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The Canadian Mount Everest Expedition sponsored by Air Canada established many “firsts” in addition to placing the first Canadians on the world’s highest peak. It is a story of the triumph of human nature. Here’s how it unfolded...


JULY 15, 1982

Two days prior to departure for Nepal, members of the Canadian Mount Everest Expedition sponsored by Air Canada are the subject of a press reception in Toronto. In a nearby booth a man is talking excitedly on the phone: ‘Christ, can’t you get a crew down here in a hurry? This expedition is something else!”

Five years after the planning began, Canada is waking up to its first attempt to climb the highest mountain in the world.


The bulk of the 16 climbers, four support personnel and two journalists comprising the expedition set out from Kathmandu on the long walk-in to Base Camp through the tail end of the monsoon season. Prior to the rains, 16 tons of equipment have been ferried to just below Everest by yaks, porters and planes. Two days before leaving, leader Bill March was mistakenly issued another team’s permit to climb Everest’s West Ridge. He was tempted to keep it, he says. The West Ridge avoids the infamous Khumbu Icefall that lies in the way of the Canadians.

Although the trek can be made in two weeks, the Canadians take three to ensure acclimatization. The narrow trails cut across the grain of Nepal for 150 miles and over five mountain ranges. The climbers ascend a total of over 40,000 feet and descend another 30,000, the final touches of physical and mental preparation.

In Namche Bazaar below Everest, a meeting between March and Roger Marshall, the original leader of the team, results in Marshall leaving the expedition on the grounds of a breach of his climbing contract.


All but two of the expedition members arrive at Base Camp. Jim Elzinga, who had been left behind with torn leg ligaments after tripping over some baggage, has arranged a helicopter ride part way and ridden a yak, despite his walking cast, the rest of the distance.

March and Elzinga issue gear to the 24 Sherpas; Base Camp manager Peter Spear works on load logistics; mountain rescue expert Tim Auger trains the Sherpas in Canadian climbing techniques and Laurie Skreslet teaches them how to assemble the tents. Don Serl checks oxygen bottles, Spear and Dave McNab reconnoitre the lower icefall and John Amatt, Pat Morrow and a few others contract enteric dysen­tery.

“Base Camp is a thoroughly unpleasant place,” comments Amatt. “It’s a dump of 30 years of expeditions, including their human waste. It’s on a glacier so you can’t bury the garbage and Sherpa custom doesn’t let you burn it. We thought we’d be safe by piping fresh water down from the icefall but, of course, Camp One is just the same story and its above the icefall.”


The Canadian plan is to lay siege to the mountain, a classic big-mountain strategy if a little out of vogue. There are three steps to the strategy. First you “push” the route — strong, expert climbers out on their own finding the route up the mountain. Next, you “fix” the route, solidly anchoring the rope with ice screws or snow flukes.

Finally, you “carry” — each climber and Sherpa bearing one 40-pound back load of food and equipment at a time up the now established rope which will secure him if he slips or falls. On Everest, the Canadians were to fix five miles of rope.

In this manner, the attack up the mountain takes the form of a pyramid. Base Camp might have 600 loads and 50 people, two-thirds of which will go to Camp I. Then 150 loads go to Camp II and so on until the highest camp may only require half a dozen loads of supplies vital to the summit bid by two to four climbers only. Each load is colour-coded in advance for the respective camp.

Everything that goes up the mountain has to get to Camp I on the other side of the Khumbu Icefall, the most treacherous sec­tion on the whole of Everest.


The Icefall. The one part of Everest that every Canadian climber has thought about and secretly dreaded since the day he joined the team. It is a frozen torrent of gigantic blocks of ice. Squeezed between the flanks of Everest and its neighbour Nuptse, it is in constant motion, some­times grinding forward a foot a day, some­times lurching ten feet in one second with cataclysmic collapses of its icy cathedrals. More climbers have died in this doorway to Everest than anywhere else on the mountain.

“My first impression of the icefall was one of sheer horror,” says Dave Read. “Those blocks of ice were the size of large houses. It was over 2,000 feet high and involved more than a mile opening up a route to reach Camp One.”

