Americans on Everest
Four Against Everest
When Hillary got down from the summit of Everest in 1953 he announced the victory in classic style: “We knocked the bastard off,” he said. Unromantic, disrespectful, and aggressive in a practical way, his statement was not only typical of the tone of modern climbing, it was also essential to it. The few remaining big peaks and vertical faces which are the present goals of mountaineers are too difficult, too technical, and very much too serious to allow room for what the boys in the business used to call “The Spirit of the Hills.” Mountain mysticism—the belief that slogging up a route or seeing a nice view from the top will promote a Vision of Truth—is a luxury for which there is precious little time on the hard climbs. (When a young English mountaineering mystic went onto the Eiger Wand two years ago, his partner was killed and he himself was saved only by the efforts of two of the toughest realists in British climbing). Romanticism will never get you up a really serious mountain, and mysticism may well be the death of you. What counts is physical skill, power and stamina, good organization, and a driving desire to get the job done. The psychologists call the best climbers “highly motivated”; among climbers themselves the approving trade name is “hard men.”
The American Everest Expedition 1963 included some very hard men indeed. It was also, as you would expect, immensely well organized. But it did the job: four climbers reached the summit by the traditional South Col route; two others, Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein, pioneered a brand new route by the West Ridge, reached the summit by it, and then traversed on down to the South Col—a major triple achievement in the Himalaya. Four of them also spent a night out without bivouac equipment at more than 28,000 feet, another Himalayan first which no one, I imagine, will be in a rush to repeat. Early on, the expedition’s official scribe, James Ramsey Ullman, remarks that “the raising of money for an Everest expedition proved only slightly less difficult than, say, soliciting funds for a statue of Karl Marx on the White House lawn.” As it turned out, the members of the expedition had their brilliant success and finished on the White House lawn, with President Kennedy giving them a medal.
They also raised a vast sum of money. The American expedition was the most expensive (it cost, in all, over $400,000), the best equipped (they had, for example, eleven walkie-talkies), and the largest Himalayan show ever mounted; twenty American climbers—including, heaven help us, a psychologist and a sociologist—more than two football squads of high altitude Sherpas, and 900 porters. As someone wrote to me afterward: “With all that lot, they could have run a super highway up the thing.” Had it failed it would have been, I suppose, another joke at the expense of the American passion for over-organization and over-equipment; but the logic of these things being what it is, the achievement more than justified the fuss and expense.
Team-work, reserves, and organization are, in fact, essential to climbing the really big peaks. The British had realized this by 1953 when they gave their expedition into the charge not of Eric Shipton, a fine mountaineer with great experience on Everest, but of Sir John Hunt, a man of great determination and guts but less climbing ability than Shipton. The difference was that Shipton was a mountaineering purist in favor of tiny, do-it-yourself expeditions, whereas Hunt was a professional soldier who knew all about the organization and coordination of complicated troop movements. This was precisely the kind of problem which faced Norman Dyhrenfurth, the American leader. In Ullman’s account, the word “logistics” turns up with great frequency; and, according to Webster’s dictionary, it is a military term. So many cylinders of oxygen, so much food and climbing gear have to be at such and such a point on the mountain by such and such a date; so many climbers, Sherpas, and porters have to be moved from here to there and back at specific times; X is resting while Y climbs; then Y rests and X climbs; and so on. At times it sounds less like an ascent than a battle, or a big business take-over bid.
Yet when it came to the push, all that meticulous planning and smooth equipment counted for much less than the human effort: first from Jim Whit-taker and the Sherpa Gombu, then from Luke Jerstad and Barry Bishop, finally the superlative push by Unsoeld and Hornbein. A computer might have been able to cope with all those logistics, and Corporation might have kept the whole affair running, but mercifully it is still individuals who do the climbing.
The effort is, after all, a good part of what the game is about. Climbing is not a matter of conquering a mountain—whatever that may mean—and sticking a flag on top; it is, instead, a question of testing the limits of your endurance, physical and mental. For that the drive there and back to a summit is as good a gauge as any. (There are, incidentally, other gauges even in climbing: for example, the vertical or overhanging rock-faces in the Dolomites, Yosemite, and Wales which, as often as not, reach no summit at all.) The competition is with yourself, however nationalistic the press makes the sport seem, and however tense the top climbers become about their colleagues’ achievements. The point is to see how far you can push your own boat out, not for risks or for kicks—since practically no sane, or living, climber courts death voluntarily, or even takes unnecessary risks—but as a curiously objective test of personal skill and resilience. Some people test these qualities against the bottle, or with pen and paper, or paint, or with women. A mountain is as good a means as any to an end, and less socially destructive than most. And by translating aggression into straight physical action, it does help wonderfully to clear the head.
