The west ridge

28.03.1980. - Stipe Božić

Climbing in the Himalayas became increasingly popular during the 1970\’s.  People began to think the unthinkable about climbing these, the greatest rock-faces in the world.  These pictures show an example, the south face of Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world.  British climbers successfully met a similar hallenge, the south face of Annapurna. In 1975, an almost identical team managed to climb Everest via the south face after several attempts, and around the same time a group of Slovenians conquered another Himalayan wall, the south face of Makalu. In the same year the \”Mosor\” mountaineering club from Split in Croatia formed an Alpine expedition to the Hindu Kush.  They travelled from Croatia by road through Montenegro, Macedonia, Turkey and Iran into Afghanistan.  We follow in the footsteps of our famous predecessor Marco Polo, along the valley of the River Amu Darja to the foot of Noshaq, the highest peak in Afghanistan. After a full month on the road, the expedition finally moves off on foot with 70 porters, from the bank of the River Amu Darja to the base camp at 3000 metres above sea-level.The ascent route takes us across the south saddle and onto the south face.  All members of the expedition are equally inexperienced for such heights.  None has previously climbed above 5000 metres. After several atempts approaches to the summit, we finally stand on Noshaq at 7492 metres.  As we descend, we find that Boris Siriščević is suffering from frostbite of the toes.  He descended somehow by himself to the first camp, and our doctor advises us to carry him down into the walley.

After their success on Makalu, the Slovenians were interested in an ascent of Mount Everest via the west ridge.  The Yugoslav expedition at that time consisted of 20 Slovenians, 2 Croats and 2 climbers from Bosnia and Herzegovina. I must attribute my inclusion in this very strong team to my success on Noshaq. Most Alpinists would regard climbing the highest mountain in the world as fulfilment of their sweetest dreams.  I was reluctant to think that I might reach the summit simply because I had been chosen, but even to participate in a Himalayan expedition is a special honour for any climber, especially for an attempt on the highest mountain in the world, and moreover via a hitherto unattempted ridge.

Now, 17 years later, I am setting off to Mount Everest for the third time, now accompanied by cameraman Joško Bojić.  Our objective is to take the best possible pictures of the highest mountain in the world.  But this also means reviving many memories which bind me to this mountain. Once again we are in the valley of Khumbu, home of the Sherpas.  We meet many people we know from our last expedition, including some of our hosts.  On the third day we meet Ang Chuteen, wife of our former friend, Sherpa Ang Phu, in the village of San Sa. Ang Chuteen proudly shows a picture of her son Mingma Norbu who is currently being educated in a Buddhist monastery in India.  In accordance with ancient tradition, Ang Chuteen fastens scarves around our necks as we leave, to bring us good fortune on our journey.

The 1979 Everest expedition consisted of 24 climbers, 2 doctors, 3 reporters and 20 Sherpas. Over a period of 19 days, 750 local porters carried 18 tonnes of equipment up to a height of 5300 metres.  Tone Škarja, an experienced Himalayan climber, was the expedition leader. The route to the highest mountain in the world leads along the southern foothills of the Himalaya, crossing deep valleys and steep mountain ridges to the River Dudh Kosi.  Then it follows the Khumbu valley to the very foot of Mount Everest. On the Khumbu glacier we make a complete village of tents, forming the base camp at 5300 metres.  From here the route leads via steep cliffs to the saddle of Lho La at 6000 metres.

83 people have climbed Mount Everest before me, from various directions, before 1979.  Most took the southern route from Nepal used by the first British expedition with Edmund Hillary and Norgay Tensing in 1953, via the south saddle and on to the south face. The easiest route to the summit is by the north ridge from Tibet.  An American team reached the summit in 1963 starting from the Western Cwm, then going along the west ridge and up the north face.  But the route via the south-west face, planned by the British in 1975, was a real climbing accomplishment.  After that only the west ridge remained unconquered. The west ridge involves an extremely long climb, and is exposed to powerful winds from Tibet.  And no-one knew of a certain route over the final section, the steep yellow band.

