Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Everest May 29th 1953 | Sixty Five Years since the 1st Ascent

Hillary and Tenzing arriving at Advance Base Camp 30th May 1953 after the successful summit.  On the left is Charles Evans and to the left of Tenzing is Tom Bourdillon and George Band. 
Today is sixty five years since the first ascent of Everest.

On 29th May 1953 at 11.30 am, a Sherpa and a New Zealander became the first men to stand on top of the highest peak on this planet.  However the intervening years has seen a sea change as far as Everest is concerned. The mountain   has now become a playground for guided expeditions, with clients paying between twenty five to sixty thousand dollars or more to stand on the highest point on earth. The South Col route climbed in 1953 is now disdainfully referred to as the “yak trail”. The dangerous icefall below the Western Cwm is maintained by a team of sherpas right through the season led by a senior “Icefall Doctor.” 

In order to make it possible for the clients to summit Everest, the entire mountain has fixed rope from bottom to top. This year 2018 the first ascent of the mountain was made by a team of  sherpas from different expeditions who fixed  the rope right to the summit and they were followed by the guided clients. 

 The summer of 2018 has been a record year on Everest. There has been 700+ summits till date from both the south and north side and for the first time there were eleven straight summit days when the weather was favourable for the climb.  Kami Rita Sherpa made his 22nd ascent of Everest - the highest number of Everest ascents till date. Lhakpa Sherpa climbed Everest from the north for the ninth time - the most Everest climbs by a woman. 

A Chinese double amputee Xiya Boyu made a successful ascent of Everest while astronaut Maurizio Cheli also successfully made the summit becoming the first man to have flown in space and climbed the highest mountain in the world.

There was also a major problem this year  with faulty oxygen bottle regulators on the Tibet north  route and some teams had to cancel  their summit attempts. 

However, this post recounts through photographs,  the 1953 climb, the historic ascent of the first two men to summit Everest and the team of climbers and sherpas who supported them through this endeavour.

Bourdillon and Evans on their return from the South Summit on May 26th 1953 - Bourdillon had wanted to make a push for the summit

Nawang Gombu crossing the icefall ladders - Gombu later became the first man to climb Everest twice in 1963 and 1965
The five men who helped  Hillary and Tenzing to carry to Camp 9  27,800 feet - John Hunt, Da Namgyal, Alf Gregory, Any Nyima and George Lowe - Photo George Lowe Collection

The map of the Khumbu icefall and the route followed by the 1953 expedition

From left: John Hunt, Ed Hillary, Tenzing, Ang Nyima,  Alfred Gregory and George Lowe after the ascent

The code which was later used in the telegram to send the news before the Queen's coronation

The telegram sent by John Hunt after the ascent

Hunt, Hillary and Tenzing in London

The full expedition team with the sherpas
Tenzing and his mother at Tengboche monastery after the climb
Tenzing and Hillary at Tengboche monastery after the successful climb
Sketch map drawn by Tenzing for his biographer James Ramsay Ullman 

The signed colour supplement of The Times

All photographs in this post are copyright the ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY and the respective owners.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Everest | The West Ridge 55 Years since the 1st Ascent | May 22nd 1963

Willi Unsoeld and Tom Horbein made history by ascending the West Ridge of Everest and descending by the South Col route
On 21st May 1963 at six o’clock in the evening two climbers reached 27,205 feet (8300 metres) to set up Camp 5W on the west ridge of Everest. Tom Horbein a US anasthetologist then 32 years old and Willi Unsoeld , a mountain guide then 36 years of age were poised for the final push to the summit of Everest by a new route.

It had not been easy for these two men. The 1963 American Everest Expedition led by Norman Dyrenfurth had squarely set its sights on a first American ascent by the South Col route. On May 1st 1963, Jim Whittaker accompanied by Sherpa Nawang Gombu, Tenzing’s nephew, made the first American ascent to become the fifth and six men to stand of the summit after the British in 1953 and Swiss in 1954.

Photo Courtesy - outsideonline.com
But Horbein and Unsoeld had other ideas. Working doggedly with the meager resources including limited oxygen the duo set up camps on the virgin west ridge route.

On the day of their summit climb, Barry Bishop, a National Geographic photographer, and Lute Jerstad were also attempting the summit by the South Col route. Bishop and Jerstad reached the summit around 4 pm but did not find any evidence of the west ridge team who were still two hours below the top.

Horbein on the West Ridge- Photo Courtesy Willi Unsoeld
The West ridge pair  reached the summit at 6.15 pm on 22nd May 1963 and became the 11th and 12th men to climb Everest and the fifth and sixth of their expedition. But in the context of the history of Everest it was an enormous “first”:  a climb by the West Ridge for the first time and more was to follow.  They had been climbing for more than eleven hours since dawn.  They saw the boot prints of Whittaker and Gombu and fresh prints which they knew must be of Bishop and Jerstad.