Granted permission to work on the icefall and carry to Camp I between August 20 and the official start of the climbing sea­son Sept. 1, March, McNab and Skreslet will begin the search for a route tomorrow.


In only three days, the route has been pushed to the top of the icefall. Gordon Smith has a narrow escape but he and Dave Read distinguish themselves fixing ladders and establishing the route with Skreslet and March. It will still take another two days of bridging and fixing before the load-carrying can begin.

Half way up the icefall is a frightening zone of deep crevasses and huge seracs (pillars of ice formed when a glacier splits apart), where the route tiptoes across ice-blocks wedged into 150’ deep crevasses below the level of the icefield. At the top lies another final, malevolent and insecure section before the floor of the Western Cwm (a Welsh word for valley) opens up ahead.

“The icefall is a terrifying doorway to the rest of the mountain,” says March, the first to reach the top of the icefall with Skreslet. “Above, you feel relief at leaving this mad jumble of ice and the sense of arriving at an inner sanctum. The first view up the West­ern Cwm was one of my golden moments on Everest. I felt privileged.”


Despite unsettled weather and frequent avalanches down the west shoulder of Everest, over 100 loads have been carried through the icefall to Camp I.

A typical day begins at 2 a. m. when the climbers struggle into boots and windproof suits. After a cup of tea they stumble to the foot of the 3,000-foot fixed rope up through the icefall and begin the day’s carry by the light of lamps on their helmets. Dawn at 5 a.m. reveals the awesome terrain and the reminders: a ladder twisted here, a rope stretched taut here, a crack where there was no crack yesterday.

“The icefall is Disney World turned up­side down,” says Pat Morrow. “It’s a living thing, moaning and moving— an animal. I’ve been in some really frightening places but I’ve never experienced anything like this. Usually you can expect to be gone the next day onto better ground. On Everest, you have to keep going back into that icefall to get the supplies up. You’re playing the numbers game: the more times you go back in the more chance of encountering bad news.”

And this is the true terror of the icefall: not one swift, alpine-style dash through danger, but treading the same dangerous path day after day after day. The emotional strain is hard and it is unremitting. Climbing Everest requires a resilience and endurance far beyond the realm of normal alpine climbing.


Carries through the icefall continue while March, Dave McNab Tim Auger and Alan Burgess probe high into the miles-long Western Cwm. They reach the moraine at 21,400 feet under the South West face of Everest and a possible sight for Camp II. High winds and a white-out com­plicate the return journey and they collapse exhausted in Camp I, the first to occupy the camp overnight.


In the pre-dawn dark, another carry is underway through the icefall. Pat Morrow and Blair Griffiths with six Sherpas are several hundred yards ahead of Peter Spear and Rusty Baillie with a second group of Sherpas. Morrow, who has been breaking trail through fresh snow, radios Camp I for assistance.

Suddenly, Camp I is hit by a terrific shock of air, Below, Morrow is knocked breathless and his lifeline keeps tugging him back into a screaming blast of fine snow as the fixed rope is ripped out of its anchors. Almost 3,000 feet above them, a mile-wide avalanche has broken loose and a small, deadly tongue of it licks out in the darkness at the Canadians. Griffiths and the Sherpas are bruised and shaken.

On the downslope side of the tongue, Baillie is smashed down the mountain and buried to his chest. Spear is completely buried but for one foot. Baillie manages to dig him clear with the help of a Sherpa. Three other Sherpas are missing.

The climbers are joined by groups from Base Camp and Camp I and mountain rescue expert Tim Auger directs the search. It is a scene of utter desolation: blocks of ice the size of railway cars jammed in rock-hard snow. The body of 40-year-old Pasang Sona, an experienced Himalayan climber, is recovered and Rusty Baillie crawls into a sleeping bag with him to try and revive him, supervised by high altitude doctor Steve Bezruchka, who also applies CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The efforts are in vain. The bodies of 18 year-old Ang Chuldim and 40-year-old Dawa Dorje are never found.

The immunity of the Canadians is ended. The trauma and death that hovers over Himalayan mountaineering has caught up to them.


