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 worlds highest peak by a Canadian
mountain climber. Two days later, Pat Morrow followed Skreslets 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
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.
describe the feeling, says March. It was hard to believe that the constant
stress and emotion was at an end. You dont walk away from Everest without paying
What is the
lure of Everest? Why is the challenge so great that men will pay such a terrible price in
suffering and death?
15,000 miles away in a remote corner of the world, on the border of Tibet and Nepal.
Everests 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
technically more difficult climbs, but Everests 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 Everests 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.
growing very old, very fast, says leader March. Normally, you have a sense of
vitality on a mountain its one of the exhilarations of mountaineering, this
sense of ones 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
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.