News: The First Search - A Preliminary Report Jochen Hemmleb - Basecamp Wed, April 25, 2001 9:30PM
(Warning! This report is solitarily based on radio transmissions and telescope sightings from Base Camp on 24th April and has therefore to be considered preliminary. Information from the search team will follow.)
It all appeared to be going according to plan: Our first search team of Dave Hahn, Andy Politz and Tap Richards had left Camp 5 at 6am. When they contacted us on the radio two hours later, they reported high winds on the North Ridge, but were hoping for lesser wind on the North Face, on which they were about to traverse shortly after. We first saw them through the telescope at 9:45 a.m., starting on the prominent ledge leading right (west) into the gully stretching upward to Camp 6 (8200 m/26,900 ft.)
When they were two thirds up the gully, at around 11 a.m., one climber - it turned out to be Tap - was seen to leave the fixed ropes and climbing out to the right, along a fairly pronounced ledge system, out onto the ill-defined rib. We had worked very hard to pinpoint this site, capturing images of the camp from the 1975 Chinese video footage and from their published book. It was our first search goal. We watched Tap traverse into this area, when, after about 150 meters, he finally came on the air. "Can you see me through the telescope?". "If you're the one doing that great detour to the right, then we can." This was followed by a tantalizing reply, "Here's 1975 Camp 6!"
So Tap had found the notorious 1975 Chinese Camp 6, from where Wang Hongbao had allegedly found his "English dead". It was kind of surprising to find it in this location, some 30 m lower and slightly further to the east than predicted from the photographs, at c. 8170 m (26,800 ft.). This puts the camp some 150 m to the east and 20 m higher than where Mallory was found in 1999, which could give further credibility to Tom Holzel's theory that Wang had actually found him, and not Irvine, in 1975. However, it would have meant that Wang had climbed downhill into the steep basin west of the ill-defined rib during his stroll for unknown reasons (preliminary search for the missing climber, Wu Zongyue?). There also remains the unresolved conflict between Wang's description of damage to the face of the body and Mallory being found face down, with every indication pointing to his body not being moved (no damage to clothing on the front, symmetrical damage to the clothing on the back, consistent with the posture of the body).
Anyway, the discovery of the 1975 Chinese Camp 6 marked a major waypoint for further searches, and for our search team the start of another journey way back into the history of the early Everest expeditions - both British and Chinese.
While Dave, Andy and some of our Sherpas arrived at Camp 6 (our Camp 6, to avoid the raising confusion...), and made sure that camp was being set up in the right spot, Tap crossed back over the ill-defined rib at the level of our Camp 6 in order to join Dave in what became a combined search effort around the rib, while Andy was going to investigate the area towards the North Ridge for the 1924 Camp 6. Together, Tap and Dave covered a vast amount of ground, soon reporting further discoveries: First, they were curious to note obvious relics from the 1960 Chinese expedition, small blue oxygen cylinders, adjacent to the 1975 Chinese camp, suggesting that both expeditions had used the same campsite. Later we saw them converging in the basin above George Mallory, apparently investigating again the fall line for signs of Andrew Irvine. After that, Dave and Tap separated again, with Tap retracing his steps all the way back east to the normal fixed line route up the gully to our Camp 6. Shortly before reaching the gully, he reported coming across another campsite, again marked by two small blue oxygen bottles from the 1960 Chinese expedition. The altitude of this site is c. 8120 m (26,700 ft.), which is very close to the 8100 m the Chinese accounts place their Camp 6. From Dave we later heard that he had found 30-40 feet away from George Mallory's location a One Sport boot and crampon (probably from the Chinese solo climber that died on his descent from the summit last year?). The Chinese's tent was just a few feet away from his own at Camp 6 - the ghosts of Everest were lurking again...
