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Mt. Everest Unleashes Its Fury on Expedition

Fifth in a series. The expedition searching for the bodies of lost British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine had established five camps up the North Face of Everest and was working to set up a sixth when the mountain unleashed its fury. As expedition leader Andrew Harvard and journalist George Bell report, a mild autumn in the Himalaya came to an abrupt end in early October.

October 26, 1986|ANDREW HARVARD and GEORGE BELL

MT. EVEREST, Tibet — Our expedition has fallen victim to a sudden and severe blizzard that has pinned down climbers in scattered camps along the upper mountain trail and has made it impossible to advance above Camp Five at 25,500 feet.

The snowstorm struck the North Face six days ago and has dumped more than four feet of snow. At one point, the storm pelted us with golf-ball-sized hail. Winds have been fierce and unrelenting, often exceeding 50 miles per hour, and wind-chill temperatures have dropped lower than 20 degrees F. below zero.

The blizzard caught our expedition by surprise. The monsoon season had passed, and it appeared too early for the onset of the harsh Himalayan winter. When the first snow came, the 30 members of our climbing team were spread out along the 13-mile route from Base Camp at 17,000 feet to Camp Five. Some were transporting supplies to higher camps, some were moving from camp to camp, others were settled in camps and engaged in tasks related to our upcoming search for the bodies of Mallory and Irvine.

As the ferocity of the snows increased, Westerners and Sherpas scrambled for the camp nearest them, and there they remained, with few exceptions, for six days--holed up in tents and trying to pass the interminable hours.

The Highest Camp

After four days, we decided that the expedition could lose no more time in stocking the high camps as a prelude to establishing Camp Six at 27,500 feet. This will be our highest camp and will be situated in the area where Expedition Chairman Tom Holzel's research indicates we have the best chance to locate the bodies of the British climbers or artifacts from their 1924 summit attempt--an attempt that many believe was successful.

It was decided that a team of seasoned Sherpas and expedition cinematographer David Breashears, the only American to twice reach the 29,028-foot top of Everest, would make the harrowing three-mile trek from Camp Four on the North Col to Camp Five to complete the stocking of provisions at the higher camp.

That morning, eight of our most experienced Sherpas left Camp Four. Each carried a 45-pound load of supplies--tents, stoves, food, fuel, oxygen. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, gale-force winds and incessant snow, the eight were able to make Camp Five and return by late afternoon.

The next day the weather improved. The cloud cover broke and, under blue skies, Breashears and three Sherpas, Nawang, Pasang Tsering and Dawa Noru, each carrying 60-pound loads, set out for Camp Five. Midway through their 2,200-foot ascent from the North Col to Camp Five, Breashears paused and looked to the South. He was so high he could see over the intervening peaks down onto Nepal.

Wind Picks Up

As the team continued, the wind suddenly picked up. At the 24,500-foot mark, Breashears noticed the Sherpa ahead of him was no longer standing straight up, but was tilted to the right in an attempt to counteract the wind, now blowing at more than 50 miles per hour. Two hours later the team arrived at Camp Five. The wind had intensified to 70 m.p.h.

Standing in the middle of the snow-swept camp, Breashears and the Sherpas shouted over the wind in a discussion on whether to dig out the buried tents or erect a new one. They decided to set up a new tent and began the arduous task of shoveling a level surface on the snow floor. Frozen rain pelted their faces. At that high altitude, each man had to pause after two or three shovelfuls to gasp for breath. The wind blew so furiously that a shovelful of snow, tossed into the air, blew horizontally out of sight. Finally, a two-man tent was erected and the four exhausted men piled inside. Tea was brewed to refresh their parched bodies. "We were packed like sardines in a tin," Breashears recalled.

Later that night the wind increased to more than 100 m.p.h. "Then we began to hear sounds like pistol shots," Breashears said. "The outer fabric of the tent was being bombarded by three-inch-thick pieces of airborne ice."

As the night progressed and the wind maintained its velocity, the men feared that the tent might be ripped out of the ground. They talked of a dangerous descent in darkness, but decided to wait it out. Breashears recalls he slept very little that night, finally placing cotton in his ears to silence the howling wind.

Shortly before dawn, the wind slowed by about 50 m.p.h. The team brewed more tea, packed, and began the descent back to the North Col camp. Camp Five was now fully stocked.

If the weather clears up, we should be able to set up Camp Six within another week. From there we will begin our long-anticipated search, and make our daylong attempts to get the first American woman to the summit of Everest.

(c) 1986, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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