Two canadians take on Everest-and live to tell the tale
On the morning of May 23, two Calgarians, Jamie Clarke, 29, and Alan Hobson, 39, reached the top of the world—the summit of Mount Everest, a narrow patch of Himalayan snow no larger than a dining-room table, 8,848 m above sea level. Although climbing Everest is not the novelty it once was— more than 700 climbers, including 10 Canadians, have reached the summit since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953—it remains the most perilous adventure known to mankind: for every four people who reach the peak, one dies in the effort. Clarke and Hobson were members of an
eight-person Canada-U.S. team sponsored by Colliers International, a Vancouver-based multinational real estate company, and Lotus Development Corp., a Cambridge, Mass., computer software firm. One day earlier, a third Calgarian, geologist Andy Evans, climbing with a Kazakh team, also reached the summit. However, five of Evans’s teammates, scaling the mountain from the north side, died as jet-stream winds racked the upper Himalayas. The story of the climb by Clarke and Hobson is one of determination, bravery, teamwork—and high danger. They have written it exclusively for Maclean’s.
JAMIE CLARKE AND ALAN HOBSON
The mountain environment is a mystical, majestic place, it is terrifyingly beautiful and, on occasion, serenely overwhelming. From the top of the tallest mountain in the world—the place the Sherpa people of Nepal call Sagarmatha, meaning Forehead in the Sky— the world below us curves away across the Tibetan Plateau to the north and across Nepal and Northern India to the south. Above, only a brilliant cerulean sky lies between us and the heavens.
This is a place among all places to comprehend the power of creation. It is a place that, above all, should elicit our respect and responsible behavior. Everest is not about dying. It is in every sense about being fully alive.
Men and women climb mountains for many reasons, most of them intensely personal. For us, climbing Everest gave us the satisfaction of knowing we had accomplished the most difficult physical feat most people could ever imagine. But personal success, even as we measure it by our climbing, is only meaningful when it propels us to better our performance in everything we do, to be different people today than we were yesterday, to make a greater contribution to the world around us.
This was our third Everest expedition. In 1991 and again 1994, we had gone to the mountain but failed to make the sum-
mit due to inclement weather. After three years of preparation, we and the other members of the Colliers/Lotus Notes team arrived at Everest’s southern base camp in early April, 1997, determined to reach the top this time.
On May 5, we were poised in our advance base camp, ready to begin our summit push, when, with a roar like an express train, jet-stream winds dropped onto the mountain and whipped plumes of snow off the upper slopes of Everest, killing the five climbers on the north side. We retreated down the mountain to wait out the weather. We waited for two weeks. Just as the weather showed signs of lifting, a maverick storm spun out from the epicentre of a murderous cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, smashing into our camp and flattening the little tent village.
By May 22, we had rebuilt our advance base camp. Reorganizing our summit teams, we raced for Camp IV at 8,000 m. With the Everest “season” now compressed into just a few days, no fewer than 70 climbers from many countries were on the South Col that night. About 40 were preparing to challenge the summit. Suddenly, the wind stopped. Under a crystal-clear full moon, we hurriedly ate and dressed. At 11:30 p.m., we stepped out onto the steep southeast shoulder of Mount Everest with our expedition leader Jason Edwards and five Sherpas. Ahead and behind us were teams from New Zealand, the United States, Malaysia and
One false step, one moment's inattention, can meareath or grave injury
Britain. (A total of 22 climbers would reach the summit that night.) It was like going onstage. We had butterflies in our stomachs and our minds wandered. Was our conditioning suited to the challenge? Would we be distracted by the plight of other climbers? Would the winds try to blow us off the ridge?
As we climbed, Jason was forced to drop out because of an eye problem—the extreme altitude caused him to start bleeding from the retina. By 1 a.m., Alan began, unaccountably, to fall behind. We ended up making separate attempts at the summit, with Jamie making it about two hours before Alan.
Tknew within the first hour that it was going to be a strong climb when I kept overtaking my Sherpa. The Sherpas are usually well ahead. Our rest breaks seemed unnecessary and I sensed that something extraordinary, almost transcendent, was happening. By the time we reached the “Balcony,” a prominent shelf on the southeast ridge, I was alone with two Sherpa companions, Lhakpa and Gyalbm. r w I was transfixed by ttWÏÏsingsun prTrfiÿ right and the setting moon on my left. The immense shadow_of Evens'! played across the mon-
soon clouds in the distance and I imagined myself as a minuscule dot on the trailing edge of the mountain’s silhouette. We paused below the South Summit, swung out on top, and climbed farther into the stratosphere. I felt it was a day for which I had been born. I was so filled with joy that I was giggling into my oxygen mask.
The most sobering moment in the climb came at the Hillary Step, a rock pitch named for Sir Edmund Hillary that is less than 100 m below the summit. Amid a tangle of ropes lacing the rocks hung the body of Bruce Herrod, a South African who died on Everest in the tragic spring of 1996. Pete Athans, an experienced American climber, had already discovered the body and was struggling to free it. I stopped to help. What might have been a simple task at sea level was treacherous and complicated on the rocks at this altitude, but we managed. In our own quiet ceremony, Pete and I committed the body to the mountain.
Clear of the duty to Athans and the fallen climber, I moved up onto the Summit Ridge. I can only describe it as a homecoming, even though I had never been there before. I had read about it, examined photographs from every conceivable angle, and visualized it so often that I felt I was standing on familiar ground. I knew this place, and felt welcome.
