National Geographic : 1963 Oct
"We didn't know we haditinthebag until we saw Old Glory streaming there on the summit..." How We Climbed EVEREST Article and photographs by BARRY C. BISHOP National Geographic Foreign Staff " UTE, I THINK I'm going mad." I | speak through clenched teeth to Lute Jerstad, lying beside me in the two-man tent. For several hours I have been fighting a terrifying claus trophobia. We are alone at Camp VI, 27,450 feet up on the Southeast Ridge of Everest. I suppress a wild desire to break out of the cluttered tent. As all climbers know, lack of oxygen produces weird mental effects. The thin air and the antibiotics I have been tak ing cause my claustrophobia-and a muddled sense of balance as well. Lying flat,Ifeel asifIamatanabsurdand sickening angle. Nausea wrenches my stomach. Breathing is quick and shal low. By bracing myself semi-upright, I maintain some semblance of equilibrium. Lute tries to make me comfortable, but without success. Finally, I turn the regulator and increase the flow of oxygen into my plas tic sleeping mask from one to two liters per minute. The little extra helps. Oxygen is our most precious commodity and our lives de pend upon how well we conserve it: I apol ogize to Lute. Drifting snows have compressed the sides of the tiny tent, robbing us of a third of our floor space. We are trying to sleep amid a chaos of equipment-clothing, oxygen appa ratus, medicines, photographic supplies. Out side, a shrill wind lashes the crest of the ridge. Disaster Threatens Summit Attempt Tomorrow, May 22, is our big day, our try for the top. We both know that we will need every physical resource we can muster. And we both wonder if my illness will leave me too weak for the summit climb. We say noth ing; consciously, we force the thought from our minds. At my urging, Lute takes a sleep ing pill. Soon he rolls over in his cramped sector and drifts into uneasy slumber. For me, braced in my awkward position, the hours pass like a slow nightmare. But the increased oxygen finally takes effect. Almost in command of myself once more, I too close my eyes and sleep. At five o'clock I awake, feeling much bet ter. Lute is already moving about the tent, melting snow on two butane stoves for some hot soup. Our extremely heavy breathing and the excessively low humidity at this high altitude sap the body of fluids at an alarming rate-sometimes almost a cup an hour. Fifteen minutes later, Lute attaches a fresh gas cylinder to one of the stoves. A sudden whoosh, and a sheet of orange flame envelops the entire end of the tent. I smell Lute's burn ing beard. In one blinding second, the fire consumes my plastic mask. My eyebrows and part of my beard go with it. Dirty white smoke fills the tent. Panic grips us. Lute struggles toward the zippered entrance. I try to smother the flames with a sleeping bag, but my legs are still in side and I can gain no leverage. The fire feeds greedily on the air in the tent, soon exhaust ing it. Our lungs ache. I am groping desperately for a knife when Lute tears open the zipper and literally dives outside. His momentum is so great that he almost pitches down the steep slope toward the South Col. I am on his heels. We snatch the flaming stove from the tent, douse it 477 478 in the snow. The fire soon dies in the thin air. Choking and gasping, we sag on our hands and knees. Minutes pass before we can breathe with any semblance of normality. As we crawl back inside, we say nothing to each other. But we share the same thought. The omens are bad, all bad. At five miles above sea level, every move ment is laborious and exhausting. Within the smoky, reeking tent, we struggle into layer upon layer of clothing, finally sheathing our selves in nylon parkas. Slowly we pull on boots and overboots, lash steel crampons into place, and attach our climbing rope. Stuffing two bottles of oxygen into our packs, we attach our regulators, pull on helmets and masks, and begin inhaling oxygen at the rate of three liters a minute. Four liters a minute is regarded as the best flow for activity above 27,000 feet. But such a rate exhausts a cylinder in four hours. At three liters, a cylinder will last more than five hours; at two liters, eight. Since each bottle weighs 13 pounds-and since weight is critical-the summit teams restrict themselves to two per man. Through out the expedition, seldom do we enjoy the luxury of four liters. The bad night and disastrous morning have thrown us two hours behind schedule. Not until 8 o'clock, still with no breakfast, do we slog upward at that monotonous, dreary pace mountaineers find necessary at such eleva tions. The weather is magnificent-windy but clear. Fluffy cumulus clouds cling to the sides of the surrounding mountains. Heeding the advice of Big Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu, who had preceded us to the summit three weeks before, we traverse the southerly slope of the ridge. With Lute at the head of the rope that joins us, we pick our Climbers at 24,200 feet pioneer a way up Everest's untrodden West Ridge, here veiled in cloud. William F. Unsoeld (left) and Dr. Thomas F. Hornbein reconnoiter the route they took to the top on May 22. Bladders served as oxygen reservoirs be tween bottles and masks. Bishop considered his mask a "delight to wear-a part of me high on the mountain." Yellow oxygen bottle is lashed to his pack (right), which he slipped off while taking this photograph. "Eating breakfast, pulling on all our clothes, lashing on crampons, and loading packs," the author recalls, "we often took two hours in the morning just to get rolling." KODACHROMEBY BARRYC. BISHOP © N.C.S.