Everest - Tibet Side 2007

Chomolungma - Everest from the Tibet Side


The 2007 expedition team with film crew investigated Mallory and Irvine’s last journey in forensic detail and tested the durability of their clothing and equipment in the unforgiving conditions of Everest – all to reconstruct Mallory and Irvine’s final, fateful hours. Key to the understanding of their summit attempt was to be the climbers’ attempt to climb the Second Step – without the ladder installed by the Chinese – a 90-foot cliff that defied every climber after Mallory for half a century. 28,140 feet high, it is the one barrier that may have stopped Mallory and Irvine from reaching the summit in 1924.


Conrad Anker

Leo Houlding

Expedition Summary


Acclimatization Trek


For Nepali and the denizens of the Katmandu Valley, April is considered one of the off months. The weather is between seasons: the dryness of winter has left the valley and the monsoon hasn’t arrived yet. The occasional thunderstorm passes through, mitigating the dust and pollution. Songbirds provide a pleasant distraction as they make their presence known with their uniquely tropical songs.


Climbing at altitude is a tricky game. Form, fitness and motivation are all essential, yet when it boils down to it there are two ingredients that are inescapable to performing well – time and water. The longer one spends at altitude, the ‘more used’ you become to the privations lack of oxygen creates. Your body begins to adjust to the thin air and the effort required to walk, as well as the increased need for water. With acclimatization in mind, I decided to arrive two weeks early for a pre-expedition trek to the Khumbu valley of Nepal.


The Khumbu is home to the Sherpa people, one of 65 ethnic groups in Nepal. Mount Everest is the dominant peak for this valley. From a cultural and economic vantage point the world’s highest mountain has a profound effect on the people. The tea shops, lodges and bakeries offer the trekker a level of comfort above what one would expect for an alpine climate. The work performed by local people – the cooks, porters and guides – are integral to the survival of the community. The community has a spiritual connection to Mount Everest – the monasteries and nunneries that ring the mountains have a direct connection to the Mother Goddess of the Earth, which is the Tibetan and Sherpa name for Everest.


The trek begins with a 40-minute flight from Katmandu to Lukla. From this starting point, I walked towards Jorsalle, the village before Namache Bazaar. Passang Chuttin, a two-year graduate student of The Khumbu Climbing School, works at her family’s lodge. We caught up on life, dined with her family and talked climbing. As a young woman, she doesn’t have much of an opportunity to climb, except during the climbing instruction in winter. She is very keen and was interested to go climbing for the sake of climbing.


My wife, Jennifer Lowe-Anker and I founded the Khumbu Climbing School in 2002 with friends from the village of Phortse. The goal of our program is to instruct Nepali high altitude workers in the art of mountain craft. As climbing is an integral part of the Khumbu region, we hope to make it safer by sharing our knowledge of mountain safety with our friends. Now in its fifth year of operation, the program has instructed over 250 students. The Khumbu Climbing School takes place each winter on the frozen waterfalls of Khumbila peak. For more information, please check out www.alexlowe.org


The next day I hiked up the hill to Namche Bazaar, the capital of the Khumbu region. The trail, steep as ever, was alive with Nepali going about their business interspersed with the occasional tourist. The Sherpa people are traders by nature, long acting as intermediaries between the Tibetans to the north with their salt and wool and the Nepali to the south with their rice and sugar. The current trade is with tourists. The Sherpa, being adaptable, have made the transition quite well.


Ken Sauls, our high altitude cameraman, met me in Namche. Our goal was to spend four nights above 17,000 ft in an effort to acclimatize. We slept at Pangboche, the last traditional village other route into Everest. From here, we left the comfort of the lodges and teahouses to camp out. Our goal: the Nuptse glacier below the south face of Nupste and Lhotse. These grand walls rise 9,000 feet above the valley floor and are the standard for difficult alpinism.


Content to gaze at these test pieces of alpine climbing, Ken and I continued on to Everest base camp. Situated on the Khumbu glacier at an elevation of 17,000 ft., this is the jumping off point for the south side expeditions. With over 400 climbers planning an ascent of the 1953 route, the camp was very busy. We dined with friends, went ice climbing with my Sherpa buddies from Phortse and had a general fine time. After two days, we had to head back to Katmandu to meet up with the team.


