Everest's history marked in blood

BITTERSWEET: Ed Hillary opened the gate to Mt Everest, but was unhappy with the commercialisation of the mountain.
BITTERSWEET: Ed Hillary opened the gate to Mt Everest, but was unhappy with the commercialisation of the mountain.

New Zealanders have basked in the reflected glory of Sir Edmund Hillary for 60 years, but the world's highest peak has also brought this country some dark days.

Sir Ed made it to the summit of the 8848-metre peak, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, as part of a British expedition on May 29, 1953.

News of the feat flashed across the world a few days later, around the time Queen Elizabeth II was being crowned in Westminster Abbey.

Returning from the summit, Sir Ed uttered the unforgettable line: "Well, George. We knocked the bastard off", as he was greeted by his friend George Lowe, also a New Zealander.

Climbing Mt Everest has become less difficult since that first ascent, with the New Zealand Alpine Club listing 42 New Zealanders as reaching the summit, before this climbing season began.

With some climbers going up several times, there had been 82 Kiwi ascents in all.

By the end of the 2012 season, two New Zealanders – Dean Staples and Mark Woodward – had climbed it eight times each. Both are back on Mt Everest as guides this year, with Staples making it to the top for a ninth time on May 21.

Despite those numbers, it took 26 years after Sir Ed's climb until Nick Banks became the second New Zealander to reach the summit, in October 1979, as a member of a German expedition. Weather and conditions had thwarted a large-scale national attempt in 1977.

Peter Hillary made his first, unsuccessful, attempt to follow in his father's footsteps in 1984, as part of a joint Australian-New Zealand expedition that ended in tragedy.

At 7800m, Australians Craig Nottle and Fred From lost their footing and disappeared down the Hornbein Couloir. Both died and the rest of the team – New Zealanders Hillary and Kim Logan, and Australians Roddy Mackenzie and Jon Muir – immediately abandoned the climb.

They had been retreating from bad weather, and one of the men who died had been walking just behind Hillary when he fell without making a sound.

"It's the most terrible sight, I think, when you see the person, their face, them falling … it's harder because you've dealt with the actual death," Hillary told writer John Elder.

"You're sick with grief but you also want to be out of there very fast. When someone falls it breaks your safety envelope. It comes shattering in and says, 'it really can happen'."

He finally made it to the top in May 1990, speaking to Sir Ed back in New Zealand by satellite phone from the summit. They were the first father and son to reach the top.

Peter Hillary made that climb with fellow New Zealanders Gary Ball and Rob Hall, but before them Lydia Bradey reached the top in October 1988.

She was the first woman to make it without supplementary oxygen, as well as being the first New Zealand woman on the summit and the youngest person from this country, at 27.

It was a controversial climb, caused by Bradey not having a permit for the route she used, leading to her team-mates Hall and Ball – fearing the Nepalese would ban them from the mountain – denying her claim.

Facing a 10-year ban on climbing in Nepal, Bradey also renounced her claim to have reached the summit, and accepted a two-year ban instead, but then reinstated her assertion.

Bradey is another of the New Zealanders back in the Himalayas this month, reaching the top of Everest for a third time in the same group as Staples.

After the 1990 Everest climb, Hall and Ball went on to climb the rest of the seven summits – the seven highest peaks on each of the seven continents – within seven months, the fastest it had been done.

In 1991 they formed the guiding company now known as Adventure Consultants and they were back on top of Mt Everest, with clients, in 1992. Another successful climb followed in 1993 when Hall was accompanied by his wife Jan Arnold. They became the second husband and wife team to be on the summit together.

Disaster first struck in 1993 when Hall and Ball were on a personal expedition to another Himalayan peak, Dhaulagiri. Ball died on the mountain after succumbing to the high altitude sickness, pulmonary oedema.

Hall lived only a few more years, dying on Everest in May 1996. As his group were climbing down the mountain after reaching the summit on May 10, a severe storm blew up.

Hall tried in vain to help exhausted client Doug Hansen, a US postal worker, down the mountain, and became incapable of climbing down himself. Hall remained near the summit for two nights in the open and died on the mountain.

