His name was Earl Denman. He had little money, little help and less equipment. But six years before the world's toughest mountain was finally conquered, he made it up 22,500 tortured feet — and one of the men with him was the same Tenzing Norkay who eventually got to the top
ON MAY 29, 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norkay became the first men to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, the celebrated Sherpa guide was wearing a woolen balaclava helmet given to him six years earlier by an amateur Canadian mountain climber named Earl Denman. “So at last,” Tenzing recounted later, “a little part of Denman reached his goal.”
Tenzing and another Sherpa, Ang Dawa, had joined Denman in 1947 in what was probably the least publicized and most haphazard assault ever made on the world’s highest mountain. For a comparison consider the American Everest expedition of last « spring, when nine hundred porters carried twenty-seven tons of equipment to the base camp in the foothills. From there seventy - three men mounted the assault, nineteen of them climbers and scientists, thirtytwo of them Sherpas who were expert high-altitude guides. The budget of the American expedition was four hundred thousand dollars.
Denman, a twenty-four-year-old native of Tod Inlet, Vancouver Island, had less than a thousand dollars to defray all expenses: equipment and supplies were limited to what three men could carry up the almost vertical slopes, and did not include oxygen tanks or warm sleeping bags, or any instrument for measuring altitude. The camera he took along to record the climb was a second-hand one which turned out to have a leaky bellows. Denman did not even have permission to enter Tibet, the “forbidden land.” He considered it worse than useless to try for a visa, since Tibet had long been closed to foreigners, and to apply would have alerted the hostile Tibetan officials to his plan. So Denman grew a beard and instructed his Sherpas to let it be known that he was an American missionary (“because,” he explained later, “I thought America would have a better chance of being known to Tibetans than any other country”). But the disguise did not help and Denman’s journey to and from the north face of Everest, through the rugged Tibetan wilderness, became a series of narrow escapes from cavalry patrols and encounters with unfriendly villagers and fierce dogs.
Denman, who was working as an engineer in Southern Rhodesia
after ihe Second World War, prepared himself physically for the Everest project by climbing in succession all eight peaks of the Belgian Congo’s Mufumbiro range, much of the way barefooted to toughen his feet. But even when he reached Darjeeling, one of the few towns of any size in the Himalayan foothills, he had no clear plan of what to do next.
In a Darjeeling shop window he saw a photograph of Everest, and noticed that the name on the shop was that of a Sherpa he remembered having read about in a book describing previous Everest expeditions. In this almost accidental manner he got in touch with Tenzing and Ang Dawa. When Denman and Tenzing met, Tenzing was at the lowest ebb of his fortunes. He had taken part in three previous attempts on Everest, in 1935, 1936 and 1939, and had once reached within two thousand feet of the summit, and later he recalled: “After the war there seemed to be no ups, only downs. For myself there was only a day’s work here, another day’s there, all of them menial and dreary. What had happened to me — or to the world
that 1 could no longer go to the mountains I loved and the life 1 was born for?”
Tenzing realistically regarded Denman’s project as “a crazy thing.” But at least it offered him a chance to “go to the mountains he loved.” “Nothing made sense about it,” Tenzing related. “First, we would probably not even get into Tibet; second, if we did get in we would probably be caught and be in serious trouble; third, I did not for a moment believe that, even if we reached the mountain, a party such as this would be able to climb it; fourth, the attempt would be highly dangerous, and fifth, Denman did not have enough money either to pay us well or to guarantee a decent sum to our dependants in case something happened to us. Any man in his right mind would have said no. But I couldn’t say no. The pull of Everest was stronger for me than any force on earth.”
Denman, Tenzing and Ang Dawa set out from Darjeeling on March 22, 1947. When possible they
joined caravans on the pilgrims’ route to Lhasa, for the sake of concealment. To travel past the Tibetan border they detoured over a little-used (and therefore, they hoped, unguarded) pass, the Kongra La.
Before them now lay the
thirteen-thousand-foot-high Tibetan plateau, a far more difficult route than that usually taken by Everest expeditions, which led past two Tibetan government forts (“the obvious reason for our avoidance of this route,” Denman noted in his diary). Not only was the plateau broken by deep gorges, but the weather was a foretaste of Everest’s violence: “The country was bleak, barren and bitterly cold. The wind was the most penetrating I have ever experienced. Every day this harsh, chill-
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They were beaten by the cold, the wind, the hostile Tibetan cavalry and a shortage ot tea
ing wind would blow up an hour before noon and sweep with a gale force until sunset. Dust devils, swept along the sandy wastes by the high winds, came upon us from all directions.”
The population of the plateau was as inhospitable as the terrain and climate: “The villages were filthy beyond words, and the people outstandingly hostile, even allowing for the fact that we had no right to be among them.” The villagers kept packs of huge mastiff dogs which would pounce on travelers, to the merriment of their owners. After narrow escapes from being torn to pieces by these dogs, Denman and his Sherpas found it prudent to keep their ice axes handy when they approached villages.
