Essay: Someone’s Trash is someone’s Treasure Jochen Hemmleb - Basecamp Wed, April 18, 2001 8:05AM
While residing at Advance Base Camp a few days ago, support trekker Dick Dickerson and myself visited an old acquaintance - the 1960 Chinese ‘temporary camp’ below the North Col, found by Andy Politz in 1999.
Dave, Andy and Eric had already told us that the camp had resurfaced. So when we hiked up the right lateral moraine of the East Rongbuk Glacier, we kept thinking about what we might find there this time. I still knew the approximate position of the camp, so tried to catch the occasional glimpse of the markers indicating the route to the North Col, which would act as a reference. Walking up one of the broad icy ridges leading out onto the glacier, it was kind of an eerie feeling when suddenly, out of the mist, two frozen mounds of green and orange tent fabric came into sight. Dick and I dropped our packs and had our first look around: There were two larger and a number of smaller patches of tent fabric emerging out of the ice, a few strands of guy lines, some food tins, a solitary aluminum tent pole – and, spookiest of all, some scattered bones, although they were in all probability not human. From their original site to where they are now, the remnants of the camp had traveled over a distance of roughly 0.6 miles in 41 years, indicating that this part of the glacier progresses some 80 ft. per year or a quarter of an inch per day. Just around the same time we were investigating the camp, Man Bahadur, (one of our "sherpas"…actually he is a Tamang) found an old blue oxygen bottle at Camp 5, manufactured by the German company Dräger and dated 1959. This could be traced back to one of the oxygen sets used by the 1960 Chinese expedition.
It was an exciting three hours we spent at the site, especially for Dick, who had seen our pictures from 1999 in the book, "Ghosts of Everest", but never believed he would ever reach the site himself. There was a deep sense of history around the whole scene, making us wonder who had lived in these tents or eaten from these cans. Dick dug deep, using his metal detector with great effectiveness and locating tins and tent pegs buried more than 6 inches in the glass-hard ice. Getting to the objects, however, was a completely different matter, hacking through the splintering mass with our ice axe. At this altitude, it was plainly exhausting. When we packed up the remnants of the tents, I instantly recognized the smell of the rubberized floors, which reminded me of the gear my parents used on our first camping trips back in the ‘70s – and had I found a tent with that smell back home in the attic, I would likely have thrown it away. Which brings up the question what we really had found here at 21,750 ft. on the upper East Rongbuk Glacier? Trash or treasure? When does garbage become archeological artifacts?
Personally, I believe there should be no doubt that any trace of the pre-war Everest expedition resembles an archeological artifact, as it documents a time when knowledge of the mountain and climbing technique had been considerably different from today. And if this criterion is followed up, it equally goes for the Chinese post-war expeditions, who also displayed an approach to climbing and a climbing technique considerably different from today. In 1979, the year the Tibetan side of Mount Everest was re-opened to foreigners, would therefore mark the end of this historically significant period, and thus the transition from archeological artifact to garbage. But what then becomes of significant discoveries from the period after 1979? For example, are relics from Boardman and Tasker’s last climb in 1982, discovered in 1985 and 1992, automatically garbage? I think in such case a second criterion needs to be applied: garbage becomes archeological artifact if it tells a significant story.
Which brings us back to the Chinese expedition of 1960 and its significant story – did they do the first ascent of Everest from the North or didn’t they? It had sounded too much of a fairytale: Four young Chinese with little climbing experience fighting against the odds of Mallory’s ridge. They spend three hours overcoming the crux, the Second Step headwall, during which one climber, Qu Yinhua, even removed his boots and socks to gain a better grip on the rocks (later losing all his toes to frostbite). Another climber, Liu Lienman, became so exhausted by the efforts that he was unable to continue the ascent and spent the night out in the open, in the vicinity of the Third Step at 28,500 ft. The remaining three struggled wearily upwards, finally reaching the summit at 2:20 a.m., having climbed the last 150 ft. without oxygen. They were back at their high camp the next evening after what must have been an epic of endurance.
When the film of the Chinese ascent was reviewed by members of the British Alpine Club in 1962, watchers were immediately skeptical. Apparently the film showed no footage from higher than the assault camp at 28,000 ft., apart from some telephoto shots taken from there towards the summit and a panorama sequence allegedly taken from 28,500 ft. on the way down from the top. The panorama sequence, which was extensively studied, contained no distinctive foreground detail, so estimations of the height of the photographer’s position varied between 28,000 and 28,500 ft. – i.e. between below and above the crucial Second Step.
My own personal suspicions regarding the film were centered elsewhere: How could the British, with their knowledge of the mountain in 1962, have identified film sequences as telephoto shots from 28,000 ft.? Couldn’t they have confused these with pictures simply taken from closer to the summit, namely from the plateau above the Second Step? My suspicions were reinforced when a German source claimed that the Chinese film included a sequence showing the summit pyramid with tracks leading towards and down from the top. Thanks to British historian Audrey Salkeld and the BBC’s Graham Hoyland I was finally able to obtain a copy of the Chinese film in the fall of 1998. This was digging in metaphorical dirt, watching an archeological artifact in the form of 40 year-old footage – and with the long-sought answer unfolding on my TV screen: Besides the mentioned panorama sequence there was indeed another sequence, a 10 seconds-long panning shot of the Summit Pyramid. The image is very bright and of low contrast, as if overexposed or filmed through a haze of spindrift. No details in the snow (like tracks, boulders etc.) are discernible, although some rocks of the Summit Tower and along the crest of the North Pillar are visible against the sky. But in the last 4 seconds of this shot the rocks of the Third Step start to appear in the lower left corner of the picture. There is no way such a detailed view of the Third Step could be obtained differently, say by long-focus shots from lower down. Despite its shortcomings, the picture is still fairly clear and steady, and has too high a resolution for being a telephoto. Moreover, in most views from anywhere above 27,000 ft. on the North Ridge/North Face the Third Step is hidden by the Second Step. It reappears once the crest of the North-east Ridge is reached, but only when actually standing on the plateau above the Second Step, does the foreshortened view of the Third Step and final ridge match the image displayed in the Chinese film.
Reinhold Messner claims to possess "documents" proving that the Chinese never made it beyond the assault camp, but he has never made this public. If the above film sequence proves anything, it is that at one stage during the 1960 expedition, one climber must have stood on the plateau above the Second Step, near the base of the final pyramid – or at 28,500 ft., as the Chinese had always maintained.
Did they reach the summit? There is still no direct evidence since they climbed at night at took no summit photos. But it should be noted that even their first accounts describe features consistent with the final 600 ft. of the North-east Ridge. They describe the long snow and ice slope of the summit snowfield, how they were stopped by the near-vertical tip of the slope and forced to circumvent this by a traverse to the right along the upper North Face, and how they at first confused the initial rise in the final ridge with the top – all experiences later repeated by other expeditions, like the Chinese in 1975 or Matt Dickinson in 1996.
Final confirmation for the Chinese’s summit success in 1960 could only come from the small plaster bust of Chairman Mao, a five-star red national flag and a short note with the three climbers’ names and date of ascent, wrapped in a white woolen glove, which they claimed to have left behind among the rocks to the north-east or north-west of the summit. Those who happen to rediscover these items could claim to have found the highest archeological artifacts in the world.
They surely wouldn’t describe them as garbage.