In a simple, moving ceremony, the body of Pasang Sona is cremated on a small mountainside plateau outside the settlement of Lobuche, six miles below Everest. March, whose sense of duty as a leader is augmented by a close affinity for the Sherpa community built up over previous expeditions, has joined the long vigil and mourning. Bezruchka also attends the emotion-wracked rituals. As the pair makes ready to return to Base Camp, a Sherpa runner arrives with a terse note for March. Blair Griffiths has been killed in the icefall that morning.

As the weather cleared in March’s absence, the team had decided to resume climbing. In a place where each climber had worked at one time or another, Griffiths was repairing a ladder bridge with Dave Read, Rusty Baillie and two Sherpas when, without warning, several hundred feet of the icefall shuddered and collapsed.

Baillie and one Sherpa managed to scramble from one toppling serac to an­other; Read and the second Sherpa were plunged into a crevasse and miraculously spared when two huge ice blocks jammed together just above their heads, although the Sherpa was buried; Griffiths, standing only three feet from Baillie, was pinned by a falling serac and died instantly. Read cleared the trapped Sherpa’s face and, as Baillie rescued both, the fixed rope they had been working on swung in the air 25 feet above their heads.


Griffith’s body is cremated at Lobuche. The events of the past five days have devastated members of the team, some of whom have already decided to withdraw.

March exercises his leadership swiftly but democratically: following a team meeting, each member is asked to review his commitment to the attempt.

“There was no way I was going to direct anyone to continue, or even ask them to stay.” remarks March. “Mountaineering is a calculation of risk and on Everest the risk is high. If a climber loses his faith in himself he has no choice but to walk away from the mountain. Each individual had to assess his own feelings and act accordingly. All I in­sisted on was that those who wished to leave should do so quickly.”

March, Gallagher, Burgess and Smith are committed to stay and are ultimately joined by Morrow, Read, Skreslet and Dwayne Congdon. Amatt, who has walked two days to Namche Bazaar to radio reassurance to the climbers’ families, opts to remain in a support role alongside Bezruchka and Base Camp manager Spear. Dave Jones, the Base Camp doctor who has never successfully acclimatized, leaves for medical reasons. Elzinga, McNab, Baillie, Auger, Serl and Blench each independently reach the conclusion that this is the wrong mountain for them at this time and withdraw. Of the high altitude climbers, March’s team is decimated with the final count eight to stay and six to leave. All Sherpas who have not been injured choose to remain.


In the ensuing days, March’s leadership and his personal resolve are tested to the limit. Amatt, unaware of developments, has met the departing climbers on his trek back into Everest and arrives at Base Camp convinced the expedition is collapsing into a fiasco and should be cancelled to minimize bad publicity for their sponsors. Amatt’s judgment is respected and his conviction rocks the survivors as they attempt to regroup. After long discussions, Amatt backs down.

“When Bill and the others explained the hard facts, I realized we could still succeed,” says Amatt. “And the facts were these. One, we already had 120 loads above the icefall. Two, if we could change our route to the South Col, it would require only half the supplies and the manpower needed for our original route. And three, that in turn would mean only one more carry through the icefall and that would be restricted to the experienced climbers and the best Sherpas. The support personnel would be ordered to stay in Base Camp. Risk would be kept to the minimum possible on Everest.”

But the problems are far from over. The change of route to the South Col requires permission from the Nepalese government which in turn demands the approval of a New Zealand team booked for an attempt on neighbouring Lhotse from just below the Col. Bitter negotiations follow with the reluctant New Zealanders before an uneasy compromise is reached: the latter would use the Canadians’ surplus supplies in Camp I (thus reducing their exposure in the icefall) and lead the route until September 30, at which time the Canadians could push through.

With a less than satisfactory agreement but with official permits, and with bad weather stalling any work on the mountain, the hectic strain comes to a sudden halt. Amatt, who would no longer be permitted to carry through the icefall returns to Kathmandu to act as expedition spokesman and interpret the climb against a rash of ill-informed coverage.

March, emotionally exhausted, retires down the valley for six days to complete some expedition business and to rest.


