Twenty-six thousands feet above sea level on Mount Everest, we crawled from two small tents into the -40° Himalayan night. It was 11 p.m. on May 11, 1988. The wind had stopped, and the sky was a glittering tapestry of stars. Three desolate beams of light from our headlamps sliced across the expanse of snow, ice and rock. Tomorrow would be summit day. If we could climb the remaining 3,000 feet to the summit and return alive, our expedition would be a remarkable success.
Our goal was audacious: to take a new route up Everest's 12,000-foot Kangshung, or East Face, without bottled oxygen, or Sherpas to carry our supplies. This enterprise was so risky that our friends at home worried about whether we could survive the effort. The dangers of even a "routine" Himalayan climb are many: avalanches, ice and rock fall, hidden crevasses, monsoon storms and, of course, frostbite. But ours would be far riskier. More than once, I questioned my own sanity. Later we learned that even Reinhold Messner of Italy, who is perhaps the world's most accomplished mountaineer, had dismissed our new route as too dangerous.
The passion to climb the highest mountain on earth was shared by our team of four: expedition leader Robert Anderson, 30, and me—I'm 32—from the U.S.; Stephen Venables, 34, from England; and Paul Teare, 28, from Canada. My romance with Everest began at the age of 11, when I read Everest Diary, based on Lute Jerstad's chronicle of the first American ascent in 1963. His descriptions of Chomolungma—the Sherpa name for Everest, meaning "Goddess Mother of the Earth"—fired my young imagination. During the next 20 years I became a skilled rock climber and mountaineer, making ascents in many parts of the world, but I wondered if I would ever get a shot at Chomolungma. Given the small number of Everest expeditions and the intense competition for positions on each climbing team, my prospects seemed slim.
My break came in 1985 when my mountaineering articles and my wide range of climbing experience finally paid off and I was invited to join an ascent by way of Everest's West Ridge. It was a large-scale outing—the traditional way to make the climb—with 20 mountaineers from the U.S. and a dozen Sherpas. Supplementary oxygen was used. I made it to 24,500 feet, which was more than 10,000 feet higher than I had ever reached before. Anderson, a native of Colorado who now lives in New Zealand, was one of the strongest climbers on that expedition; he once got to the 28,000-foot mark on the West Ridge and once to 28,200, but because of a malfunctioning oxygen tank, he failed each time to make the summit at 29,028 feet. I was part of another Everest expedition, in 1986, that attempted to reach the summit via the North Col (a saddle-shaped depression on the crest of a ridge). It also failed, so Anderson and I both had unfinished business. When Anderson suggested another expedition to me, this time up the East Face, I was ready.
Anderson, who was the natural choice for expedition leader, obtained our climbing permit from the Chinese Mountaineering Association in Beijing in 1986. A year later Teare, another experienced mountaineer, signed on with us. Norbu Tenzing Norgay, eldest son of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who was Sir Edmund Hillary's partner on Everest's first successful ascent, agreed to handle the logistics for us. In celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Hillary ascent, Lord John Hunt, leader of that illustrious British climb, became our honorary expedition leader. He suggested that we include at least one English climber, and he recommended Venables, one of Britain's best young Himalayan mountaineering specialists.
In addition to the four climbers, our expedition included medical adviser Miriam Zieman and photographer Joe Mark Blackburn, both from the New York City area, who would support us at our advanced base camp on the Kangshung glacier at 17,800 feet. A Sherpa sirdar ("headman"), Pasang Norbu, would cook for us at base camp 600 feet below, with a Tibetan cook boy, Kasang Tsering, as his assistant.
Six weeks of dangerous, technical climbing saw us over the mountain's lower difficulties to the South Col and the highest of the three camps we had established on our route to the summit. Now we were in familiar territory, our new route up the East Face having brought us to the same point reached by several other expeditions, including Hillary's, which had made their ascents from other directions. It was from the South Col that we began our final push late on the evening of May 11. That morning Teare had become sick. Quite likely he was suffering the onset of cerebral edema, a form of high-altitude sickness that leaves the sufferer weak and disoriented. If it's left untreated, it can kill swiftly. An immediate descent was Teare's only hope, but who would accompany him? Whoever went with him would be virtually forfeiting any chance of reaching the summit. As leader, Anderson had to remain; either Venables or I would go with Teare. We were both healthy and feeling strong. Before Venables and I could decide which of us would leave, the door of the tent in which we were talking was unzipped. It was Teare. "I don't want either of you to come down with me. We've all worked hard for this climb," he said firmly. Then his voice cracked with emotion: "I can get down on my own. Just make me proud, O.K.? Get to the top?" He grabbed his pack and disappeared, alone, toward our advanced base camp, 8,400 feet down the mountain.
The South Col may be the windiest place on earth. It forms a natural wind tunnel between the world's fourth-highest peak, the 27.890-foot Lhotse, and Everest. Wind gusts of more than 100 mph have picked up whole tents—with climbers inside. To be extra safe, we stacked rocks inside our tents and anchored them to boulders with climbing rope. On the night of May 10, ferocious winds blasted the tent walls. A rip in the fabric would have forced an immediate retreat. Then, miraculously, at midday on May 11, the winds diminished. The gods of Everest were going to let us have a crack at the top.
With Teare gone, Venables, Anderson and I began the final 3,000-foot ascent in the pitch dark. The metal crampons on our climbing boots crunched securely into the wind-packed snow. Cold, dry, oxygen-poor air irritated our already parched throats, and each four or five steps required up to a dozen deep breaths. It is said by mountain climbers that high-altitude climbing is similar to running a marathon with a paper bag over your head. Our decision to forgo the use of bottled oxygen would make the final stage of our ascent pure torture.
Mountaineers, like other athletes, are always trying to outdo each other. A noteworthy climbing achievement might entail a new route up a mountain or a new technique used on a particular ascent. In the case of Everest, this competition has revolved around the use of supplementary oxygen, a practice that has been hotly debated since 1921, when British climbers—without oxygen—mounted the first Everest expedition. Ever since, the battle has raged over whether climbing Everest using supplementary oxygen represents an ascent "by fair means," a standard of some importance to climbers. In '24, Major E.F. Norton of Britain reached a record 28,126 feet without oxygen on Everest's North Face. The first men to complete an oxygenless ascent to the summit were Messner and Peter Habeler. of Austria, in '78. Two years later Messner made the first solo oxygenless ascent of Everest.