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.
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.
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 Everests South West Face after six
previous expeditions had failed.)
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.
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 Marshalls 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.
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 Kinnears vision at high
altitude, was pointing toward new leadership. Relations had also become strained between
Marshalls 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.
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
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.
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
never regretted that decision, he says. But by the time we reached Kathmandu,
nearly everyone wished theyd 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
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.
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.
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
Ours was a fantastic team effort, says March. Climbings a matter
of maximizing your opportunities. From a mountaineering viewpoint, we did bloody
But the price was
high for all the climbers and especially March. You dont lead an
expedition on which people die without paying heavily, he says.