Logistics for the expedition via the west ridge are a story of their own.  We have to carry 6 tonnes of food and equipment up a very steep rock-face to reach the saddle of Lho La, which would scarcely be possible without the help of the Sherpas. The expedition has already used more than 10 kilometres of rope on the mountain, 300 metres of rope ladder, 50 metres of rigid aluminium ladder, 40 tents, 80 sleeping bags, 500 ice screws and pitons, hundreds of litres of kerosene and gas for cooking and several tonnes of food for the climbers and Sherpas.  From all of this, each climber who manages to reach the summit will be carrying just six or seven kilograms! Each day, more of the load is moved from base camp to Camp 1 on Lho La saddle.  The climbers take turns to go ahead and secure the route, and in doing so begin to acclimatise to the rarefied atmosphere.  These cycles of acclimatisation tie in well with our progress up the mountain and the secure ropes are invaluable for a safe descent to base camp for rest. The process of acclimatisation consists of climbing about 800 metres higher and then returning immediately to base camp.  When a climber returns to his previously reached height in a second cycle two or three days later, he finds he is acclimatised and can now proceed a further stage higher.  He then advances another 800 metres in height and again returns to base camp, where the process of acclimatisation to the newly acquired height works best.  At 8000 metres the proportion of oxygen in the air is only 25% of that at sea level.  The pressure of the air in the alveoli of a man\’s lung is similarly reduced, and pressure is essential for the absorption oxygen into the blood.  During acclimatisation, the number of red corpuscles in the blood increases in order to carry more oxygen to the brain and muscles – the body is simply forming a defence mechanism.  The human body can acclimatise to a level no greater than 7500 metres above sea level using these methods.  Climbing higher is normally possible only at very great risk or with supplementary oxygen in a pressurised bottle.  Lack of acclimatisation can cause fatal disturbances to the organism, such as brain or lung oedema. Other dangers lurking at these heights include ice and snow avalanches, and temperatures down to minus 40 degrees Celsius.  With wind speeds up to 200 kilometres per hour these temperatures can be fatal. The climber also has to conquer other difficulties caused by lack of oxygen.  Loss of appetite, sleeplessness, apathy and headaches are warning signs of height sickness, or hypoxia.

We have a daily battle with icy slopes, low temperatures and strong winds, but within about twenty days we have established five high-level camps, the routes between them secured by ropes. The expedition\’s greatest problem awaits us after Camp 5 above 8200 metres where Viki Grošelj and Marijan Manfred were trying to find a route to the summit itself. Manfred and Grošelj had nevertheless contributed vitally to the expedition\’s success by fixing ropes and enabling others to reach the summit. At the start of the expedition no-one, least of all I myself, had counted on my being a candidate for the summit.  But during five cycles of acclimatisation I had no real problems with the height, and I began to think of my wish to reach the summit and to wonder whether it might be possible. After 40 days of strenuous toiling and climbing, Nejc Zaplotnik and Andrej Štremfelj had the satisfaction of reaching the summit. Just one day behind them, I was in another group prepares for the summit in Camp 5.

May 14th 1979 dawns a beautiful day.  Each person advances over the last 700 metres towards the summit carrying two bottles of oxygen.  We follow the cliff to below the Grey Step, where Nejc and Andrej had passed two days earlier.  We avoid some difficulties at 8600 metres using a route via a very steep face which no-one had crossed before. We seemed to be at the limits of human capability while climbing the last stony wall, just 150 metres below the highest summit in the world, which nevertheless draws us with magical power. The moment of stepping onto the highest in the world is one of unimaginable happiness.  Being the highest man in the world is a complete reward for all the risks and effort which came before.  But this is also the most critical moment in a climber\’s life, because he has now covered only half the necessary distance to arrive back home.  The more dangerous half of his journey is his descent to the foot of the mountain. The moment of standing on a summit distinguishes this sport from all others.  In other sports, a competitor makes a decisive, winning move, the referee blows his whistle, or a tape is broken at a finishing line and that is the end of the competition.  After the match he goes to a warm changing-room and takes a shower.  But when we reach the summit of a mountain, a second trial is about to begin, in which one\’s life is at stake.

A terrible storm is brewing over Mount Everest.  The wind blows at 150 kilometres per hour and the temperature drops to minus 40 degrees. The following morning, after surviving the night at 8400 metres in the open, Ang Phu slipped and fell 2000 metres down the Rongbuk glacier.