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Above 25,000 feet the line between life and death is thin and poorly drawn. Senses are dulled by lack of oxygen. Your vision is blurred. Your legs seem to be frozen to the ground. Every action, every thought, becomes a monumental effort. If taken from sea level directly to this height, you would lose consciousness in less than seven minutes and die within half an hour. But during the weeks of painful climbing up a mountain, the body gradually adjusts. The effects of altitude, of course, are removed when you breathe from tanks of oxygen; the climber, in effect, becomes his sea-level self. Many mountaineers regarded such use of oxygen on Everest last year as unsporting.
But the great imponderable that defeats all but a few expeditions is the weather. Only during a few short weeks in the late spring or early autumn do climbers dare invade the Himalayas. From early November to March, the peaks are lashed with icy storms in which no human could survive. During the summer, the monsoons sweep hot, rain-filled clouds from the far-off Bay of Bengal and blanket the entire area with billions of tons of loose snow.
Usually the monsoon has spent its force on the main part of the Himalayas near Everest before reaching K2 in the Karakoram, a thousand miles north and west. Thus the climbing season there is generally later and longer than on Everest.
Last year, however, our entire party of eight climbers was caught in a savage storm at 25,500 feet. For 10 days we huddled in our tiny camp, just 2,500 feet below our goal, while wind-driven snow flailed our tents. Each time we tried to light stoves for a hot meal or to melt snow for water the flapping fabric snuffed out the flames. We lived on cold meat bars and a mixture of jam, powdered milk and snow. The altitude and dehydration took its toll. Toward the end of the storm we were forced to carry down one of our members who was mortally ill. During that nightmarish descent, we lost him and nearly lost ourselves in a fall and an avalanche.
This year, the Italian party, led by Professor Desio, profited by our experience and entered the area a full five weeks earlier. They still found deep, almost impassable snow on the march to base camp. And once on the mountain, the weather almost succeeded in defeating their attempt.
How do mountain expeditions start? How are the climbers chosen? Where does the money for such a gigantic undertaking come from? Some parties, like Professor Desio's, are big business, organized and directed by committees with large staffs and huge measures of money and supplies. In Europe, mountaineering clubs which have 10 or 20 thousand members finance such a party; unlike the United States, most European governments will bear a large share of the expense. Desio had nearly $175,000 before he left Italy.
Other expeditions begin with one or two enthusiastic climbers who inspire a handful of friends and beg or borrow money, food and equipment. On such a shoestring they set off against a giant. This year's American party to Makalu was such a group, sponsored and organized by the Sierra Club in California. Their total expense was $30,000.
Mountaineers come from all walks of life. There have been painters, printers, beekeepers, ski instructors, business men and writers?but lawyers, doctors and teachers predominate. Many begin by scrambling in quarries or on cliffs near home, soon graduating to our Rockies, the Alps and finally to bigger, more challenging mountains. For the highest climbs, character and personality mean more than outstanding skill. What a man is counts more than what he has done.
The Golden Age of Himalayan climbing is now beginning. Barring unforeseen political upheavals, more and more climbing will be done. There are hundreds of virgin peaks to scale, thousands of square miles never before seen by man to be explored and mapped. In the rush to conquer new heights, it should not be forgotten that climbing is not, or should not be, a competitive sport. Climbing is a way of life, a re-dedication of oneself to nature in her grandest form. Said Mallory, referring to the conquest of Everest, "Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here."
Dr. Charles S. Houston of Exeter, N.H., a leading U.S. mountaineer, began his climbing career on Mont Blanc at the age of 11. A member of the successful climb of Nanda Devi, he led two attempts to scale K2, in 1938 and 1953. Co-author William H. White of the SI staff accompanied last year's party.