One day's march
before we got to Tibet we left the caravans and began the climb to Tesi Lapcha
pass. Tesi Lapcha is about 19,000 feet high, a thin notch in a high ridge that
runs north and south, some six days' march from the base of Everest. No one
uses it in the winter, and we had to search through several Sherpa villages
before we could find Sherpas who wanted to make the trip with us. We would say
in Nepali, "Going to Tesi Lapcha?" and they would look at us as if we
Finally we put
together a team. It was a good one. There were three Tibetans and five Sherpas
in addition to Lackpa. They were tough, with great endurance, but they could
laugh and smile, too.
We left the last
village, Thami, and hiked to the foot of the pass. The valley was narrow, and
the sides were steep and high. The sun went down early, and by 3 p.m. we had to
make camp. We felt like we were walking off the edge of the earth. Down the
valley we could see a few small peaks still lit by the sun. Everywhere else
there was nothing but cold, blue peaks and a cold, black sky.
We had come to
think of the Sherpa villages as civilization, and we had felt very much at home
in them. Leaving and going to Tesi Lapcha was putting behind the last traces of
comfort. Now it was ourselves alone against the land.
The next morning
we crawled out of warm down bags, thawed out our boots and broke camp, ready to
climb to the pass. We took the three strongest Sherpas and Lackpa. The others
were to wait for two days, until Lackpa and the Sherpas had returned. Then they
would all carry the rest of the loads up on the third day. Gary, David and I
planned to spend three days at the top of the pass.
I can't really
say what each of us was thinking as we took the first steps early on that cold
morning. We were quiet. Ahead was a notch in the skyline, Tesi Lapcha. To get
to it we had to climb a long, rotten moraine, cross an ice field and climb a
steep ice slope. On each side of the notch were peaks. To the south they were
about 22,000 feet high and to the north about 24,000 feet. None of us mentioned
it, but later we found that all three of us were looking carefully at a peak to
the south as we climbed to the pass. The peak was steep and creased with
crevasses on the side where we made our approach. The north side, with easy
access from the top of the pass, was more gentle. It had no name and had never
been climbed before. No one said a word, but we knew we had time at the top,
while we waited for the porters to bring the rest of the equipment, to make an
attempt. This is what we had come halfway around the world to do.
The moraine was
dangerous. Huge boulders were loosely embedded in the soil, and when the man
above me walked the chances were good that he would knock something loose.
There were seven of us, and the work was hard. The air grew thinner, and we
picked our way up, breathing more heavily. As we went higher, the falling
boulders seemed to come more swiftly when they came, and we moved more slowly
getting out of their way.
We got up the
moraine behind schedule. The Sherpas were worried, because they had to descend
the same night. The ice field was worse. Drifted across it were about three
feet of loose snow, with a breakable crust. At 17,000 feet we broke through the
crust, pulled out and broke through again and again with every step. It was
maddening. We couldn't always get a firm foothold to climb out, so we'd just
keep floundering forward, pushing against the hard crust, waist-deep in the
The ice slope was
easier walking but steeper, and we chopped large steps for the Sherpas. By now
Gary, David and I were exhausted. We had broken trail all across the snowfield.
The last few hours had drained us.
The top was safe,
at least. A large, flat snow slope went off toward the south peak. A high rock
wall to the north would be dangerous if we camped close to it, so we found a
spot on the lower part of the snowfield. The Sherpas left immediately and, with
the sun going down and a wind beginning to chill us, we struggled to make