Outdoors : Peace Will Be Spread at Summit : Mountain climbing: Americans, Soviets, Chinese will attempt to celebrate Earth Day atop Mt. Everest.
When Jim Whittaker became the first American to stand at the highest point on Earth 27 years ago, he still couldn’t see 1990.
Now, Whittaker has been called back to the mountain the Tibetans call Qomolangma--"goddess mother of the world.”
If all goes well, on April 22, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, the Mt. Everest Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb will place an American, a Soviet and a Chinese on the 29,028-foot summit, and each will make a statement on live television.
Whittaker and fellow mountaineers Warren Thompson and Bud Krogh first discussed the climb in 1981 during a White House reception recognizing their feat of leading a group of handicapped climbers--some blind--up Mt. Rainier. Looking for another “socially redeeming cause,” Whittaker said, they hit upon the idea of an international attempt at Everest.
“We narrowed it down to the Soviets and Chinese and Americans,” he added. “We figured, ‘Let’s take our enemies and rope up so our lives are depending on one another. We’ll go to the top and stand there demonstrating to the world that through friendship and cooperation high goals can be reached, (such as) world peace.’ ”
But here’s the deal: All three have to make it or nobody will.
“When the people signed on, I said, ‘Is it clear that you can’t go to the summit alone, that you’ll have to go with two other people?’ ” Whittaker said from his home in Port Townsend, Wash. “That was tough for a couple of them.
“We want to get all three up to show that we have to depend on each other in this world. Our lives depend on each other. If, say, the Chinese guy doesn’t make it up on the mountain, then we don’t, either, and the same holds true down here. We’ve got to all make it together or nobody’s going to make it.
“If somebody poops out on that first rope, they’re going to either drag them the last few hundred feet to the summit and prop them up between ‘em, because they want the summit, or they’re going to have to turn around, and the next rope of three will go for the summit.”
There will be five teams of three climbers each. The expedition, traveling through China and Tibet, was scheduled to arrive today at Base Camp near the Main Rongbuk Glacier, from where they will assault the traditional North Col route.
Up to now, they have ridden in trucks; from now on, they will walk and climb. But Whittaker would not complain. When he climbed Everest from the other side in 1963, he had to walk 185 miles first.
“We’re driving to the base of the mountain at 17,100 feet, which is what our base camp was on the other side,” he said. “It’s fantastic. We drive to the base and dump out our stuff--10 tons of food and 10 tons of equipment.”
That’s meant to sustain 50 people for up to three months. At times the logistics were more difficult than the climb is expected to be.
“The Chinese said, ‘We haven’t had Soviets in our country for 30 years,’ ” Whittaker said. “I said, ‘Yeah, but you came to our country with Ping-Pong balls. We’d like to come with the Soviets with ice axes and crampons.’
“Then they said, ‘Well, that’s not a bad idea, but we don’t want to invite them unless we’re sure they’ll come.’ So then I went to the Soviet Union, and they said, ‘We’d like to go, but we don’t want to invite ourselves.’
“Then the Chinese said, ‘You can bring your Soviet friends, but we don’t think we should participate because we don’t think we’re good enough climbers.’ I said, ‘Well, all we need is people that are in good shape. We’ll get them up to technique--and we won’t go to the summit without a Chinese on the rope.’ ”
The Chinese were scheduled to fly to Washington for the first training sessions on Mt. Rainier early last summer, when the bloody demonstrations in Tian An Men Square broke out. The team got through, but the project’s $1.1-million budget suffered somewhat.
“Our fund-raising from corporations slowed down,” Whittaker said. “Some companies said, ‘We don’t touch that one because of the Chinese.’ This is even more important now.”
Others stood fast--most notably, L.L. Bean, the principal sponsor, and Boeing, Seattle’s largest employer, which had never sponsored a mountaineering expedition despite the city’s tradition in the sport. Leon Gorman, grandson of L.L. Bean, founder of the the Maine-based outdoor clothing and equipment catalog company, is a team member but doesn’t plan to go past Camp Two at 21,000 feet.
A major thrust of the project is environmental--to “clean the world from the top down,” Whittaker said.
He added: “We’re going to clean all the garbage off the mountain that’s been left there by previous expeditions, including mine. We figure there’s a couple of tons of it up there--oxygen bottles and tents and old stuff. We’ll load it on the yaks at Camp Three, and the Chinese have located depressions where we can have landfills.”
Himalayan climbers started noticing a severe litter problem several years ago.
“When I had the Chinese and Soviets up on Rainier for the shakedown, we even carried out our human waste,” Whittaker said. “The Soviets and Chinese couldn’t believe it. They said the difference between us was the Americans throw wrappers and stuff into the tents, and the Soviets and Chinese throw it out of the tents. So we’ve got ‘em thinking about that, too.”
Future expeditions will be required to post bonds against bringing out their trash. That includes everything from food packages to cigarette butts.
Tibetans will help with the climb, Whittaker said, “and they smoke like furnaces. So you’ve got to lay down the law and have them all smoke outside the tent.
“The food is a little different. The Tibetans like food that they’re used to. The Soviets will eat our food, but we have a varied menu so everybody will feel like they’re getting what they need.”
The food will be better fare than the average mountaineering expedition enjoys--not freeze-dried, but fully constituted or repacked. The latter weighs more, Whittaker said, but water is needed to prepare a freeze-dried meal, and fuel is needed to melt ice or snow, “so you have to carry the fuel, so we’re saying, let’s carry the repack.”
Whittaker’s most difficult moment may be when it is time to select one of the five American climbers for the international all-star team that will make the first assault on the summit. He is almost certain he won’t pick himself.
“As we go along, we’ll be seeing how they climb and how strong they are, and toward the final assault I’ll pick who I think is the strongest American and deserves the summit the most . . . worked hardest for the good of the expedition. The Soviet and Chinese leaders will do the same.”
The final ascent will cover about 1,200 vertical feet in an area of Everest mystique.
“They’ll be going up the route that (British climbers George Leigh) Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared on in 1924,” Whittaker said. “They disappeared into the clouds, wearing oxygen, never to be seen again.”
There is still speculation that Mallory and Irvine were the first to reach the summit, long before New Zealand’s Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, in 1953.
“When I climbed Everest, everybody said I ‘conquered’ the mountain. There’s no way I conquered that mountain. I was lucky as hell to get up and down alive. And most climbers will say that.”
CARRY THAT WEIGHT Some of the 20 tons of food and equipment for 50 people in the International Peace Climb expedition on Mt. Everest: 50 titanium oxygen cylinders (Soviet). 508 rolls of toilet paper. 1,000 biodegradable garbage bags. 2 tons of propane fuel (for cooking). Food for 15,600 meals. 6,125 candy bars. 1,200 pounds of cookies. Three flags (American, Soviet, Chinese).