Back at Camp 2 on
Northeast Col the next day, we faced the prospect of still more backbreaking
journeys with supplies. Above us, however, at Camp 5 the summit was within
reach of our advance parties.
mounting there, at this next-to-last assault platform, where six men waited
their opportunity to break through to the summit. After the exhausting work of
weeks, tempers were taut. The high altitude and the resulting lack of oxygen
made for an occasional uncomfortable incident, such as when one of the men
claimed Dhaulagiri as "his" to the exclusion of his teammates.
Fortunately, Ernst Forrer, a first-rate and levelheaded climber, was able to
keep the situation from becoming explosive.
Those of us on
the lower slopes kept busy getting the supplies from Dapa Col and the
timber-line camp to the higher assault areas. We could only hope, and
occasionally watch the vast whiteness of that distant stage on which the actors
in our drama, tiny specks to us, played out their roles. On May 12 the advance
force established Camp 6 at 25,600 feet, only 1,375 from the summit, and we
guessed the last push might have begun. At 9 in the morning we saw two figures
climbing over the highest point visible to us. Seen through the binoculars,
they seemed to be Sherpas. We expected the sahibs had gone in advance. This
meant to us that the great event probably was at hand.
It was indeed.
Ernst Forrer told us later of the tenacious and triumphant struggle that was
being waged far above us:
"The dawn of
May 13 was "clear and beautiful. It came none too soon for us; the night
had seemed endless. We were six men squeezed into a two-man tent, a tiny
shelter wedged under the overhang of a rock at 25,600 feet. Tense with the
burden of our decision, we could have no thought of sleep. But when the first
light of morning came we were ready."
At 8 a.m. I roped
up with the Sherpa Nima Dorje, and westarted breaking trail. Kurt Diemberger
and Nawang Dorje followed close behind, and after them came Peter Diener and
Albin Schelbert. Our route followed a narrow and exposed ridge, a saddle
between the false summit and the true top of the mountain. Snow conditions were
treacherous, and we belayed with care. We had no time and little energy for
conscious thought of where we were and what we were doing. All our efforts were
concentrated on progressing upward, on surmounting whatever obstacles lay
some steep rock passages which required strenuous pull-ups, and we got
extremely short of breath. To climb an eight-thousander [a peak 8,000 meters,
or 26,247 feet, high] without oxygen is absolutely exhausting. Our lungs seemed
constantly at the bursting point. We had to halt after every step to breathe
laboriously and painfully the thin air."
animal-like in their almost mindless effort, the six men struggled on—and
suddenly it was over. The last upward step had been taken; there was nowhere
else to go. They had reached the highest point of Dhaulagiri on the rooftop of
the world. They raised their eyes and saw no more rock ridges, no more slopes
of snow, but only the clear blue sky above, the cloud-shrouded earth below. To
the south clouds stretched in an apparently endless sea; to the north, like
clouds themselves, were the countless snow peaks of Tibet. Quite near was
Annapurna, the purgatory of Maurice Herzog, the first of the deadly
eight-thousanders ever climbed by man.
"It was an
extraordinary moment," Forrer recalled. "After the long, long battle,
here was peace. The sun was brilliant, the air calm. There was scarcely even a
breeze up here—a miracle after Dhaulagiri's storms! It was hard to believe, but
there we stood: six men on the summit of Dhaulagiri. Never before had so many
stood on top of an eight-thousander."
each other and the stunning view around them, planted a piton with a piece of
climbing rope on the peak and then reluctantly turned away. A peak like
will not tolerate the presence of men on its highest slopes for
long. They stayed for an hour and a half, and then began the no less
treacherous and difficult climb back down the mountain.