Visiting the Khumbu was an ideal way to prepare for our expedition. This air was moist, the scenery spectacular and the friendship with my Sherpa friends spans a decade.


Why revisit Everest? Isn’t one journey to the summit enough?


It is after all, a cold and inhospitable place. The lack of oxygen slows life down and screams “don’t come here!” with each breath we take. Plants cease to exist and, excepting the occasional raven that circles up on the thermals, animals are noticeably absent. The temperatures are crippling. Without constant attention one is susceptible to frostbite. A few thousand miles from home, I miss my family, my home and my community. So why am I back?


I ask myself this over and over again. I look at the reasons used to justify this expedition – an opportunity to finally satisfy my questions as what really transpired on the 8th of June 1924, a chance to create a documentary that honors the early Everest pioneers and the personal desire to see if I still have it in me to climb this immense mountain. Yes, these are good reasons, ones that might make sense to a climber. Yet underpinning this is the human quest for exploration and discovery.


As the dominant species, we are driven to see what is over the next rise,what lies across the sea and quite simply, to discover the planet. The desire to explore was the nexus of pioneering Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924. The golden age of terrestrial explorations was in full swing. The North Pole in 1909 and the South Pole in 1911 set the stage fore Everest, referred to as “the third pole”. Obviously the poles had little economic return, yet the inspirational benefit of proving that humans could endure was beyond measure.


For the explorers their success came at a price: hardship, privations and all too often, their own lives. For the people of the world, their explorations provided motivation to try harder, to push further and to challenge their own limits. For these adventurers we are greatly indebted. Their motivation is and has been a light for all of us to follow.


One man was part of all three pioneering Everest expeditions of the early 1920′s. George Leigh Mallory, an unassuming schoolteacher, devoted husband and father of three, made it his life goal to reach the apex of our planet. On the 8th of June, 1924, he and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on the upper reaches of Everest, going strong for the summit. They never returned to camp and their disappearance has fueled debate as to the possibility of their making the summit 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.


On May 1, 1999, my life as a climber intersected with that of George Mallory. At an elevation of 27,000 feet, I came across his dessicated and frozen body. It was a humbling moment – for it was on his shoulders that future generations of climbers built their ability. As I gazed out across the Tibetan plateau I thought of the incredible journey these men had undertaken – stepping into terra incognita of the physical and emotional boundaries of human endurance. No one had been as high as Mallory and Irvine.


My life changed. Mallory was no longer a figure out of the history books. He was, although dead 75 years, a real person to me. I honored who he was and what he stood for. The maelstrom of press that followed the discovery was intense and heated.


With each passing year the mystery of Mallory and Irvine grew within me. The story of their challenge and disappearance haunted me. I decided that I would delve into their story, to seek out the minutaie of their expedition and find a thread of parallel events between 1924 and our current time frame of climbing. Addressing the challenges they sought, aspired to and eventually gave their lives for will allow us to appreciate who they were.


16 May 2007- Conrad Anker

We are now into our tenth day at the Rongbuk Base camp. The mountain looms to the south, a banner of snow created by the wind, a constant reminder of who really runs the show. As climbers make it to the summit we cheer their success and wait pensively for their safe return to Base camp. The south side climbers made ascents today, which equates to both the north and south side routes being set for the remainder of the season.


I’m keen to move up the east fork to our Advanced Base Camp at 21,000 feet. The 14 miles of glacier travel will be broken into two days. Hopefully we’ll all arrive with a minimal amount altitude induced lassitude. Time will tell.


Yesterday, the 15th of May we visited the Rongbuk Monastery. Exactly 83 years to this day George Mallory and his team received an audience with the lama and monks of this high altitude Buddhist retreat. Once inside the courtyard the monastery was basically unchanged in eight decades. The monks were preparing for Sagadawa, the full moon in May when Buddha was born, died and received enlightenment. The nuns performed their midday incantations and the mastiffs guarding the entrance lounged in the midday sun. Drums, horns and chants created a calming mood. I realized the devotion these monks practiced had been passed on from monks that had met the 1924 expedition. The world is small and interconnected.