“For 10 days following the accidents I could not permit emotions to cloud my decisions as team leader,” says March. “I believe this is an essential requisite of leadership when you are dealing with other people’s lives. I had to divorce my feelings completely and concentrate on logistics and the practical aspect of whether or not this expedition could succeed.

“As a result, I know some of the climbers felt I was too hard, particularly when I asked those who were leaving to go right away. It was tough. There were the logistics of a new team and a new route and then, of course, just when I think it’s coming together again we have this stupid bloody business with the New Zealanders.

  “The net result is that all during that time I was never able to examine my own feelings as an individual climber. I was committed to stay but I hadn’t had the chance to come to grips with it, with the risk it entailed. I have a wife and kids and I was scared and frightened too. I needed time on my own.

Heading down valley, March visits his old Sirdar (head Sherpa on an expedition) from a previous climb and, with him in tow as interpreter, goes to visit the oldest lama in the Khumbu region. After a long visit, the old Buddhist quietly tells March: “there will be no more death. Your expedition will succeed.”

It is unlikely that there is a single Everest climber who is not aware of, and most probably affected by, the spiritual atmosphere that envelops this mountain. In Nepalese, Everest is called Chomolungma, which means Goddess. Mother of the Earth. To the Sherpa people, it is a sacred and living place. Mountain climbers, more conscious than most of their mortality, speak frequently in terms of the privilege of seeing its upper reaches. March, who describes himself as “a bit of an unbeliever” doesn’t doubt the aged lama.

“For several years,” says March, “everybody here has known that 1982 would be a bad year throughout the Khumbu region and on Everest. Many people have died in the villages this year and the Everest season has been one of the worst. Back in 1972 five years ago, a lama told Tim Auger, who was climbing Pumori, that this year would be bad on Everest and bad for Tim on Everest too.”

  Auger was one of the six who left the Canadian expedition after the four deaths.


Climbing finally gets underway again on the mountain. Burgess breaks trail through heavy snow accompanied by Morrow and Smith. The icefall route has been without maintenance for two weeks and requires extensive repair work: ice axes on ropes fish ladders out of the crevasses.

There are still some loads to go to Camp I and, despite his one-load-per-man order, March accompanies the Sherpas on three carries over the next three days, past the spot where Griffiths was killed, past the place where the two Sherpas still lie buried.


Burgess, Morrow and Smith have pushed up the Western Cwm to occupy Camp II. Gallagher, Read, Congdon and March are at Camp I and, of the surviving climbers, only Skreslet, who has been hospitalized with injured ribs down valley, remains below the icefall. The decision is made to close the icefall although Skreslet, acting on his own, will come up the next day.

“Closing the icefall was a team decision and it was a helluva thing to do,” says dep­uty leader Lloyd Gallagher. “That was our lifeline. It meant we were up above with really no support or escape route if things went wrong. But it was a calculated deci­sion.”

The calculation was to reduce risk by stopping the daily repair parties needed to maintain the icefall route. And reducing risk had become a much more intense pressure than ever before. It is doubtful whether this last, grimly determined, group of climbers, could survive another major accident on the mountain.

“I suspect those who left would have felt they were right if we’d had another bad accident,” reflects March. “And those of us who stayed would have been wrong. There wasn’t a wrong and a right but the pressure was there just the same.”

With the addition of Skreslet there will be eight Canadians, 12 Sherpa climbers, a cook and a cookboy above the icefall, with the only way to go being up.


Progress is rapid despite some delays due to bad weather and extremely high winds. Camp II is fully stocked and has become the advanced base of operations. Just above here, the Cwm rises sharply to the Lhotse Face that blocks the uppermost end and to the climbers’ left, the peak of Everest is visible for the first time, soaring into the sky still nearly 8,000 feet above them.

The work goes well but the going is hard. The two-mile climb up the gently sloping Cwm to Camp II is agonizing be­cause of the altitude: the climbers carry one day and then rest for another to regain strength.

In the hard climbing since the icefall, the acrimony between the Canadians and the New Zealanders has disappeared. Adrian Burgess, twin brother of Alan, is a member of the New Zealand team and Gallagher himself is a Kiwi. Working side by side with the other team, Alan Burgess has fixed rope to Camp III at 23,400 feet followed by four Sherpas. The attack on the Lhotse face begins as Dwayne Congdon pushes the route above the camp.

