Essay: 68 Year Old Crackers Jake Norton - Basecamp Sat, May 05, 2001 2:00AM
I tripped over it. I wish I could say it was different; I wish I could with good conscience tell the world how my skill and detective work led me to the 1933 Camp VI in 1999. But... no such luck. A bit of the pack frame seemingly jumped out of the snow beneath my feet and nearly threw me on my face. There you have it.
This year, however, the same was not going to happen to me. When Brent Okita and I set off on April 29th to fix line through the Yellow Band and onto the Northeast Ridge, I was determined to find the camp without it finding me first. I remembered with longing the last time I laid eyes on it: It was about 8:00PM on May 17th, 1999, and Tap and I were in the Yellow Band again to lend a hand to a tired Conrad Anker and Dave Hahn as they returned from their summit day. I had already pulled out the toe-tangling pack frame earlier in the day and carted it back to Camp VI. Now, in darkness broken by my headlamp beam, I could make out the tatters of a couple brown, down sleeping bags and bits of paper and tin. But, it was not the time for excavation, and I forced myself to put it off till another time.
On April 29th, Brent and I fixed fresh line through the Yellow Band and up to the Northeast Ridge. Our goal was twofold: prepare the route for upcoming summit bids while also searching for artifacts high on the mountain. A few hours of pounding pitons and tying knots led us to the crest of the Northeast Ridge. Knowing that the top of these gullies can be difficult to find at times, I began looking around for something with which to mark the route. A bit of brown cloth protruded from a snowy hole at my feet; looking closer, I pulled an old, felt mitten from the slope. Immediately, I could feel a tiny burst of adrenaline, the spark of excitement from finding and touching an item from Mallory and Irvine's day. I tucked it into my down suit for safekeeping and kept on moving.
Soon, I was scrambling along the crest of the ridge, being constantly wary of the silent killers to my left: huge cornices overhang the great Kangshung (East) Face of Everest... Get too close, and you will pop through their fragile, snowy veneer and take a 10,000 foot sled ride down below. Trying my best to ignore that unpleasant reality to my left, I gazed about looking for more evidence of the climbers of old. Ahead, a familiar object: a long, ribbed oxygen bottle with bright blue paint. I knew this well from 1999 as a 1975 Chinese O2 cylinder. Others lay nearby. I radioed down to Jochen at Basecamp, and he mentioned that I could be near the sight of the 1975 Chinese Camp VII (which was later used by the American Ultima-Thule 1984 Expedition). Sure enough, just on the crest of the ridge in a small snow-and-rock dish lay a tent with thick, old-school aluminum poles and several more blue oxygen cylinders. The Chinese were certainly here in '75. I moved along.
Before long we came to another point of historical significance: the spot where Percy Wyn-Harris left his ice axe in 1933 in place of Andrew Irvine's which he had just found. Scouring the slabs of the Yellow Band, Brent and I longed to see some bit of wood in the limestone rubble. Unfortunately, it seems the '33 ice axe has been washed off the slabs by a rockslide or avalanche in the 68 intervening years. Nonetheless, wandering the limestone sidewalks of the Yellow Band allowed me to do some historical investigation. Gazing downward, I could see the basin in which we found Mallory in 1999; certainly, it lies in a natural fall line from the ice axe. But, a hitch: There is absolutely no way that the ice axe could mark the site of the fall which led eventually to Mallory (and presumably Irvine's) death. Looking to the basin below, it became obvious that a fall to the basin below would not only be unconditionally fatal, but would be completely body-shattering as well. Mallory's body position and condition clearly indicated that, although he had suffered a brutal fall, he had survived his accident - albeit for a short period of time. Regardless of all this, there is another strong indication that the fall did not originate here: When I mentioned the limestone "sidewalks" of the Yellow Band, I was not exaggerating. One would have to try quite hard to fall out of the Yellow Band at this point. A normal slip or fall would land one on his or her butt, and gravity and friction would do the rest of the stopping naturally. Climbers of Mallory and Irvine's caliber simply would not have fallen here, let alone have a fall that would get out of control. Clearly, the fall did not originate from the ice axe site; there must be another explanation.
But... enough historical surmising. Storm clouds were encroaching and a light snow had begun to fall; it was time to begin the descent back to Camp VI. A final scour of the slabs revealed nothing more of significance, and I began the descent through the Yellow Band. Keeping my eyes focused footward, I fulfilled my goal of finding 1933 Camp VI without it finding me. Alas, honesty must again prevail: It took no looking, no great feat of anti-tripping diligence, for this year the camp is completely exposed, its green tent fabric flapping in the breeze. Aaah, what a searcher I could be if I did not have a conscience!
The 1933 camp amazed me immediately. The bits of paper I saw in 1999 turned out to be a virtual treasure trove of tinned goods. Carefully chipping away the ice and rock, I slowly gained access to the portion of the tent hiding the goods. One by one, the cans were extricated: Nestle's Condensed Milk, by appointment to H.M. the King; Stelna Beef; Selected Ginger; Heinz Spaghetti; Heinz Baked Beans; Tabloid Tea; Salmon and Shrimp Puree; several Tommy Cookers; Kendall Mint Cakes with Bruce's endorsement from 1924; and many other fascinating tidbits from 1933. My pack was bulging, snow falling in sheets, and it had been a long day. I decided to explore one final nook of the tent and then call it a day. A bit of shining metal and greenish paper caught my eye. Again, carefully chipping, I was able to remove an opened and partially eaten box of Huntley & Palmer's Superior Reading Biscuits. The crackers had sat in the elements at 27,400 feet on Mount Everest for 68 years, and looked no worse for wear. I was quite curious... and more than a bit hungry. I couldn't resist. Perhaps it was an archaeological faux pas. Regardless, it was great. There, in the Yellow Band in a snow squall, I sat and ate a biscuit from 1933. It made my head spin to think that the last person to eat out of this box may have been Wager, Wyn-Harris, Smythe, or Shipton. Not wanting to eat more museum pieces, I carefully packed the biscuits in their own Ziplock and pointed my toes downhill.
So, I reckon the camp and I are now even. It may have tripped me in '99, but I got a bite to eat out of it in '01.