In a heart rending satellite phone conversation with the pregnant Arnold in New Zealand, the couple agreed to name their baby Sarah. Hall signed off: "Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much."

His death was not the only New Zealand loss from the May 10 storm, which in all was responsible for eight deaths.

Andy Harris, a guide in Hall's team, was last seen climbing back up the mountain to try to help Hall. A Defence Force citation for the New Zealand Bravery Star said Harris was not heard of again, although Hall had reported in a radio message: "Andy was with me last night …" Harris' ice axe and jacket were later found on the South Summit next to Hall's body.

Hall had been among the most highly respected leaders of commercial Himalayan expeditions, well known for going to the aid of endangered climbers for whom he was not directly responsible.

Altogether 15 people died on Everest in the northern spring 1996 climbing season.

Two years later, in May 1998, another New Zealander died while trying to climb Everest. Sydney-based former Christchurch resident Roger Buick was attempting to reach the summit on his own, but was spotted dead attached to a rope at 7400 metres.

He had been the last person at that height on the mountain, and the day he died two expeditions coming down from above had reportedly tried to turn him back, but he was irrational and unable to speak. Hypothermia and altitude were thought to have rendered him almost senseless.

New Zealanders kept climbing the mountain and in May 2006 Mark Inglis became the first double-amputee to reach the summit.

Both his legs had been amputated below the knee after becoming badly frost bitten when Inglis and climbing partner Phil Doole were trapped in 1982 for 13 days in a crevasse during an intense blizzard near the top of Aoraki/Mt Cook.

News that Inglis had reached the top of Everest was widely hailed, but fierce controversy soon followed.

Inglis was among as many as 40 climbers reported to have passed British mountaineer David Sharp as he was dying in an alcove, known as Green Boots Cave, next to the body of an Indian climber with green boots who had died a decade earlier.

Sharp was climbing alone and took with him just two bottles of oxygen, instead of the usual five. He did not have a radio. He is believed to have reached the summit with his supplementary oxygen used up, and too late in the day to be able to get back to his tent.

As well as Inglis, the roughly 40 climbers who passed him as they made their way to and from the summit included New Zealanders Woodward and Mark Whetu, who was filming the ascent.

Woodward later said Sharp had been too far gone for anyone to be able to help him. It was bitterly cold, Sharp was unresponsive, out of oxygen, frozen and with his nose blackened by frostbite.

The controversy was ignited when Inglis told reporters that a radio message about Sharp had been sent to New Zealander Russell Brice, expedition leader with company Himalayan Experience, who had been monitoring his teams' progress from the North Col.

Brice had told them to continue because Sharp was beyond saving, Inglis said at the time.

Brice denied he was told about Sharp until his climbers were descending, by which time his group was too tired to be able to help. Film of the expedition corroborated Brice's account, and Inglis revised his statement. He said he had been physically and mentally exhausted, and in much pain, when he made the comments, and could not remember if anyone had tried to radio Brice on the ascent.

Brice has also mounted numerous rescues on the mountain, and it was he who made the call with the terrible news to Sharp's parents, which no one else had been willing to do.

Sir Ed was among those who commented on the incident, lamenting what he considered to be an overriding desire by climbers to reach the top of Everest, regardless of what was happening to anyone else.

While he was also unhappy with the commercialisation of the mountain, it was he who had helped open the gate.

Last year Marty Schmidt became the 42nd and oldest New Zealander, at 51, to reach the top, the Alpine Club said.

For some reason, the great mountain in the midst of the world's largest land mass has proved irresistible to many people from a couple of small islands deep in the South Pacific. Some of those New Zealanders have become regular visitors to Everest, and played key roles in making the mountain accessible to others.

Far from the mighty Himalayas, the 60th anniversary of the great climb by Sir Ed and Tenzing was celebrated on Saturday with a dinner, organised by the New Zealand Alpine Club, in the shadow of this country's highest peak at Mt Cook Village.


LOOKING BACK: Part of page 9 of the Nelson Evening Mail, from June 2, 1953, celebrating the "fall" of Everest.
LOOKING BACK: Part of page 9 of the Nelson Evening Mail, from June 2, 1953, celebrating the "fall" of Everest.