In the next four days, the rugged determination that kept the Canadian climbers on Everest will be flung against the Lhotse Face that guards the final, upper reaches. Each day will demand new courage, new willpower and produces superb individual efforts.


Working from Camp II, Alan and Adrian Burgess — considered one of the strongest climbing combinations in the world — fix to below the Yellow Band, a well-known Everest feature that slashes across the Lhotse route at 24,000 feet. That night, March and Morrow occupy Camp III — a staging camp consisting of two small tents huddled under an overhang — to take over the next day.


Overnight, unheard by March and Morrow against the shriek of the wind, an avalanche has swept away the rope fixed by the Burgess twins. The setback is even more demoralizing than having to refix the 500’ before continuing the push.

“It was a mind-blower, because this was a really innocuous spot,” says Morrow. “We’d been working in some pretty horrendous spots and got used to it, but here was a rope ripped away on a face that was bare the day before. There’d been enough spindrift packed by the wind to create an avalanche that could do this. I really took extra special care from that point on.”

March and Morrow replace the rope and get through the 200 foot high Yellow Band before Morrow turns back with malfunctioning oxygen equipment. March, also on oxygen, fixes another 800’ with Sherpas Lhakpa Done and Lhakpa Tshering.

March’s use of oxygen is considered premature by some of the team who follow the philosophy of Austrian climber Reinhold Messner. One of only two men to climb Everest without oxygen, Messner maintains the South Col (26,100) should be gained with careful acclimatization before oxygen is needed.

“You can’t afford the time,” counters March. “On Everest you have to push every minute. When the weather is good enough for climbing you have to use it; there’s a limit to how long you can stay on the mountain. I knew we had to fix to the South Colas fast as possible and that meant using oxygen.”

It was a decision that would ultimately make the summit ascents possible.


Congdon and Smith, with two Sherpas, push the rope to over 25,500 feet. The work is mind-numbing and team members joke wryly about the ‘yak route,’ the nickname given by the fun-loving Sherpas to this most widely traveled of all Everest ascent routes.

“Even with oxygen it’s rough,” concedes March. “There you are with the wind howl­ing spindrift in your face — Skreslet was blown right off the Yellow Band and only saved by the fixed rope — and with goggles and an oxygen mask on so you can’t see your feet. You’re teetering on your front points using all the strength in both arms to screw in an ice screw with the handle of your axe. You’ve got 37 pounds of bottles on your back and you’re dragging a rope. I’m a good technical ice climber but I tell you that was hard. You build a lot of respect for Hillary doing it the first time 30 years ago.


The winds are too high, gusting over 100 mph (60 mph will blow a man off his feet.) The Canadians are beaten back to Camp II where they regroup. Deterioration is be­coming marked after three weeks above 21,000 feet. The limits of their endurance are close and climbing is impossible. There is talk of returning to Base Camp but Gallagher insists on staying on the mountain, feeling a break in the weather is imminent.

“If we’d gone back down below the icefall at this point, the Sherpas would have given up and we would have lost our drive too,” says Gallagher. “Everyone was completely wasted. The only thing keeping us going was the fact of being so close to it after so long.” 


After two days of inactivity, despite inhuman conditions, Alan Burgess with Sundare and Lhakpa Dorje push through to the South Col in a heroic effort. Burgess is the strongest climber on the team, but this push means he is not likely to recover enough strength to be in the first summit attempt. Everest is one of the ultimate proving grounds of teamwork.


The smaller team and the changed route since the deaths in the icefall have drasti­cally altered the Canadians’ strategy on the mountain. The classic siege tactics that built up Camp I are no longer possible and have given way to a more flexible, alpine­ style of ascent using Camp II as an advance base.

After Burgess’ push through the South Col, with a clear ‘window’ in the weather of unknown duration, the Canadians opt for a daring summit attack that will dispense with the normal Camp V, 1,500 feet below the summit. The plan calls for a summit team to climb from Camp II to Camp IV in one day, then gain the peak 3,000 feet higher and return to Camp II on the next day. It is a round-trip of 16,000 vertical feet in two days, unheard of on Everest.