Maynard Miller and Jimmy Roberts at Advance Base (around 23,500 feet) below had scanned the heights throughout the day and kept the radio open. Around 7 pm when it was almost dark and anxiety had risen, Willi Unsoeld’s voice came through the radio. They had just summitted Everest he said and were descending by the south east ridge in the dark on a route known to neither.

“Roger, Roger” Maynad called back through the crackle and wind.
  And then he heard Willi’s voice again faint and indistinct reciting:
“…. I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before we sleep,
And miles to go before we sleep….”

The “promises” were to Willi’s wife Joelene that Everest would be his last big mountain.

The west ridgers left the summit around two hours behind the south col team. With a flickering flashlight whose batteries were fast waning, the two climbers descended, following the boot prints and ice axe marks of Jerstad and Bishop. But soon the last light faded from the sky and night descended on the slopes of Everest. The climbers reduced the 150 feet rope into half so that they could remain closer to each other.

Jerstad and Bishop’s descent of the south east ridge earlier was also not without drama. The seventy mile gusts were dragging the climbers  towards the edge of the ridge and in Bishop’s words “ A section of the cornice at my chest gave way and I had a sudden hair raising view of the Kangshung glacier  10,000 feet below”.  Bishop unroped himself and managed to return to the trail.

Suddenly they began to hear voices in the wilderness “Helloo, Helloo” and thought it was a rescue party from Camp VI coming up in searching for them.  Then they realized that the voices were from above. The West ridge climbers had descended in record time and caught up with the South Col team!

The four climbers then descended together down the south east ridge. The torch which Unsoeld had finally gave way and in the glimmer of starlight the climbers stumbled down. Finally at 12.30 midnight it was not possible to continue any further and the four Everesters sat down for what would be the highest bivouac at that time.

In 1953 Herman Buhl on his descent from Nanga Parbat and in 1955 Walter Bonatti and his porter had also spent the night at around 26,000 feet on K2 and survived though not without loss.

But the bivouac of the Americans was around 28,000 feet. However, luck was on their side. It was one night in fifty that the jet stream winds were silent on Everest!

 In Everest- The West Ridge, Horbein wrote:
 "The night was overpoweringly empty. Stars shed cold, unshimmering light. The heat lightning dancing along the plains spoke of a world of warmth and flatness. The black silhouette of Lhotse lurked half-sensed, half-seen, still below. Only the ridge we were on rose higher, disappearing into the night, a last lonely outpost of the world."

Climbers on the West Ridge of Everest Photo:
Barry Bishop from Everest The West Ridge
Amazingly, despite all odds the climbers survived to greet the icy dawn.  National Geographic photographer Barry Bishop writes that it was one of finest mornings he had ever seen  but he  and his camera was too frozen to take a single photograph.

But the bivouac took a heavy toll. Unsoeld lost nine toes to frostbite and Bishop six. Jerstad and Horbein were extremely lucky to get away unscathed.

Since the first West Ridge climb in 1963, there have been about sixty attempts on the route with about half a dozen successful climbs including the West Ridge direct. The number of deaths and the number of summiteers on this route have been about the same making it one of the hardest routes on Everest.

In 2012  two teams from the USA  including crack climbers like Conrad Anker, Cory Richards, Jake Norton and David Morton  attempted the west ridge to commemorate the 1963 expedition. Unfavourable conditions forced both teams to give up the west ridge route.

In 1979 Unsoeld died on an avalanche on Mount Rainier - one of the peaks he used to guide. Horbein recollects that Unsoeld and he spoke each year on May 22nd, the anniversary of their west ridge climb. After Unsoeld’s death Horbein speaks to his widow Jolene on that day.

In the end, expedition leader Norman Dyrenfurth, though pushing for the South Col ascent gave the west ridge team full credit. Dyrenfurth said “For years it had been the dream of mountaineers to do a major Himalayan traverse. We were particularly happy and proud that this was not only the first Himalayan traverse but that it was on Everest.”

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Manaslu/Tsum Valley Updates May 5 2018

A South Col team trekked Manaslu and Tsum valley in April - May 2018. Some updates from this trek which are useful for fellow trekkers in the next season:

Trail Updates
Due to the construction of a new road all the way from Soti Khola up the Tsum Valley to Tibet the existing trails between Lapu Besi and Tatopani which is the approach for both the Manaslu and Tsum Valley treks are in a precarious condition.

The existing road upto Soti Khola from Arughat which now has small buses plying on it has been extended to Lapubesi. However private vehicles have permission to drive only to Hawa Danda which is 30 minutes walk from Lapubesi.