The underlying mission of our expedition is to honor George Leigh Mallory. I think of his son John and grandson George each evening as I lull into sleep. My personal goal with this film expedition is to create a body of work that stands the test of time and is something of quality. From an exploratory standpoint, I want to delve into the draw this inhospitable place has on humans. I want to see how things have changed and yet in some aspects remained the same. Yes, the two trade routes up Everest are busy, yet the same quest for exploration and self knowledge motivates all of us – Sherpa and westerner alike.


During our Ring Ri filming day I thought of Mallory. He missed seeing the entrance to the East Fork of the Rongbuk in 1921 – during their reconnaissance expedition. Later he solved the mystery of this small drainage opening to a vast glacial basin being fed by the north east face of Everest. Getting to the base of the North Col was the key passage to the north East Ridge.


In a letter to his wife Ruth dated 15 June 1921 he captures the allure of Everest much better than I might ever hope to.


Everest had become something more than a fantastic vision… The problem of its great ridges and glaciers began to take shape and to haunt the mind, presenting itself at odd moments and leading to definite plans. Where can one go for another view, to unveil a little more of the mystery?

May 22, 2007 – Conrad Anker

The weather has been remarkably fine during the past week. It almost seems like the Sierra Nevada of California in late August. Almost!! I know too well a storm can brew up at any moment and winds can arrive with their invisible yet audible menace. Still we remain optimistic, for without optimism where would we be?


Yesterday Leo and I climbed halfway up the North Col in period clothing. Our first bit of real climbing was in these 1924 outfits – not just clothing but also equipment. Using ice axes, hobnail boots, hemp rope and not much else, we scratched our way up the ice slope.


In reading the account of 1924, it seems the snow was more amenable to step cutting. George Mallory found neve whereas Leo and I encountered blue ice masked by two inches of granular snow.


Without question Mallory was a better step cutter than I am for this was the technique of the day. Each step required several swings to carve out a stance secure enough to move upwards. After two pitches of laborious work Leo and I gained a deep appreciation for the efforts of Mallory and Irvine.


The humour for the day occurred when the Marolt brothers of Aspen, Colorado skied down next to us. Clad in plastic boots, wide skis and spring loaded bindings, the contrast to Leo and I could not have been much more acute. The juxtaposition of cotton, silk, wool and modern plastics highlighted the change Everest has experienced over the years.


May 29, 2007 – Conrad Anker

The sun struck my tent at 6 AM, a welcome wake up call at Advanced Base Camp. We have made two jaunts to the North Col (23,000′ – 7,000 m), the second stay involving two nights and two days. The North Col is the saddle between the North Ridge of Everest and Changtse, the satellite peak to the north. The camp is tucked behind a 90 foot wall of ice, providing a break from the incessant westerly winds. Leo and I switched into our period clothing and stepped backwards 83 years to a time when Everest was the greatest challenge known to man.


The weather window from the 15th to the 24th of May allowed the majority of the climbers on the North Side to summit. We watched as people crossed the summit pyramid in good weather and then congratulated them on the way down. The upside of this is a deserted Advanced Base Camp. This has been our plan – to climb during the late season weather window with out the crowds. As the winds abate and the temperatures warm I am confident our plan will work. From a quotidian standpoint Ken, Jimmy and I have been playing calender shuffle with the film requirements. We look at the schedule, the demands of acclimatizing and the strength of our team. From this we need to distill a plan that is safe, reasonable and able to capture the images that are integral to the story.


Looking due east from the moraine a small peak, Lhakpa-Ri, stands sentinel over the upper Rongbuk Glacier. This peak, which would be a significant mount in the Alps or the Rockies, has a history that belies its unassuming stature. To the north of the summit is the Lhakpa- La (pass) connecting the upper East Fork of the Rongbuk with the Kharta valley.