Other Tibetan animals bedeviled
them. They were pleased at being able to rent a few dzos — ungainly hybrids of the yak and the cow — to carry their supplies through the rough terrain. But one day the dzos stampeded and scattered the expedition’s scanty possessions over a steep rocky slope. Actually little was lost, but a container of fuel for the cooking stove sprang a leak. This was to have serious consequences later on the heights of Everest.
The next day the three men were intercepted by a patrol of Tibetan cavalrymen who ordered them to turn around and leave the country at once. Instead Denman skirted around the nearby village, spent the night in the wilderness beyond, and next day executed a triple march deeper into the mountainous country toward Everest.
“The agony of that march will remain with me forever,” Denman noted. From then on the expedition was fugitive, its members in danger of capture and possible summary execution for their open defiance of the Tibetan authorities.
But by forced marches they reached
Rongbuk Monastery, the traditional starting place of assaults on Everest from the north. In the vast lamasery they were housed “in a windswept (not merely draughty) upstairs room.” It served them as base camp. Denman’s party didn’t need a supply base like the ones British expeditions used to have at the tongue of the main Rongbuk glacier, at an altitude of just over 16,500 feet—the three men carried all they had on their backs.
That “all” was not much, but still quite a lot to back-pack at such heights. For food, there was a little tinned stuff, rusks, cheese, chocolate, and “biltong,” strips of sun-dried antelope or buffalo meat, a specialty of the South African veld. The worst was that there was no more tea; even if there had been, there would hardly have been enough fuel after the “dzos” incident. They had two balloon-fabric tents, so thin that the wind penetrated them freely. At first Denman occupied one tent alone but he soon moved in with the Sherpas for mutual warmth.
The worst trial was the cold.
Everest was almost free of snow that year from above twenty-three-thousand-foot Chang La (the “North Col” of the British expeditions) to the summit. Denman first thought that this would make the ascent easier, but Tenzing, from previous experience, knew that the absence of snow meant that hurricane gales were sweeping everything clean up there.
The four nights which the three men spent on their upward climb were, in Denman’s words, of “indescribable horror. Each minute seemed an hour, and each hour an eternity.” The last night was the worst. They pitched their tent in a swirling hurricane. Even to keep their tent in place was a continuous, desperate struggle for the three exhausted men. The wind tore out two of the tent pegs, and several times almost blew mountaineers and tent down onto the glacier.
On that fourteenth of April, though, after the terrible night spent on the slope beneath the North Col, even the determined Denman realized that he was beaten. They had dragged them-
selves to the 22,500 foot level, but could go no farther.
"I was faced with the greatest decision of my life,” Denman later wrote. "We could cither turn back and re-erect our tent in its previous position, or go right down the mountain and away. If we remained in a death-or-glory hid. we would likely perish. Tenzing and Ang Dawa had never complained openly and were, I kneu. ready to obey me in any decisioni that I made. The fact that they were such splendid fellows and that their lives were in my hands made me think twice. Reluctantly, 1 gave the order to go down ... I had attempted more than was humanly possible. There could be no disgrace in such a defeat, but I felt humiliated by the fact that 1 had been spurred originally by high ideals.”
Later Tenzing added a footnote: “Denman was a brave man—a determined. almost fanatic man with a fixed idea. But he was not crazy. He was not ready to kill himself, he was willing to go back. For this 1 am as grateful as for anything that has happened in my life, for it would have been a terrible decision for Ang Dawa and myself if he had insisted on going on.” The loyalty even of the best Sherpas clearly had its limits.
The descent was almost as agonizing as the ascent. Denman's climbing hoots were so shredded by ice and sharp rocks that he was literally barefooted during most of the journey back to the monastery.
Earl Denman got his last glimpse of the mountain of his shattered dreams as he was about to leave Rongbuk Monastery on the first stage of his journey back. “The entire north face was shrouded in dense masses of black cloud. No human being could have lived there then. It was snowing on us as well as on the mountain as we moved out of sight.” On April 2<S, after what was at times more a race than a march (they were still in danger of capture by Tibetan patrols), the three men were back in Darjeeling.
The following year — I 948 — Denman returned for another attempt on Everest. This time he had better equipment and more money, but was unable to find any Sherpas to accompany him. The story of the escapade of 1947 had gone around. It was believed that the Tibetan authorities knew all about it and were determined not to let it happen again. Tenzing, who might have ventured up with Denman again, was already negotiating with an authorized and properly organized scientific expedition which Professor Tucci, an Italian, was leading into Tibet. Denman reluctantly left for home.
Denman has never climbed a mountain since then — but he still lives dangerously. He is an engineer in an engine - assembly plant near Port Elizabeth in South Africa, and until the government's policies prevented him from publishing his writing, he was an outspoken critic of the Verwoerd administration. He told me recently: "Where the eight Mufumbiro peaks were once a challenge, and then Everest, it is now the parlous political situation in South Africa, and in Africa as a whole, that provides the challenge.” ★
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