From Lapubesi due to the road construction on the old trail, a newer trail has been made along the river. However due to the blasting of rocks above, parts of this newer trail is only rocks and boulders and walking on this trail is difficult but compared to the trail conditions further up it can somehow be managed.
Short section of trail around 2 minutes between Maccha Khola and Lapubesi
From Machha Khola to Khorlabesi the old trail along the river is totally devastated. The road building along parts of this trail is on in full swing and there is a possibility of rock fall rendering this trail unsafe. We did not find most locals, trekkers and mule caravans using this old trail. There is now a new trail across the river which climbs around 400 metres from Maccha Khola reaches a high point above Khorla Besi and then plummets around 300 metres to the valley to reach Khorla Besi in 2.5 to 3.5 hours depending on your walking speed. This is against the normal 1 hour 15 min which it used to take between Machha Khola and Khorla Besi on the old trail.  It is likely that this new trail will continue to be used even for the upcoming October- November season as the monsoon rains will wreak more havoc on the road construction during June to September 2018.

Road timings Khorlabesi to Tatopani
From Khorlabesi to Tatopani the road construction is taking place on the old trail and the Nepal Army only allows the trail to open between 11 am and 12 noon and again between 5 pm in the evening and 7 am in the morning.  Even when the trail is open due to blasting of rocks and debris all over the trail it is difficult to cross many sections where now no trail exists.

Logistically the longer route between Machha Khola and Khorlabesi and the trail open timings between Khorlabasi and Tatopani need to be considered when drawing up an itinerary for this trek. It is now possible to reach Soti Khola on the same day from Kathmandu and stay the night in Soti Khola. If you are in a private vehicle you can drive past Soti Khola to Hawa Danda and reach Lapubesi on the same day from Kathmandu which is what we did. The Hotel Laxmi is a good stop in Lapubesi far better than the lodges of Soti Khola. From Lapubesi it is possible to reach Khorlabesi by around 2 pm but the trail only opens at 5 pm so either you stop in Khorlabesi for the night or hit Tatopani around 6 pm where there are very basic lodges. Continuing on to Dobhan, where there are better lodges, in the dark is not a very good option.
If you are walking from Soti Khola then Khorlabesi on the first day is a hard walk considering the additional climb of 400 metres up and 300 metres down which would be quite exhausting in the mid day sun at this low altitude.
This is the current trail situation – it is possible that timings and routes will change for the autumn season 2018 so try to get local information from the trekking companies in Kathmandu and the lodges en route before planning the trek itinerary.

Mules on the trail

I was quite amazed to see the increase in mule traffic on this trail since my last visit a year ago. The only reason I could find for this increased traffic is the building of new lodges all along the trail and the building materials being carried up by the mules. We also found many houses which had been damaged by the earthquake being rebuilt and this could also be one of the reasons. I estimated around 300 to 400 mules on one day between Tatopani and Jagat and it would be the same or nearabouts on most days. The mules are a constant danger to trekkers – arriving unannounced around a cliff and often at a fast pace. They don’t usually stop so you have to wedge yourself between a rock and the trail to somehow avoid them.  On narrow sections this if often quite difficult. One of our trekkers was kicked by a mule as there was no space for her to get away from the trail.  Mule jams are also not uncommon especially across bridges where sometimes fifty to sixty mules crossing over can cause long delays.  You may need to add forty five minutes to an hour to your trekking day to consider these delays.

Trekking Numbers

We found fewer trekkers in the region this spring compared to the earlier year. Our findings were borne out at the Manaslu Conservation Area Project in Jagat where the officer  in charge informed us that only 2000 or so trekkers had come in so far in 2018 ( upto May 2nd 2018). This is a far cry from the Everest and Annapurna treks where 20,000 to 30,000 trekkers visit each season. One of the reasons for this could well be the poor road condition Dhading Besi/Gorkha to Arughat coupled with this new road building exercise along the trail.

For detailed information on the Manaslu Circuit Trek route do  visit  http://sujoyrdas.blogspot.in/2017/07/manaslu-circuit-part-i-route-and-timings.html

Friday, May 4, 2018

Soednam Zinghka - Heritage Farm House | Bhutan | Haa

One of the finest properties which I have stayed in recently in the Himalayas must be the Soednam Zingkha Heritage Farm House in the remote Haa valley in Western Bhutan. My group was on a trek to the Nob Tshona Pata lake and on the way we stopped for a night at Haa.

This beautiful homestay has been carefully restored keeping in mind the ethnic architecture and designs of Bhutan.

It has all the conveniences - temperature controlled heated rooms,  abundant hot water in the showers, spotless toilets, excellent wi-fi and cosy rooms with lovely views across the valley.

It is family run with with the son of the house, Penjor, having studied hotel management in India and he has been able to put his management experience to good use in this property.

The meals are to die for and are personalised service with a smile is the hallmark of this heritage home.

I wish there were more such properties across the Himalaya.

Some photographs from my visit are below:

View from the farmhouse

The prayer room

The entrance

The courtyard

The drawing room area
Soednam Zingkha
Haa Valley
+975 17170507 / 77170507


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