to our faces. We climbed up onto the heights, through the Yellow Band, into the Gray Band but the summit remained elusive and hours above us.
Then it was down and down, endless ropes down the steep ridge, across Tibet and back into Nepal, and a final rappel to drop us back into Base Camp.
We had transitioned from Yosemite Camp 4 to Everest Base Camp, in a rare year when the cast of climbers was remarkably similar, as at home in hammocks on an El Cap wall and as in a tent at 8,000 meters.
I’d climbed with the master of stone Jim Bridwell, David Breashears had reappeared from our Eldorado rock climbing days, and Ed Webster would join me a three years later on our new route on the Kangshung Face – taking me effectively from El Cap to Everest.
But never again would Base Camp be just a team or two, but pushed onto different routes by Nepali limitations.
Soon Nationalistic goals and new routes would be superseded by personal goals and individual successes.
By 2010, I’d return from guiding a group to the summit and realized the real reason I needed a carbon fiber ice axe was not because it worked, but because it was light – as I never once took it off my pack.
Ed Webster, putting his big wall training to play at over 6,000 meters inside of Everest Kangshung Face.
A few of the best books on Everest, let’s call it the top 5 with a few bonus options.