A summit team of Skreslet, Gallagher, Sundare and Lhakpa Dorje sets out for Camp IV, backed by every available Sherpa climbing without oxygen in order to carry more supplies. Dave Read, who considers reaching the South Col will be his personal summit, climbs with the group. Just below 26,000 feet, having dropped behind with malfunctioning oxygen equipment, an exhausted Gallagher realizes he will have to turn back. (See box).


In Camp IV there is now not sufficient oxygen for both Read and Skreslet.

“It was obvious that Laurie was in the best condition,” says Read, “so at 2 a.m. I fed him tea and got him ready.”

Shortly after 4 a.m. Skreslet, with Sundare and Lhakpa Dorje, set out for the summit.

“The first ten minutes was stop and go while we organized, then we climbed bare, smooth green ice for 50 minutes,” says Skreslet. “The Sherpas were setting a fast pace and I had to stop a couple of times. I was afraid if I cranked up the oxygen, I’d run out. Above the ice was knee-deep, crusted snow and the going was heavy; I’d have to rest every few steps. There were so many things that could go wrong. We were so exhausted.”

Laboriously placing one foot in front of the other each time with an agony of effort, Skreslet approaches the summit after five hours of climbing. Sundare is first on the narrow ridge and a few seconds later, the first Canadian stands on the peak of Everest. Skreslet’s only feeling at first is relief. After 30 minutes, they start back down.


With the weather holding, Camp IV is restocked for a second summit bid. No Sherpas are able to carry and Congdon gets two bottles of oxygen to Camp IV from Camp II and returns the same day. Smith gets another two bottles to within 100 feet of the last traverse to the South Col. Pat Morrow, Alan Burgess, Pema Dorje and Lhakpa Tshering occupy Camp IV for a summit attempt the next day.

After only one hour of climbing, the regulator on Burgess’ oxygen equipment malfunctions. While Morrow waits slightly further up the ridge, Burgess and the Sherpas wrestle with it for an hour while clinging upright to the steep face. Finally, with a tired wave up the mountain, Burgess turns back. Within sight of the summit, it is his second bitter defeat on Everest within a year, having been beaten back by high winds the previous winter on a British expedition. Further down the mountain, on hearing the news on the radio, Burgess’ teammates weep for him. He returns to Camp II without having used oxygen at all.

At 11.30 a.m. Morrow, Pema Dorje and Lhakpa Tshering embrace on the summit. By 6.30 p.m., in the gathering dark, they are back in Camp II. Against extreme odds, the Canadian Mount Everest Expedition has placed two team members and four Sherpas on the peak of Everest.


The brief ‘window’ in the weather that has permitted two successful summit climbs in five days closes. The previous day Skreslet, Gallagher, Read and Congdon have descended through a ‘hor­ror show’ of an icefall with eight Sherpas. Now March, Smith, Burgess and Morrow descend with the remaining Sherpas.

But the trials of Everest are not over, Pema Dorje, snow-blind after removing his goggles which had been steaming up, is led painstakingly on a ‘dog-lead’ of a rope. Burgess brings him to Camp I and March guides him through the treacherous icefall that has been closed for three weeks.

Below the fatal traverse section, March hands Dorje over to Sherpas who have climbed from Base Camp. March is the last to descend the fixed rope to the glacier floor and the run-out to Base Camp.

At the foot of the icefall, Gallagher greets him with a can of beer. They col­lapse, crying, in each other’s arms.

JANUARY 13, 1983

Late in the evening, in a Toronto hotel cocktail lounge, Lloyd Gallagher is reflecting upon the events that took place 15,000 miles away. Two hours earlier, he, March and Amatt had been honoured among a glittering display of Canada’s top athletes at the annual Canadian Sports Federation Dinner, one in a long succession of similar evenings since their return.

“When it was over, when Bill was the last down the rope, you could only feel relief,” he says quietly. “Climbing Everest is such a long, drawn-out business of stress, physical exhaustion and constant danger. When you walk away from that mountain, you can only feel glad you’re still alive.”

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