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Traffic Jam on the Snowy Slopes of Mt. Everest

Part 3 of a series.

September 26, 1986|ANDREW HARVARD

MT. EVEREST, Tibet — The expedition searching for the bodies of British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine has advanced more than a mile up the North Face of Mt. Everest, toting supplies and setting up intermediate camps amid heavy snowfall. In the third installment of a Los Angeles Times Syndicate series chronicling the climb, expedition leader Andrew Harvard recounts the hazards faced by team members and Sherpas as they move toward the primary search area at 27,000 feet.

Our highest camp on Everest is now at 23,500 feet, less than 4,000 feet below the primary area where we will search for the bodies of lost British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.

If the deaths 62 years ago of those two pioneering climbers were not enough to keep us mindful of the dangers of scaling the world's highest peak, the death of a young Chilean climber in an avalanche just two weeks ago drove home the point.

Despite the dangers, the number of climbers on Everest continues to mount. A British team is preparing for an assault of the unclimbed Northeast Ridge, the third attempt of this route by a British expedition. Midway across the moraine, where our base camp is located, is Roger Marshall, who is attempting a solo conquest of the summit. Like us, Marshall has used the fixed ropes set in snow and ice by the Chilean expedition, which quit its summit attempt after the death of the climber.

On the far side of the moraine are two U.S. teams, one a reconnaissance group from Alaska, the other a large contingent that will attempt to hang-glide to the 29,028-foot peak from a shoulder on the West Ridge.

For several nights, we were joined at base camp by two men and a woman who had bicycled here from Chengdu, China, on their way to Katmandu, Nepal. And almost daily an assortment of ill-prepared hitchhikers appears, usually at mealtime. One couple asked us if we knew of any good day hikes in the area.

Mallory and Irvine would not believe the traffic on today's route. For them and their team, the fateful 1924 assault on Everest meant weeks of near isolation.

The signs of success for our venture remain positive. Using sophisticated metal detectors and revolutionary closed-circuit oxygen equipment, we intend to mount a comprehensive search of the North Slope's snowfields and crevasses at about the 27,000-foot level. We are searching for the bodies of the two British climbers, or for artifacts they carried. Of prime interest are two vest-pocket Kodak cameras that may contain film proving that one or both reached Everest's summit before they perished. If they reached the summit, their accomplishment would predate by 29 years the celebrated ascent of Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay.

We were most interested by the discovery in mid-August of a rusted crampon--a cleated plate attached to climbing shoes for traction--high up on the East Rongbuk Glacier below the North Col. It was found, wedged in the rocks, by photographer Ed Webster. Webster showed the crampon to a member of our expedition, David Swanson. Its design and condition convinced Swanson and later our historian, Audrey Salkeld, that it was probably an artifact from one of the British expeditions of the 1920s.

Weather will play a critical role in our endeavor, and for the first two weeks it was as cooperative as one could expect, the nights clear and starlit. Last night, however, a drizzle crept up the valley from the plateau, turning to snow just as it reached our lowest camp, the base at 17,500 feet. We awoke to find neatly stacked supplies, tents and other equipment transformed into amorphous snow sculptures.

Higher up, at 19,000 feet, the way station we call Yak Camp has received snow before, but not as much as this morning. At that camp the tents are smaller, the air thinner and the terrain more mountainous. Above the camp looms the peak, high up on a narrow ridge of the moraine on the East Rongbuk Glacier.

Higher still, at nearly 21,000 feet, snow is a common occurrence at our Advance Base Camp, where the climbing really begins. At Advance Base, the fresh snow is deep enough to bury the equipment dumps, obscure the packed-down paths and threaten to break the poles supporting our igloo-shaped tents. At this altitude, time and effort cannot be wasted; food and fuel have a high price, and all loads that go higher from here go slowly, breathlessly, on the backs of the men and women, Sherpas and Westerners, who make up our team.

A Steady Snowfall

At Advance Base, and above to the 27,000-foot level where we will begin our search of the North Face, a day spent idle because of weather or other complications is an extra day's carry of food and fuel from lower camps.

Our highest camp, reached six days ago but not yet occupied, is at 23,500 feet on the mountain's North Col. There the snow falls steadily and undisturbed.

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