ESSAY: Traces of History Jochen Hemmleb - Basecamp Thu, April 05, 2001 12:05AM
In my last dispatch I wrote about the historical aspect of an Everest expedition and the added sense of time-travelling that comes with it. A few days ago our team traveled almost as far back into the history of the early Everest attempts as possible.
Jake Norton had been on his way down from Advance Base Camp at the head of the East Rongbuk Glacier when he saw "something unusual" sticking out of a pond beside the moraine a dark-brown oblong object with a rounded end, "definitely not a rock". The same day Dave Hahn chopped the object out of the ice, while John Race found a similar cylinder lying among the moraine rubble nearby. Both cylinders turned out to be oxygen bottles from the 1922 British Everest Expedition.
With all the media attention focusing on the events of 1924 and the Mallory & Irvine mystery, the achievements of this first attempt on the world's highest mountain tend to be forgotten. Yet as Walt Unsworth wrote, "these Everest pioneers had not simply to climb a mountain they also had to overcome an immense barrier of ignorance. There were no precedents of any great worth; no deep fund of high-altitude knowledge upon which they could draw. Everything even the opening of a can [at a high camp] was a new experience."
We now take it for granted to follow the well-established route up the East Rongbuk valley to access the upper mountain by 1922, cartographers had figured the valley as a potential approach, yet nobody had traveled it in its entirety. We now consider it usual for an expedition with summit ambitions to place two or even three camps above the North Col, the last one at over 27,000 ft., from where the last stage of the climb is launched when the 1922 expedition became the first to ever place a camp above the North Col, they actually camped higher than any man had been before at the time.
On May 21, from their Camp 5 at 25,000 ft., George Mallory had hoped to reach the summit in a single push. To accompany him were Major Edward Felix Norton, thirty-eight, and Theodore Howard Somervell, a thirty-two year-old London surgeon, who were both to write mountaineering history two years later by reaching over 28,000 ft. on Everest's North Face without using oxygen. Their fourth companion had been the forty year-old surveyor Henry Treise Morshead, but he turned back shortly after leaving the tents, feeling unfit for the ascent. As the three were climbing without oxygen, their progress was agonizingly slow barely 400 ft. per hour , and it soon became apparent that the summit was beyond their reach. They plodded wearily up the broken crest of the North Ridge, drawing deep breaths between each step and resting every twenty or thirty minutes to recover. Upon reaching a slight recline in the ridge at 2:15 p.m., the party decided to rest and retreat.
They had reached 26,800 ft. or 8170 m the first men ever to pass the magic 8000 m-barrier. Two hours later Mallory, Norton and Somervell were back at Camp 5, where they picked up Morshead and immediately continued their way down in order to reach the North Col before nightfall. But then the descent turned into a nightmare... Despite his day-long rest at Camp 5, Morshead was feeling weak and suffering badly from frostbite. As time went on, his deterioration became more and more marked. His concentration faltered, his strength failed. Suddenly, when the four climbers were crossing the head of a snow couloir, Morshead slipped. Somervell and Norton were caught completely unawares and one by one jerked off the slope. In a heartbeat, all three men were sliding towards the glacier 3000 ft. below.
Mallory, who had been in the lead, heard the sound behind him and by reflex thrust his ice-axe deep into the snow and slipped the rope around it. Hanging on like grim death, and aided by Somervell's own attempt to brake the fall with his axe, he brought the three sliding bodies to a standstill. Mallory's quick reaction had saved their lives. Daylight faded as the weary party groped their way down the rocks on the western side of the North Ridge towards the North Col. As they were navigating through the crevasses in the last part of the way, their only candle lantern burned out, and it was only by chance that they found the rope leading the remaining few yards to the tents. It was 11:30 p.m. and even then their ordeal wasn't over, for they discovered to their dismay that the Sherpas had by mistake taken down all cooking utensils. A form of ice cream made from condensed milk, strawberry jam and snow had to do for dinner...
The first assault ever on the world's highest mountain was over. When Mallory, Norton, Somervell and Morshead descended the next morning to Advance Base Camp, the second assault party was already on their way: George Ingle Finch and Geoffrey Bruce. And on their backs they carried the secret weapon oxygen.
Although oxygen had been given a trial in Himalayan climbing as early as 1907, the 1922 Everest Expedition was the first to use it as a systematic aid in the ascent of a mountain. They brought 120 steel cylinders, each capable of holding a supply of 240 liters, stored at a pressure of 120 atmospheres. One oxygen set consisted of a pack frame with four vertically mounted cylinders, tubes, regulator valves, pressure gauges and a face mask delivering the oxygen supply to the climber. The weight of one set with four full bottles was about 32 lbs. It was able to provide the climber with 7-8 hours of oxygen, depending on flow rate (2 or 2.4 liters per minute).