The reconnaissance expedition of 1921 spotted the junction of the North and North East Ridges of Everest from Kampa Dzong, a Tibet trading village 90 miles east. It was this feature that the 1921 team believed to be the line of least resistance to the summit. As the team moved closer they approached from the east, heading up the Kharta valley hoping it would allow easy access to the North Col. Initial forays are learning experiences, both today and most certainly in 1921. The trek up the Kharta valley and glacier led to “Windy Gap” the pass mentioned afore. It was mid day on the 18th of August 1921 when Wollaston, Howrad-Bury and Morshead reached this point and looked down into east fork of the Rongbuk and the North Col. Their climb was a first and unlocked the mystery of the north ridge. The approach to the North Col was from the north, via the dry and desolate Rongbuk Valley. With this essential knowledge at hand the climbers returned in 1922 to the Rongbuk and a direct route to the North Col.


In reading the introduction to the 1921 account “Mount Everest – The Reconnaissance” by Sir Francis Younghusband I find his words to be as relevant today as they were 86 years earlier.


And naturally the mountains reserve their choicest gifts for those who stand upon their summits. The climber’s vision is then no longer confined and enclosed. He can see now all around. His width of outlook is enlarged to its full extremity. He sees in every direction. He has a sense of being raised above the the world and being proudly conscious that he has raised himself by his own exertions, he has a peculiar satisfaction and for the time forgets all frets and worries in the serener atmosphere in which he now for a moment dwells.

Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance, 1921


C K Howard-Bury
Page 4.


June 14, 2007 – Summit Day – Conrad Anker

The Second Step on the North East ridge proves the crux section of the ascent up Everest. Mallory and Irvine would have ascended this overhanging fissure by fair means (free climbing) had they stood atop the mountain in 1924.


By removing the ladders affixed by a subsequent Chinese ascent, our aim is to mimic the terms on which George and Sandy might have encountered the peak.


In 1999 I had a go at the Second Step and managed most of the climb free (only hands and footholds for progress – safety comes from a rope but it must be unweighted for a free ascent), but I matched feet on the second to last rung. In the following eight years I have given this section of cliff a lot of thought.


June 18, 2007 – Rongbuk Base Camp – Conrad Anker

In my previous dispatch I provided a brief overview of the aluminum ladder installed by the 1975 expedition on the prominent rock cliff at 28,300 feet on the north east ridge of Mount Everest. Now, I’d like to look into my personal history with what can be considered the highest section of technical rock climbing in the world.


Eight years ago in 1999 as a member of the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition I had a go at free climbing (to not use artificial means to surmount a climbing obstacle) this important bit of rock. My partner on the 17th of May was Dave Hahn, in my estimation one of the world’s finest high altitude climbers with 9 ascents of Everest to his credit. We approached the pitch in confidence, albeit slowly due to the very dry conditions that year. Dave set up a belay on the lower rungs of the ladder. With a 9mm dynamic rope, two large cams and a handful of ‘biners I stuffed my left crampon-clad boot in the back of the crack and began the off width wriggle towards the cap rock.


I placed a snug hand-sized cam and contemplated the move to the right, the logical exit. My arms flamed and my lungs seared as I looked around to a right foot placement. Obstructing a good edge was the ladder. In a moment of weakness, I stepped onto the last rung, cursed myself and mantled up. If you are a free climber resting on equipment, it invalidates your ascent. If this is your life, then it “bugs” you and you can’t rest until you get it clean, using your own energy. And this is what the Second Step did to me – it ate at me, worked me and focused any weakness I had on to the five minutes of 17 May 1999.


Compounding this was the popular media’s insistence that I had free climbed the darn thing. It was close enough in their minds to give it a provisional rating and therefore be part of the mystery of Mallory and Irvine. My ascent was used to proves that they could have and could not have ascended the Second Step, depending on the historian’s vision. It left me having to explain what free climbing is and the reality of climbing this cliff in 1924 with no gear.


With the opportunity to return eight years later, the Second Step became the focus of my motivation. Eight years older at 44, I wondered if my age would be a detriment. Did I still have the energy to pull down at 28,000 ft? Would the ladder get in the way once again? Would temptation be too difficult to resist, foiling my attempt? Deep inside,I knew I had the strength to lock down at altitude, regardless of my age. As for the ladder, we asked the Chinese Mountaineering Association for permission to temporarily remove it. The free ascent of the Second Step became a pivitol part of our expedition.