The expedition’s sociologist observes interestingly that much climbing talk around Base Camp was devoted to one end: maintaining, by a canny vacillation between pessimism and optimism, a condition of continual uncertainty. This, he feels, somehow increased the climbers’ “motivation.” More simply, uncertainty has another end: it’s so nice when you stop. Action is a great relief as well as a release. However odd it may sound to the non-climber, it is unusual to be frightened when actually climbing a mountain; but nearly everybody is scared when waiting to start. This may be nothing very peculiar to mountaineering, but it is important. For, despite the aggressive nonsense talked about it, climbing is not a maverick sport, nor even particularly dangerous. On the contrary, provided you are fit and not worried by heights, it is just like any other form of rather violent, skilful exercise; with this difference: you have to be very careful where you put your hands and feet.
It is a pity, then, that Ullman’s account encourages the operatic, outsider’s view of the job. There is, for example, almost no technically difficult climbing on Everest, compared, say, with Himalayan peaks like the Mustagh Tower, Gasherbrum IV, or Nuptse. It is, rather, a racking snow and ice grind on a huge scale. Yet whenever Ullman’s heroes touch rock he describes them as “clawing” their way up. Now, anyone who has ever been on a rope knows that once you start “clawing” you’re off. The whole art of rock climbing is to play it cool.
It is the same with the expedition’s one tragedy: Jake Breitenbach was killed when an ice-wall collapsed on him without warning—a gratuitous, wanton, wholly unpredictable death. Ullman records it all in detail, using the team’s diaries and reminiscences. Yet there is something lush and overstated in his account which strikes me as false. It was a terrible and shocking accident, but I know from my own experience that death in the mountains occurs in a context much more like that of Catch 22 than of The White Tower—in a context, that is, which is distracting, even absurd, and where the inevitable insights the tragedy brings into loss, guilt, and uneasy grief take a long time to be understood, or even registered. But the public demands that death be given to them as they expect it: played out with the major chords and grand choral swoop of high drama, yet with nothing haphazard, indifferent, or final about it.
Ullman, however, has written his book with all the big magazine appeal he can muster: a combination of melodrama, joshing, rhetorical questions, and continued-in-our-next fade-outs. Perhaps the reason is that, because of leg trouble, he was unable to go further than the Hotel Royal, Katmandu. So he was never properly in tune with the grim practicality of the experience itself. There is something hard, factual, and demanding about serious action which, to be reproduced in prose, needs a certain tenseness of line and sharpness of definition. It is not often found. Cherry Apsley Garrard had it in The Worst Journey in the World; but that took years not just to write but to arrive emotionally at the point where he was able to write it. Hemingway had it, too, not because he was a man of action but because he had the genius and discipline to imagine himself into being one.
But if Ullman is no Cherry Garrard, it is scarcely his fault. Perhaps he has given the American public what it wants: an easily readable, not very technical story (the detailed information is in appendices by the team experts); it exudes good will, human interest, and undemanding drama. The French and Italians seem to ask something still more high-pitched and choric from their mountaineers. The British prefer Hunt’s blank, putty prose. For the moment, all that matters is that the Americans should be made aware of the superb achievements of their climbers on Everest. In time maybe someone will produce a real piece of literature about it. Certainly, the expedition deserves it.
Style is just one of the problems Woodrow Wilson Sayre has failed to solve in Four Against Everest, an account of a trip he and three companions made to Everest the year before the official American attempt. The main problem is to know what they were doing there at all, since they were totally without experience. They learnt to cut ice-steps by imitating their Sherpas on the ice fall above the Ngo Jumbo glacier—which is rather like learning to drive in a Ferrari; it’s not only silly, it’s an awful waste of opportunity. Still, they had stamina and great optimism, which helped them to push their way up to a little beyond the North Col. It was a respectable effort, though not quite as stunning as Sayre suggests; after all, the Mustagh Tower, technically one of the hardest routes ever done in the Himalaya, was also climbed by a party of four.
I suspect that the main purpose of this jaunt was to prove that all the epithets used by the detractors of mountaineering are true: irresponsible, dangerous, a bit stupid, a sport neurotically linked with the cult of the superman. All the qualities are there in Sayre’s account. Irresponsible: to get to the North Col they spent a month in Communist Tibet; had they been found, no further expeditions might have been allowed to the area, and some kind of international “incident” might have been provoked. A great deal of time and money was also wasted by search parties, who are scarcely mentioned by Sayre. Dangerous: Sayre himself seems to have come back down much of the mountain in the quickest possible way—that is, by falling. Stupid and neurotic: the style of the book is in keeping with the exploit; it vacillates between the Romantic joke and a constant, anxious, muscle-flexing one-upmanship. Perhaps it does provide a touch of light, farcical relief to all those painstaking logistics. It may even be a notable contribution to the history of the psychopathology of mountaineering. But the only certain achievement of Sayre’s circus was, by some miracle, to have survived. When I think of the numbers of skilled and experienced climbers who each year, making no obvious mistakes, manage even so to get themselves killed, the only appropriate response is Adlai Stevenson’s: “I’m too old to weep, and it hurts too much to laugh.”
Mountains September 24, 1964