Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The flip side of Everest

Image of Mt. Everest (Qomolungma in Tibetan, Sagarmatha in Nepali) from the Tibetan side.Dear Gentle Reader,

The other night your Heroine and scribe went to a talk at the Royal Geographic Society where the speaker was George Band.

George Band was the youngest of the group of 13 mountaineers (excluding sherpas), 14 after they asked Tenzing Norgay to officially join the mountaineering expedition, that were supported in the 1953 Royal Geographic Society Expedition to Mt. Everest, via Nepal, led by John Hunt. 

Previous expeditions had tried, and failed from the Tibetan (Chinese) side, but in 1951, Nepal indicated that they would allow foreigners to apply for permits for the first time.

The Swiss snagged the permit for 1952. The British snagged the permit for 1953.

The British expedition that George Brown was a member of ultimately met success when the kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary, as he would later be known, and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, summitted Mount Everest on behalf of the RGS team, and as a result of the team's combined efforts, on May 29, 1953.

It was a marvellous talk. 

George Band, Sir George Band as he will be known after the New Year Honours List is announced, is a treat as a speaker. He is 79, and I do not know how much longer he will be giving talks, but should he give one at a mountaineering or alpine club or a geographic society near you, go.

Two years later, in 1955, the soon to be Sir Band summitted Mt. Kangchengjunga with Joe Brown, 80 miles from Mt. Everest, on another Royal Geographic Society sponsored expedition. 

Officially, the 1955 trip to Mt. Kangchengjunga was simply a reconnaissance expedition.

George Band and his partner Joe Brown, however, were very diligent; they reconnoitered all the way to the top. 

(Well, all the way to the top barring the last 10 meters, or 30 feet, as they had promised the authorities in Sikkim, India, that they would not step on the very top, should it be possible, as the mountain top was revered as the home of some important Gods in the Hindu pantheon.

Your Heroine and I saw Mt. Everest from the back side, in Tibet, as proved here, in a valley by base camp...

Your Heroine in front of Mt. Everest from the Tibetan side.Your humble scribe in front of Mt. Everest from the Tibetan side.
We also surprised a yak. (We were wandering in the dark waiting for the sun to rise, and I was freezing, a la Venice, as I was in "fashionable" clothing that your Heroine had lovingly bought for me, rather than the warm jacket that your Heroine had lovingly bought for herself...)

A very surprised black yak at night...
But we never summitted. We did not have the 100,000 USD per person which is the current price of admission for a permit to attempt the summit.

Summitting would still be a magnificent experience, but not the same as George Band's. On his expedition to Everest, his group were the only people on the mountain, none had summitted before, and there was much less garbage around than there is now.

The Swiss had attempted to summit Everest from the Nepalese side in 1952, the year before the RGS society was successful, trying from the same Nepalese side, but the Swiss had not made it up to what they thought their ultimate camp, before the assault on the summit, would be. The British team learned a lot from the experience of the Swiss team.

Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had also accompanied the lead Swiss mountaineer, Raymond Lambert, to the highest point that the Swiss expedition reached in 1952.

The British team ended up with their penultimate camp, camp eight, where the ultimate Swiss camp was meant to be. 

Two British two-man teams took two separate routes on behalf of the whole team. 

The successful Hillary/Norgay pair went to a final camp, camp nine, at 8503 meters or 27,900 feet, to recuperate for a few days, and have a shorter final route. They were plan B. 

Plan A was a summit assault team of Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans that were trying out a new, experimental, 100% oxygen system and were going to try to make one mammoth assault on the summit using the 100% oxygen system.

Bourdillon and Evans managed to summit the South Peak of Everest (approx. 8,748 meters or approx. 28,729 feet) on a Herculean effort from Camp 8, but they did not feel it was safe that day to ascend to the highest summit of Mt. Everest on May 26, 1953 as they were tired, their oxygen was low, and the weather was not good. 

Three days later, Hillary and Norgay would find ultimate success and reach the highest earthly point on our planet, 8,848 meters or 29,029 feet above where the sea greets the land with her unending hello.

Normally, when I have listened to climbers and mountaineers give talks, ego has shone through, though I hasten to add that these have been fine, entertaining talks by fine men and women.

George Band's talk emphasized the role of the team, and how everyone was critical for success.

I understand how he rose through the echelons of Royal Dutch Shell after he left climbing and why he held such positions of authority within the British climbing fraternity.



Cloudia said...

"We also surprised a yak. "
Only you, chris; only YOU! LOL
Did you know that Jan Morris was on that first British expedition?

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Cloudia!

I did know! George had a picture of Jan, when she was James, on that expedition. I also saw a picture of James (still), with his wife, ten years later at an RGS expedition member reunion at their favourite watering hole in Wales.

James and Jan both are supremely gifted writers, and they sure look different.

Jan, then and now, did not return for a remembrance tour partially organised by Sir Edmund Hillary's Himalayan Trust (the group that builds schools and hospitals in Nepal).

I wanted to ask George about Jan's absence on that trip, after the lecture, as I could not imagine Jan missing such a great travel opportunity, but I did not get my chance in the crush of people wanting to say hello and thank-you to George.


Heidelweiss said...

What the what?! Is there anywhere you have not been? I want to surprise a yak! You can knit with them, you know. Do you think next time you get that close you could give him a quick shave and send me his hair? I'd pay your fee for Everest (no I wouldn't).

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Heidelweiss,

Surprising yaks is easy.

As you mentioned, you can knit with yaks, but they also knit on their own.

The problem here was that Herr Yak could not remember if he had knitted or purled last, and was so deeply engrossed in this question that he did not hear me blundering about seeking warmth...

Also, when knitting with a yak, be aware that you need really large batches of yarn to get it around their legs... or were you meaning to use the yaks as needles? That, I think, would not work.

As per your request though, the next time I am back in Tibet I will endeavour to get you some yak hair, sans yak.

I was thinking of an expedition to Mount Kailash, holy to Hindus and Buddhists, in the next couple of years...

How much hair do you need to make something? Maybe it would be best if you and the scribe rented your Lizzard and Will out for a couple of weeks to parents or siblings or such and joined. Then your scribe can gather whilst you knit.


Heidelweiss said...

I suppose you could use the yaks as needles. Poor devils have probably had their bones made into such. Also, as it is said to be fairly cold in that part of Tibet, I wonder what they do when people like me take their hair from them? Well, I don't have to feel guilt. I have yet to knit with yak. Or with a yak. Someday, when we can afford it, we shall join you in Tibet. Oh wait, Steve's an attorney! We're meant to be rich! ;).

Sepiru Chris said...


The Tibetans collect everything and use everything; they have to, there is not much up at that altitude.

Sorry to say, though, regarding Steve's vocation... as an attorney what he is destined for is a lot of hard work. Rich, maybe. Very long hours, definitely. It is true, many attorneys make 2 to 3 times what others make...

They also work 2 to 3 work weeks in each work week...

Barbara Martin said...

"surprised a yak"; will wonders never cease.

A gad about, Chris, who would have thought. Great post for a hiker to read.

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Barbara,

I don't know if I gad about, really. But I take my vacation time very seriously.

Work hard, play hard, play more if possible.

Not a bad ethos, I like to think.