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Behind the remarkable story of Canada’s first attempt on Mount Everest lies an­other equally amazing and equally Canadian success — the first live television broadcast from Everest to the rest of the world.

When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to stand on the summit, the news filtered back to a coronation-fevered Britain four days later. When first Laurie Skreslet and then Pat Morrow became the first Canadians at the peak, the news was relayed back to North America within the hour and, a few days later, 5 million American homes watched live interviews from one of the most unlikely locations in the world, 16 miles from the base of Everest.

Supporters and sponsors of the Canadian expedition — spearheaded by Air Canada — had originally suggested the traditional 16mm film record of the climb, but the expedition management was uneasy. Filming on the treacherous slopes of Everest called for a technical group almost the size of the climbing expedition accompanied by frequent equipment failure and great human risk. Nevil Pike, the founder of CanEverEx — the company formed to market and promote the climb in the Fall of 1981 — had other ideas.

“I never saw it as a film,” says Pike, a man of 30 years broadcasting experience and an award-winning director. “First I saw it as an audio-visual montage of still shots but then I thought again. I had just watched the Royal Wedding live on television and it seemed to me all our great current events go live on the air. Why not Everest?”

Live coverage promised an audience of millions compared to one of thousands for a 16mm film circuit, but the logistics were horrendous. In the end it would take specially-constructed video cameras by Hitachi, the creation of television studios 12,000 miles away in Kathmandu, and an innovative ‘triple-hop’ satellite relay back to Canada by Teleglobe which bounced the signal between earth and a satellite three times to come halfway around the world.

The ‘earth station’ in Kathmandu was scheduled to take three and a half weeks to assemble and test. The first broadcast was scheduled for September 4. But by the end of August, much of the equipment was still in Bangkok where Thai Air was hopelessly backlogged on cargo shipments.

“The Teleglobe team over there was incredible,” recalls Pike. “When the equipment did arrive, after some help from our ambassador, those people got it together and working in three days instead of three weeks. We went on air September 8 only four days late.”.

The satellite relay not only provided channels for the audio and video signals but also telephone communications. Conventional communications out of Kathmandu were so bad that, in the furor following the deaths of three Sherpas in an avalanche August 31, Pike had flown to Delhi to com­municate news to his beleaguered colleague in Canada, Robin Palm.

“When the satellite link was in, it was amazing,” says Pike. “There we were, thousands of miles away, sitting on the end of a local Montreal telephone number. I could have just picked it up and ordered a smoked meat.”

CanEverEx finally sold television rights to CBC and ABC and, by mid-September, the makeshift studios in Kathmandu were servicing teams from both networks as well as providing radio facilities for Michel Lacroix of the French Telemedia network and the expedition’s announcer Earl Pennington, who broadcast one-minute news capsules sponsored by Air Canada. With the difference in time — Nepal being nine hours and 40 minutes ahead of Canada at that time of year — the broadcasters were on their feet more nights than they slept.

One problem still remained. Originally, the earth station had been planned for Sangboche, only 16 miles from the base of Everest, but Teleglobe had considered the site unfeasible and opted for Kathmandu, a 10 day trek away. Although coverage was now on a same-day basis (video tapes being transported from the mountain by a combi­nation of Sherpa runners and helicopters) and was live from the Kathmandu studio, the magic words were ‘live from Everest’.

After more negotiations, Pike arranged five micro-wave relay stations installed by helicopter and manned by the Nepalese army with transmitting cameras at Sangboche and on the mountain. Still, the live images eluded the group: a special 20,000 mm lens at Sangboche could close in on the mountain but with severe distortion from heat haze during the day and, as the climbers were forced to switch to a light­weight attack after the accidents, the transmitting cameras became impossible to use.

The only thing left was to shoot live from the air as the summit teams approached the peak of Everest. But, as the summit climbers left radios behind for their stripped down assault, Pike was left 150 miles away guessing the time of their arrival.

“The plane could only make three passes at the summit before having to return,” he explains. “On the first attempt, Laurie Skreslet was too fast for us and had gone back down when the plane arrived. On the second, the team was delayed an hour because of Alan Burgess’ oxygen problems and the plane arrived too early. Despite that, we did send back the first ever live images of the summit of the world’s highest mountain.’

In total, over 40 hours of radio and television coverage was beamed back to North America, the first television broadcast ever in Nepal. Live interviews with exped­ition climber and spokesman John Amatt in Kathmandu became a regular feature on The National and The Journal. The micro-wave technology employed already has ABC and other knocking on the door for more.

“But the most satisfying thing,” concludes Pike, “Was the fact that through the use of video cameras, the public was able for the first time to see an Everest ascent through the eyes of the climbers. It was their story that we packaged and sent home. And it was one heck of a story.”
























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