Through the finding of at least three Chinese campsites, a pattern emerges within the history of the 1960 and 1975 expeditions: The Chinese of 1960 were true pioneers, reopening the British route of pre-war days. With the discovery of their Camp 6, we now know for the first time the exact route they had followed in the upper part of the mountain. Above Camp 5, they had traversed out onto the North Face all the way to the ill-defined rib, which in turn they followed to the base of the gully cutting through the Yellow Band - in other words, the same route the 1933 British expedition had used alternatively to the North Ridge. The Chinese did not follow the crest of the North Ridge, like the pre-war expeditions had done, and consequently could not have come across the high camps of 1924 and 1938. That there are actually two 1960 campsites can either mean they had distributed their Camp 6 over a considerable distance, not unreasonable given the high number of participants in that expedition, or that they had shifted Camp 6 in the same way they had (probably) done with Camp 7 later on.
When the Chinese reached the upper mountain again in 1975 - their attempts in the mid-60s had failed to get much beyond Camp 5 - they drew heavily on the 1960 experiences, repeating them in some cases and improving them in others. They followed the same route and initially placed Camp 6 in the same spot as the higher 1960 site before later moving it even higher to the base of the Yellow Band at 8300 m (27,300 ft.). In the same fashion they later moved Camp 7 from the 1960 position at the base of the First Step to the "Mushroom Rock" halfway between the First and Second Step.
The various Chinese camps and their respective locations also provoke some questions about the Chinese's tactics and how they fared on the upper mountain. From Tap's account, the lower 1960 site is on fairly slabby terrain, and the 1975 Chinese film comments on how uncomfortable tent sites on the lower Camp 6 (= higher 1960 site) had been. Eric pointed out that much better sites are found near the Yellow Band, only 200 ft. higher. So why did the Chinese camp in this peculiar location? We know that the 1960 members had been rather inexperienced and often slow. They are mentioned to have reached Camp 6 very late in the day in at least one occasion. Had they simply been so exhausted by the time they reached the area that they were forced to place Camp 6 in the next possible spot? We also know that the Chinese had stocked Camp 6 by a large support group at least once. With a large support group possibly moving slow, it might have been necessary to have overnight facilities available at Camp 6 for a large number of people. Was the lower site therefore designated for the support group and the higher site for the assault team, perhaps in order to give the latter some headstart on the way to the high-camp?
While Dave and Tap were investigating the Chinese camps, Andy had an epic time trying to find the 1924 Camp 6. He had traversed all the way from our Camp 6 to the crest of the North Ridge, which he reached at a recline in the slope immediately above a prominent pyramid-shaped rock tower. Back in 1933, Frank Smythe had written, "the ridge flattened out. A few yards to the west was a shallow hollow, really the head of an ill-defined gully, with a sloping floor of screes and boulders. Here lay a little tangle of green canvas and tent poles - the highest camp of 1924". But a couple of searches back and forth, at and below the Yellow Band, didn't reveal any suitable campsite. Meanwhile, clouds had rolled in and visibility from Base Camp became more and more interrupted. Persons at both ends of the telescope became more and more stressed and frustrated, as Andy didn't receive any directions and I couldn't get any to him without seeing him! Finally, Andy found himself stuck above a cliff band, angry at the historian below and frustrated by just floundering around, ending up nowhere. But then the clouds parted and I was able to pick him out again, a tiny red dot at the upper edge of the cliffs stretching out onto the face perpendicular to the North Ridge. "If you follow the edge, going slightly uphill, you should soon hit a shallow gully..." Andy moved into the gully. "The site we figured out should now be directly above you, only 10-15 meters, below a small crag..." Andy moved up. When Eric contacted him fifteen minutes later, he had something interesting to report. "I found an old sock and a mitten, which I had to excavate..." Did he find the 1924 Camp 6 after all? At the moment, we still can't say for sure, but no one else (besides the '24 team) to our knowledge has camped in that location - and as Eric pointed out wryly, "socks and mittens don't just grow up there!"
In the evening, with Tap, Dave and Andy safely back at our Camp 6 - one of five Camp 6s they had seen that day - we were tense with anticipation, eager to know more.
And we were toasting three marvelous climbers for doing a great job.