Behind the remarkable story of Canadas
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
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?
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
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
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
three days instead of three weeks. We went on air September 8 only four days late..
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.
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.
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 expeditions 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
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.
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.
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 worlds 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
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.