Seven and a half hours after leaving Camp IV, Lhakpa, Gyalbu and I joined the New Zealand team on the summit. Hoping Alan would soon arrive, I spent 45 minutes savoring the view from the top of the world and taking the obligatory summit photographs. I took the time to wander down the Northeast Ridge, hoping to find my fallen friend Peter Kowalzik from the Kazakh team, who had died only days before, and wanting to stand where Michael Reinberger, an Australian friend from 1994, had also died. As the Kiwis began to drift from the top, the three of us remained gazing into the shadow-filled valleys from the only place that earthly shadows could not touch.
When Lhakpa’s mask valve began to malfunction, we knew we could wait no longer. As my Sherpa friends began their descent, I lingered utterly alone, standing on the very pinnacle of the world with one foot in Nepal and the other in Tibet. I opened my arms, surrendered to the moment, turned 360 degrees, and saw the edges of the world dropping away in all directions.
Although I was alone, I felt I was joined by my family, my friends, the people who
The summit-'the top of the world'is only the size of a dining-room table
shared our dream and the thousands of schoolchildren around the world who had been following our expedition in their classrooms via the Internet. It was a shared achievement because I could not have done it by myself. It was a moment of bliss.
As above struck we started the by South how steep up Col, the and slope I hard was the ice was. We were not using a fixed rope, and it became clear that the farther we moved from camp, the greater the danger became. As the angle of the slope increased, I focused on what would save my life, rather than what might kill me.
By 1 a.m., I found myself mysteriously falling behind the rest of our group and, realizing that I might not be thinking clearly, I asked one of my Sherpas,
Kami Tsering, to check my oxygen. I suddenly became cold and told him,
“We have to go down—now!” But instead of turning around, he walked up to me and announced: “1991 expedition— no summit. 1994: no summit. This expedition: very important summit.”
Kami discovered I had been drawing on an empty oxygen bottle. He hooked up a new bottle for me and I felt an immediate psychological and physical boost. I knew that if I could move, I could stay warm. So we trudged on, feeling confident, at least until the wind began gusting again at 2:30 a.m.
The wild blowing snow stole the moon, which had been lighting our way, and gave me an ominous feeling about the mountain. Without warning, one of the gusts blasted me in the face and filled my hood with snow, which slipped down my back. At this point, I wondered if I could continue since I knew how quickly I would get cold up there.
As Kami and I came over the crest of the southeast ridge, a whole new world opened up. I could see the entire ridge and the South Summit. We had enough oxygen left for a decent shot at the top.
My other Sherpa, Tashi Tsering, was waiting on the Balcony. “You need to let me know whether we can do it safely in the time allotted,” I told him. “If we can’t, we’re going back down—right now." He turned to me and said: "No problem. Still early.” I thought: “If the weather holds, we might just pull this off.”
But we had to cross the chunk of real estate that scared me the most— a knife-edged ridge with a 2,700-m drop on the right into Tibet and a 1,500-m drop on the left into Nepal.
Cranking my oxygen as far as it would go, I wanted to make sure that I was in control. Even so, my legs started shaking and I told myself: “This is just horrendous. Don’t look down over the edge into the abyss, Alan.” Passing an ice hole in the snowy lip of the ridge, I stared down in disbelief—all the way down to the Kangshung Glacier, 2,700 metres below. “Just look at your feet, and follow the footsteps,” I told myself.
Jamie and I passed each other at the Hillary Step. I was concentrating on reaching the summit, he on making a safe descent. Above the step the mountain gradually slopes up to the right. The summit itself is about three metres long and just wide enough to stand on. Tattered prayer flags and a discarded survey instrument litter the place. It was a bit of an eyesore, but it was also a sight for sore eyes.
Once there, I used my radio and announced: “Base camp: this is Hobson. I confirm arrival on the summit of Tashi Tsering, Kami Tsering and myself at 9 a.m., May 23, 1997. Half the dream is done. If
there is a lesson here, it’s that if you hang on to your dreams long enough, you can achieve them.” Then, I started to cry with joy.
Within 15 minutes I had the pictures I needed to prove where I had been. But I had no desire to look at the view because I was still focused on not making any mistakes, on making Canada proud—and on making it down alive. On Everest, it only counts if you make the round trip, and I didn’t want anyone to be able to say, “I told you he couldn’t do it.”
On the way down I removed my mask because of an oxygen flow problem, suffering second-degree burns to my face as a result. I was so tired that my legs gave out and I fell—fortunately, I was clipped to a fixed rope at the time.
I took some dexamethasone, a fast-acting anti-inflammatory, and things improved dramatically. By 2:30 in the afternoon, Jamie welcomed us back to Camp IV. We were excited, satisfied, exhausted and well aware that we could not really celebrate until we were safely back at our base camp.
CLARKE AND HOBSON
We summit, dreams went to but of Everest we also our friends, with families the brought personal with and sponsors goal us the of attaining hopes back and home. the We take pride in the willingness of members of our team to lend a helping hand, as was illustrated by the rescue of other climbers during our descent. We strove for a higher purpose than to simply stand on top of the world.
Our adventure safely concluded, our goal will be to demonstrate how the lessons we learned on Everest can be applied to the world of business and the business of life. We want to do more than merely share a story about a couple of guys who climbed a mountain. In many ways, what we did was irrelevant. What is not irrelevant are the lessons we learned along the way: how to work as a team, how to overcome setbacks, how to deal with failure, how to push through pain and discomfort and how to make dreams come true, whatever the obstacles. From Everest, we learned that it is unrealistic to expect to have success without failure. Failure is an integral part of success, because it is from failure that we learn. □
These articles were prepared with the assistance of Ian Clarke and Dave Rodney.
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