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On October 5th 1982, the news that Laurie Skreslet had stood on the top of Everest swept all of Canada — the first ascent of the world’s highest peak by a Canadian mountain climber. Two days later, Pat Morrow followed Skreslet’s still clear footprints up the final ridge to the summit.

In the weeks that followed, as the many pieces of this extraordinary endeavour were put together, it became apparent that the 1982 Canadian Mount Everest Expedition had contributed a remarkable chapter to the incredible history of Everest. Previously unknown as high-altitude climbers, the Canadians had not only succeeded in their first attempt but in doing so had triumphed over one of the worst seasons in the Himalayas and against such adversity as few expeditions survive.

The story is one of death, tragedy, heroism, suffering and astonishing personal commitment. On October 8, leader Bill March descended the last stretch of fixed rope through the Khumbu Icefall, the last of his team to leave that fearful place.

“I can’t describe the feeling,” says March. “It was hard to believe that the constant stress and emotion was at an end. You don’t walk away from Everest without paying heavily.”

What is the lure of Everest? Why is the challenge so great that men will pay such a terrible price in suffering and death?

Located 15,000 miles away in a remote corner of the world, on the border of Tibet and Nepal. Everest’s three-foot wide summit ridge nudges the sky 29,028 feet above sea level. The fact that it is the highest point on earth is fascination enough for some; the fact that it is one of the most dangerous places for a human being to be tends to confirm the challenge.

There are technically more difficult climbs, but Everest’s defenses are awe­some. They demand of those who would challenge the mountain not only superb skill and physical stamina, but the iron will to live constantly with fear and the power of will to continue moving upward when every step is an agony.

Everest is guarded by avalanches and falling rocks; by winds of up to 140 mph and extremes of temperature that run from -40 to -90 degrees and back again in 24 hours. It is also guarded at the doorway to most major routes up the mountain by the devas­tating Khumbu Icefall, a constantly and er­ratically shifting mass of ice blocks the size of houses that rises 1800 vertical feet.

Above all, it is the rarified atmosphere and the unstable weather patterns that make climbing in the Himalayas statistically more dangerous than anywhere in the world. On the upper reaches of Everest no human being can survive long without sup­plemental oxygen. Most people are breath­less at 10,000 feet above sea level and even Everest’s Base Camp at 18,000 feet — higher than any Canadian peak and above any permanent habitation in the world — requires weeks of careful acclimatization in advance. Above 20,000 feet, climbers are labouring in an environment that, with deadly certainty, leads to physical deteri­oration and death.

The process is inexorable. First, the body cannot receive enough oxygen. Secondly, it dehydrates at the rate of four litres of fluid a day and just to replace the loss means melting 4 kilos of snow at increasing effort. Thirdly, as the membranes of the throat dry out, it becomes increasingly dif­ficult to eat. As the body deteriorates lethargy sets in and with it the chance of a fatal error.

“It’s like growing very old, very fast,” says leader March. “Normally, you have a sense of vitality on a mountain — it’s one of the exhilarations of mountaineering, this sense of one’s own strength and power. But at altitude you lose it. Everything is an extreme effort, to keen going, to get up in the morning. Your motivation is zero and you suffer the whole time.”

Such are the defenses of Everest that it would take 32 years after the first climbing reconnaissance party before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach the summit in 1953. In roughly 50 attempts, more than half have failed and for every two climbers who have stood on the peak, another has died trying. (It is believed that a total of 127 climbers have succeeded but the figure is clouded by secrecy surrounding attempts from the Chinese side).

It was against this most formidable of human challenges that a group of Canadians prepared for five years to pit themselves. Mostly inexperienced in high altitude climb­ing, they undertook a series of training climbs around the world that put every member at least once above 20,000 feet. At home, a logistical nightmare of securing and coordinating supplies and equipment was producing a sophisticated and excel­lently prepared expedition.

But in September, the years of preparation, the 16 tons of supplies, the hundreds of thousands of dollars, even the amazing innovation of the first television broadcasts from Nepal — all the periphery of this highly organized expedition — boiled down to the individual courage and collective team spirit of eight Canadians and their Sherpa climbing companions. After suffering the loss of four people in one of the worst Everest seasons on record, only half of the original team was left to complete what they considered was an unfinished task.

In the process, the Canadians set records for the speed of their final summit ascents, earned the widespread respect of the world mountaineering community and triumphed over hardships that defeated several other attempts in the Himalayas last year.

In the immediate region of Everest last Fall, the Canadians were the only one of six expeditions to succeed. During the whole year, a total of eight expeditions attempted Everest itself: two (Canada and Russia) succeeded; a third (Japan) placed two men on the summit but lost them on the descent; five others were beaten back and a total of 11 climbers — including three of the most experienced in the world — lost their lives.

For those of us at home who share in this Canadian achievement, life goes on. For those who took part in it, it is unlikely that their lives can ever be the same again.




















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© John Amatt, all rights reserved