Adventure

Risky business

DALE EISLER June 9 1997
Adventure

Risky business

DALE EISLER June 9 1997

Risky business

Adventure

Calgary climber Andy Evans was 150 m from the top of the world, the bleak and frigid summit of Mount Everest. With a 100-km/h wind howling in his ears, the 35-year-old geologist inched his way up a perilously thin ridge of rock, snow and ice—and passed within a few metres of five frozen bodies. Two were Russians from the 23-member team Evans had joined in April to climb the 8,848-m Himalayan peak. The others had perished a year earlier on a mountain that has claimed 154 lives since it was first conquered in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa partner Tenzing Norgay. “I tried not to look at the bodies as I went by,” said Evans, who returned home last week to a hero’s welcome. “But you couldn’t help it. They were only a few feet away. It was a grim reminder that there’s no margin for error.”

A day after Evans reached the summit on May 22, fellow Calgarians Alan Hobson, 39, and Jamie Clarke, 29, added their names to the list of 10 Canadians and more than 700 people worldwide who have scaled Everest. But their achievements come at a time when, in the view of many experts, the mountain that once offered climbers the ultimate test of endurance, skill and courage has become crowded, littered with waste and tainted by commercialism. During this spring’s two month climbing season, more than 300 people— nine of whom died—tried to scale the mountain, many paying up to $80,000 to be part

Three Calgarians triumph on Everest

of guided expeditions. “It’s become too crowded,” concludes Geoff Powter, an accomplished climber and editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal. “One of the beauties of the sport of mountaineering is the wilderness, the solitude, the sense of adventure.”

As cluttered as the climb may be, a trip to the top of Everest remains an arduous and dangerous undertaking. Evans and a team that included one fellow Albertan, an Australian and 20 Russians and Kazakhs he had met during a 1996 expedition in the former Soviet Union, assembled on April 5 at their base camp at the foot of the mountain. Over the next seven weeks, the climbers methodically scaled the mountain, using the standard procedure for conquering Everest—climb high, sleep low. During the day, they worked their way up the mountain, pitching tents at newly established camps and leaving behind food supplies and oxygen canisters. Then they returned to lower altitude camps at night to allow their bodies to adjust to the lack of oxygen.

Once they had set up a final camp at an altitude of 8,300 m, the members of the team who were aiming for the summit waited one day until May 7, when they had adequate strength and the right weather to attempt the final 548 m. The three Russians set out first, recalls Evans who, at a muscular five feet, seven inches, is known as “Mighty Mouse” among his colleagues at Canadian Hunter Exploration, a Calgary-based oil company. The trio maintained radio contact with the rest of the team until reaching the summit and beginning their descent. But when they failed to return that night, and could not be contacted by radio, it was clear that a tragedy had befallen them. Then the expedition was stalled for two weeks by fierce winds of nearly 200 km/h. “All hell broke loose,” says Evans. “All we could do was wait, knowing that the three guys who had gone up didn’t survive.”

Finally, in the predawn darkness of May 22, Evans set out alone on the 6 72-hour climb to the top. From a lower camp, his climbing partner, 50-year-old Peter Jungen of Cochrane, Alta., watched him through a telescope but did not have the strength to attempt the summit himself. On his way up, Evans met a Slovenian mountaineer and they completed the climb together. As they stood on top of the world, Evans recalled, they hugged, locked arms and burst into tears. “I can’t explain the feeling,” said the Canadian, his face still seared by sun and wind. “It’s exuberance. You can’t believe what you’ve done.”

For Hobson and Clarke—who had not returned home by late last week—the expedition was their third to Everest, but the first time they attempted the summit. They were members of an eight-member Canada-U.S. team, sponsored by Vancouver-based Colliers International, a multinational real estate company, and Lotus Development Corp., a computer software firm headquartered in Cambridge, Mass. There were five climbers on the team, as well as an organizer and two communications co-ordinators, who provided Calgary media outlets with professionally produced press kits before departing, then sent back daily dispatches for the expedition Internet site. Upon returning, Clarke and Hobson, who are co-owners of a motivational speaking firm called The Everest Effort Inc., will address Colliers and Lotus employees on the merits of teamwork.

Evans, who has been scaling mountains for two decades, covered half the $20,000 cost of his Everest expedition himself, received a donation from his employer, and sold T-shirts to raise the remaining funds. He was back at work the day after returning, obviously proud of what he had achieved, but questioning the commercialization of Everest. “They bring people with money and not enough experience,” said Evans. “A lot don’t have the right stuff to go up there, but they’ve got the cheques.” The three Calgarians, fortunately, had both.

DALE EISLER in Calgary