Besides taking pressurized oxygen, the 1922 Expedition also experimented with "Oxylithe bags", where oxygen was produced from the chemical reaction on sodium peroxide. The results with the latter, however, proved unsatisfactory. Right from the beginning there had been a deeply divided opinion regarding the need for oxygen. Those who voted against it, George Mallory among them, did mostly so on aesthetic grounds they regarded oxygen as "unsporting", as it greatly diminishes the impact of the altitude of the mountain and therefore the human challenge. With this argument, the 1922 Everest Expedition started a debate which dominates high-altitude climbing to this date. Those who voted for it saw as the foremost aim of the expedition "to climb Mount Everest with every resource at our disposal" and therefore regarded oxygen as just another climbing aid, in the same way as crampons and ice-axes.
There was one name in particular that will for ever be associated with the first usage of oxygen on Everest George Ingle Finch. Born in Australia and raised in Switzerland, Finch's upbringing and background differed vastly from that of his British contemporaries. Besides being a strong climber, he also was scientist and creative mind, whose inventions included the first down jacket used in high-altitude mountaineering. Unfortunately, Finch's outspokenness and unorthodox views made him unpopular with the establishment, so most of his skills and genius were lost to the early expeditions.
By the time the 1922 Everest Expedition had reached the mountain, there were only few members left who had any faith in the oxygen equipment so the first summit assault took place without. Moreover, most of the ten oxygen sets the expedition had brought along had been damaged in transit and the design of the face masks proved impractical. Nonetheless, Finch had managed to repair and redesign the apparatus, and by the time of the first summit attempt was ready to give it a final trial. For his own attempt, Finch had found two strong allies: Geoffrey Bruce, the twenty-six year-old nephew of expedition leader General Charles Granville Bruce, and Tejbir Bura, a Gurkha soldier. The results of their trial of the oxygen sets were remarkable: three hours from Advance Base Camp to the North Col and fifty minutes back, still with time to take plenty of photographs!
Full of confidence, they set off for another summit attempt two days later, accompanied as far as the North Col by the expedition's photographer and cameraman John Noel. When the three climbers continued up the North Ridge the next day, the oxygen was proving its worth indeed, for they were able to catch up with their twelve porters who had left an hour and a half earlier despite carrying heavier loads! They eventually established Camp 5 on the very backbone of the ridge, some 500 ft. higher than the oxygenless party. During the night, however, their luck ran out a severe storm broke, ripping at the tiny tent and whirling the inhabitants around. Sleep was impossible. From time to time one of the men had to crawl out into the ferocious gale to check the tent's guy lines, while the others would cling to the flapping canvas, which was threatened to be blown off the mountain. When the wind abated the next afternoon, Finch, Bruce and Tejbir decided to take the chance and sit out another night but by then, thirty-six hours without adequate sleep or food started to take a toll. The cold was gnawing at the men's bones, they could feel the onset of frostbite, their life resources were draining away. Suddenly Finch remembered the oxygen. He put on a mask, opened the valve and the effect was miraculous: warmth start flow back into his limbs, and when Bruce and Tejbir tried this cure, it also revived them instantly. They decided to rig the oxygen in a way that they could breathe the gas during the night, and as a result slept soundly until the morning.
They set off at 6:30 a.m., on May 27, with the intention of reaching the junction between the North and North-east Ridges, where Tejbir was to hand over his spare oxygen cylinders and return to camp. But the plan fell to pieces immediately, as Tejbir collapsed from exhaustion only a short way above the tent. Finch and Bruce picked up Tejbir's oxygen and continued, their chances of success now greatly reduced. To add to their mishap, the relentless wind had risen again, so they were forced to leave the North Ridge and traverse out onto the North Face. After traversing for half a mile, they decided to make for the North-east Ridge again, climbing upwards into the inverted "V" of a prominent snow triangle below the First Step. Finch was in the lead when he suddenly heard Bruce crying out behind him, "I am getting no oxygen!". He climbed down just in time to prevent his friend from toppling over backwards and into the void. A connecting tube in Bruce's oxygen set had been broken, and although they managed an immediate repair, they realized they would not be able to continue. Finch and Bruce had established a new altitude record of almost 27,500 ft. (8380 m) remarkably even more for young Geoffrey Bruce, as probably no other climber could claim to have set an altitude record during his very first climb... On the way down they reunited with Tejbir at Camp 5, who had fully recovered, and descended all the way to Advance Base Camp the same evening.
Thus ended the second assault on the world's highest mountain and the first using oxygen. The next attempt on Everest with oxygen, two years later, saw Mallory and Irvine walking out of their lives and into legend...
George Ingle Finch died in 1970, Geoffrey Bruce in 1972. Their route on Mount Everest was finally completed in the fall of 1993 by four members of an international expedition led by Briton Jon Tinker. From the 1922 highpoint they obliquely traversed the Yellow Band to the base of the Second Step before finishing the ascent by the standard North-east Ridge (Japanese climbers had done something similar already in 1980, but had reached the 1922 highpoint by a higher traverse than Finch and Bruce's original approach). In doing so, Jon Tinker's expedition linked three historical routes the Finch & Bruce variant, Norton's traverse and Mallory's ridge. A true walk on the traces of history.