My partner for this expedition is Leo Houlding, a strong rock climber 18 years my junior. By technical standards, Leo is far stronger than I can ever hope to be. In terms of mountain climbing, I have a few years experience and peaks under my belt. The combination of our skills and the parallels between Mallory and Irvine provided an ideal union for this adventure.


Leo described the goal of climbing the Second Step as the longest approach for the world’s highest boulder problem, which is a pretty fair description. The majority of the Mallory route is low angle in nature – excepting the three steps and the Yellow Band. If Mallory were to have climbed Everest on the 8th of June 1924, he and Irvine would have had to overcome all four of these obstacles. We know they climbed the Yellow Band as Irvine’s axe and oxygen cylinder were found in 1933. Odell’s prophetic sighting on the day they disappeared put them in the vicinity of the First Step. The skills required for this initial step were well within their capabilities. Could the rock outcrop they were see “moving expeditiously” over have been the Second step? And did they have the ability to climb it?


The night before our summit bid, Leo and I tried to hydrate and choke down a bit of food. After splitting a cup of soup, a few bits of jerky and a candy bar, we were full. We knew all too well the atmosphere of 8400m was playing havoc on our systems. Food is unwelcome, an outward manifestation of the body being in a state of serious decline. While our bodies atrophy, our minds race at the morning’s task. Will we be able to surmount the Second Step without a ladder?


Sleep is a fitful and elusive entity at high camp. We woke at 1 a.m. and fired up our stove. We each drank a liter of hot chocolate, laced our boots and attached crampons, firing up our oxygen systems. We departed into the inky night, a world alien to human survival.


Leo set out making great time, while I climbed alongside Ang Phurba of Kunde. He is the sirdar (chief) of our Sherpa climbing team, and is on his way to a third ascent of the season.


We regrouped after the First Step at Mushroom Rock, a small landmark before the Second Step. Out of the wind and a welcome spot of horizontal, Leo and I took in the sunrise as Phurba and his team of climbers moved ahead to remove the ladder. Once atop the Second Step by conventional means Dean Staples and Woody Woodward set up their cameras.


Leo and I built a belay mid way and rack up for the final crux section. I had with me two #4 cams, a #3 cam and a block of wood to stack in the crack. Holding all this together was a 8mm leadline. After leaving my pack with the oxygen system at the belay, I scampered up the frozen ramp and set up at the base of the crack. It hadn’t gotten any wider or narrower in the last eight years. A few crampon scratches decorated the rock where the ladder was.


I reached up, set the cam with the wood block and pondered the next move. With a lack of footholds, I couldn’t get good purchase. I wormed my arm in, hoisted my foot up onto a mini edge and gave it a grunt. All of a sudden, my foot slipped and I fell. My first instinct was to grab the rope, which I did. Leo held the rope and offered up a word of encouragement. After this minor slip, I was hesitant to give it a go off width style. The gear wasn’t great and the moves were insecure. Looking right, I inspected the face – small positive holds with a dusting of snow appeared climbable. I dusted them off and gave it a whirl.


My fleece gloves were adequate, yet I still needed to blow on my hands to keep them warm. This probably helped with the oxygen transfer and took my mind off the thin edges my crampons were balanced on. A few more moves and I’d be in the sun laughing with my Sherpa friends. Don’t slip, hold it together, this is it.


All of a sudden, it was over – I mantled up onto the snow and greeted my friends. I warmed up my hands and belayed Leo up. He climbed it straight up, left arm and leg in the crack. He quite quickly ascended the pitch and met me on the top. He rated the moves 5.9 – which is in the realm of Mallory’s capability.


Were we the first to free climb the Second Step? Perhaps it was Mallory or the Chinese in 1960? Two others have climbed it, yet the ladder was present. Did they use a fixed rope for protection? I commend their efforts. For myself and Leo, we did it without the ladder in as pure a manner as possible style. This is what Mallory and Irvine would have encountered – a cliff with a single line of weakness guarding passage to the summit.


In the big picture the Second Step is just an inconsequential bit of rock. My life isn’t any different today than it was a few days ago. What I have learned is that Mallory and Irvine could have climbed it, and that is worth thinking about.