The Mt. Everest expedition searching for the bodies of British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine has advanced to the 25,500-foot level, an altitude nearly five miles above sea level. The climbers are excited by the discovery of two artifacts from a British expedition that attempted the summit two years before the 1924 disappearances of Mallory and Irvine, but their enthusiasm is tempered by the constant threat of avalanches and blizzards on the slopes of the world's highest mountain.
We have established a fifth camp 25,500 feet up the North Face of Everest and, our enthusiasm heightened by the discovery of twin oxygen cylinders from a 1922 British expedition, are preparing to set a higher camp in the area where we will search for the bodies of Mallory and Irvine.
The cylinders were found several days ago by expedition members Mike Weis and Mary Kay Brewster as they hiked near Advance Base Camp at the 21,000-foot level. Expedition chairman Tom Holzel and Audrey Selkeld, a historian whose task is to identify artifacts, confirmed the 24-inch-long metal tanks had been part of a 1922 expedition that included Mallory, Maj. E. F. Norton, Dr. T. H. Somervell, George Finch and Brig. Gen. C. G. Bruce.
That expedition marked the first attempt by mountaineers to reach Everest's summit, and the first time oxygen had been used in a high-altitude ascent. Although they didn't reach the top at 29,028 feet--Mallory, Norton and Somervell, unaided by oxygen, climbed to 26,800 feet; with oxygen, Finch and Bruce went 500 feet higher--the trek convinced the men it was possible to scale the world's highest peak via the North Face. Two years later Mallory and Irvine disappeared after coming within 900 feet of the summit.
The canisters, now deeply rusted, were probably discarded by the men as they came down the mountain. They have lain amid snow and rock for 64 years, undiscovered by the 12 expeditions that climbed the Tibetan side of Everest before those routes were closed by the Chinese after the 1949 communist revolution.
Used for Dinner Call
One of the antique cylinders is now in the Base Camp tent that contains our maps, journals and documents. The other was hung by a string outside the Base Camp kitchen tent. A Sherpa, Pemba Tsering, clangs the cylinder with a rock when it is time for meals.
The discoveries of the canisters and a 60-year-old climbing crampon, which was found several weeks ago by another expedition, have convinced us we have a good chance of locating other relics. Ours is the first expedition with the primary goal of searching the routes of those 1920s British climbs up the North Face. We will concentrate on the 28,000-foot level, where, according to Holzel's research, we have the best chance of finding the bodies of Mallory and Irvine or their artifacts--particularly two vest-pocket Kodak cameras that may contain developable film that could settle the controversy of whether the pair reached the summit in 1924.
Avalanches and sporadic heavy snows have hampered our 12-mile journey up the North Face. Four members of the expedition encountered a massive avalanche last week that signaled imminent danger. Only by extreme caution and with great luck were they able to avoid the fate of Chilean climber Victor Hugo Trujillo, 22, who was killed by a snowslide on the North Col in the same area Aug. 16. ( Col is a Welsh word that means saddle between two high ridges. The North Col was named by Mallory, a Welshman.) Trujillo fell into a crevasse and died when he was swept away by an avalanche triggered by his struggle. Disheartened by the tragedy, his Chilean colleagues abandoned their climb.
Typical Early Start
The day of our team's brush with peril started at 2 a.m., as most climbing days do, when the Sherpas brought tea into the tents at Advance Base Camp. An hour later, Catherine Cullinane, Weis and two Sherpas set off up the mountain, hoping to complete their day's activities before the glare of the sun and rising midday temperatures made climbing more difficult.
Climbing in bright moonlight and steadied by ski poles used to test the snow ahead of them, the team members hiked to the fixed ropes left by the Chilean expedition, ropes that remained in place despite intervening storms. Using the ropes for support, they made their way up the East Rongbuk Glacier to the base of the North Col.
When the col's high walls cut off the direct moonlight, Cullinane and Weis switched on their headlamps. Both were worried about avalanches; there had been many since the last snowstorm--a five-day blizzard that pinned the climbers in their camps. Cullinane recalls her apprehension was magnified by the burning sensation in her lungs; it was the highest she had ever climbed.
Reaching the base of the col, the mountaineers pulled out their crampons (metal cleats attached to boots), harnesses and jumars (locking devices that link a climbing harness rope to a fixed line to protect climbers against a fall) for their traverse across and up the steep slope. They edged along the fixed line slowly, sliding their jumars along the rope, locking them in place, then sliding them again. The light from their headlamps shined only a few feet in front of them.
Suddenly the fixed line disappeared into the snow. Weis and Cullinane were perplexed. Expedition cinematographer David Breashears had been along the route only the previous day and reported the line was clear. It could only mean it had later been covered by an avalanche. Four hundred feet farther, their headlamps cast beacons on the avalanche's fracture line--the ridge created when a heavy top layer of snow cracks and slides upon the frozen lower layer. It was a slab avalanche, the type triggered when a huge block of ice, or serac, breaks off a glacier.
Decision to Retreat
In these situations, it is easy to set off another avalanche. Knowing the avalanche was fresh and that an abrupt movement could trigger another snowslide, the climbers quickly decided to retreat from the area. In the dead quiet of early morning, the team reversed its path and cautiously returned down the slope, finally walking into a brilliant sunrise at the foot of the col.
Two days later, during more stable conditions, Cullinane, Brewster and expedition leader Andrew Harvard climbed past the fracture and made it safely to the top of the North Col.
The third female climber on our expedition, Sue Giller, now has also made it to the North Col's 23,200-foot elevation. We hope at least one of the women will make it to the top of Everest. If we succeed, it will be the first time an American woman has made it to the summit.
It took 102 yak trips to get our 3.5 tons of gear and supplies to a camp at 19,000 feet. But that was as high as the sturdy beasts could travel. To stock the higher camps meant human caravans shuttling equipment from one camp to the next. We must carry nearly 400 pounds of supplies to Camp 6.
The last of the monsoon snowstorms now seems to have passed. The winds have begun to lay bare the upper slopes of Everest; from its summit blows a nearly unbroken line of snow, streaming out like a white pennant. In another week we hope to establish Camp 6 at 27,500 feet. From that camp we will begin the search for Mallory and Irvine.