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Running an Everest climb has been compared to running a large, modern business. It calls for creation of a vast infrastructure to organize, promote, and fund the climb, to find sponsors and raise funds; and the leadership to meld a group of highly individualistic and talented climbers into a smooth-working team.

And, just as with business, changing needs and pressures often give rise to a change in that leadership.

Although the Canadian Mount Everest Expedition was unusual in having three leaders during the course of its development, each played a key role in that development and, ultimately, in the success of the attempt.

The first leader was Roger Marshall, the man who first made the effort a possibility. Marshall in 1977 turned a tavern-table dream into an official permit from the Nepalese government for a climb in the post-monsoon (Fall) season of 1982.

(Attempts on Everest are severely limited. Canada had actually once been issued a permit for 1975 but the expedition fizzled in the planning stages. Famed British mountaineer Chris Bonington picked up the permit and made his epic ascent of Everest’s South West Face after six previous expeditions had failed.)

Marshall’s original plan was a small, lightweight attempt on Everest by the South Col, the route taken by the greatest number of successful expeditions. His reasoning was sound: a small expedition would keep costs to a minimum and the route offered the Canadians the greatest chance of success, thus establishing them in the world mountaineering community and paving the way for more ambitious challenges later.

But within months, Marshall had resigned his leadership to Calgary professor and climber George Kinnear as the expedition evolved along quite different lines. Additions to the expedition outside Marshall’s own group of friends pressed for a large-scale effort, on the grounds that the Canadian climbers’ lack of experience at high altitude would result in abnormally high attrition. Still later, the group went further and decided on a more challenging "climbers route" up the previously unconquered South Pillar.

Under Kinnear’s leadership for three and a half years, and with the key addition of climber John Amatt as business manager, a large expedition took shape, the infrastructure was established, sponsorship by Air Canada secured, equipment developed and provided, and a series of practice climbs at high altitude initiated in various parts of the world.

But by the end of 1981, a recurring eye problem that would endanger Kinnear’s vision at high altitude, was pointing toward new leadership. Relations had also become strained between Marshall’s original group (he had remained as a team member) and the new climbers picked by Kinnear. Altogether there were 15 climbers split among two opposing factions and a third group of neutrals.

At a key meeting in February 1982, Kinnear resigned. Only Lloyd Gallagher and Bill March possessed the experience and the qualities to take over. March won the vote and promptly appointed Gallagher deputy leader.

"It is perhaps fitting," wrote Ted Whalley, president of the Alpine Club, to March, "that Roger Marshall initiated the Everest expedition, George Kinnear steered it through its preparation and development, and you are to lead it on the mountain."

All three leaders proved to be the right man at the right time — but none more so than March, who inherited a far from cohesive team only five months prior to departure. An easy-speaking but decisive man, March had very clear ideas of the qualities of leadership.

“The one thing you must do is separate your own emotional feelings on a moun­tain,” says March. “For a leader, a death is another logistical problem affecting success. I told the lads before we left that the risk was extremely high but that we would continue, even if we lost someone.

Push came to shove after only two weeks of climbing when first three Sherpas and then cameraman Blair Griffiths lost their lives on the expedition. The team, most of whom were unprepared for the trauma of a fatal climbing accident among their ranks, was devastated.

Masking his own emotions, (he later left the mountain for several days to ‘think things through’), March demanded that each climber individually assess his commitment to the climb.

“We had our backs to the wall in a hard place,” says March. “The risk was higher than usual that year, even for Everest. There would be no hard feelings against those who wanted to walk away from it.”

No hard feelings, but March knew this was a decision each man would live with for the rest of his life. Several years earlier, he had been on an expedition to Dhaulagiri IV when three Sherpas had died alongside him, only two instantly. He and the others had decided to withdraw.

“I’ve never regretted that decision,” he says. “But by the time we reached Kathmandu, nearly everyone wished they’d given it another try. This time, I had a better idea of what each person had to go through.”

March knew the Canadian climb could be continued. Backed by Gallagher, Burgess and Smith who were equally determined, he kept a smaller team together. Although the team took decisions together when they resumed, his leadership contributed significantly to the ultimate success of the attempt.

Perhaps the most critical time came on the Lhotse face, the last great obstacle before the South Col and the jumping off point to the summit. Despite hostile weather and physical deterioration handicapping the climbers. March kept pushing. First Burgess, then March himself, then Congdon and Smith put in heroic efforts to stretch the fixed rope across the face. Finally, winds over 100 mph beat them back to Camp II and pinned them down.

“I was worried,” says March. “I knew we had to push through to the South Col somehow. We were wasting away. Alan knew it too, and after two days in the tents he made an incredible effort and fixed the rope to the Col.”

The determination paid off when a five day ‘window’ in the bad weather permitted two high-speed and successful assaults on the peak. On the sixth day, the mountain closed down again. An expedition from the Catalan region of Spain, also climbing Everest, and one from New Zealand on Lhotse, were beaten back. Two other expeditions in the Khumbu region also failed.

“Ours was a fantastic team effort,” says March. “Climbing’s a matter of maximizing your opportunities. From a mountaineering viewpoint, we did bloody well.”

But the price was high— for all the climbers and especially March. ‘You don’t lead an expedition on which people die without paying heavily,” he says.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

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