One reason for
this style was evolution: the more known about Everest, the less needed to
climb it. Another reason was sportsmanship: a voluntary limitation of tools to
deal with nature, not unlike that in bowhunting. We believed that breathing the
thinnest air on the earth's surface was part and parcel of Everest's
Oxygen does have
undeniable health and safety benefits. Without it, climbers at great heights
become like sick men walking in a dream. When Everest was first climbed by Sir
Edmund Hillary's expedition in 1953, using oxygen, two physiologists with his
team dismissed the debate over using oxygen as a "futile controversy."
The mountain was finally conquered with its use, and they concluded:
"Oxygen undoubtedly reduces the mountaineering hazards and greatly
increases the subjective appreciation of the surroundings, which, after all, is
one of me chief reasons for climbing."
Kim Momb, a member
of our expedition, explained his own choice: "I've got a close friend who
climbed Everest in 1981 using oxygen above 24.500 feet. When we were together
on another high peak, he told me. 'I've always felt I could get to the top of
Everest without oxygen.' But he doesn't know. He doesn't know if he could have
made it under his own lung power. For me the mountain is my challenge to
myself. I'm pretty sure I'm physically strong enough: I'm interested to learn
if I'm mentally strong enough. The most intriguing thing about this whole deal
is to learn what your mind can make your body do."
climbing partner is John Roskelley. America's most accomplished Himalaya
climber and also a member of our team. Roskelley has never used oxygen, yet he
has been to the top of K2, Makalu and Dhaulagiri, the world's second, fifth and
sixth highest peaks, respectively. He doesn't see Everest as the ultimate
achievement. He finds his greatest enjoyment in climbing smaller, previously
unclimbed peaks with a small group of friends, but he has been endowed with
such a rare combination of endurance, judgment and ability to acclimatize that
he feels a mandate from without to try the big ones. "Climbing big
Himalayan peaks isn't something I like." Roskelley says "Let's face it:
Dodging avalanches isn't the best way to spend your time But I'm an American
I'm good at it, and I'm competitive with other international climbers."
Both Roskelley and
I have climbed extensively with Schmitz, my partner on the icy fixed ropes.
Five of my successful Himalayan expeditions have been with this most unusual
man. His triangle torso and wide-set eyes make him appear so much like a
comic-strip hero that he once lost out on a chance to model for macho cigarette
ads because his looks were judged unreal. His voice, disarmingly gentle and
unassertive, doesn't seem to fit him until one sees Schmitz move up a cliff
with the easy grace of a dancer. We rarely talk when we climb because we know
each other's needs and move at the same pace. Sometimes it feels as if one body
is climbing in two places at once. One of the greatest joys of mountaineering
is to experience this fragile balance of interdependence and independence
On the day my
ascenders began slipping, as Schmitz and I made our way up the fixed ropes
together, seemingly alone on Mount Everest, we saw a red tent 5,000 feet below
us at the base of the Khumbu Icefall. It wasn't ours. We were looking across
the Tibetan border into Nepal. Two American expeditions were on Mount Everest
at the same time with no intercommunication whatsoever.
Since the storm
our Camp III at 22,000 feet had been unoccupied. When Schmitz and I arrived at
the site, we (bund an unbroken slope without even a depression where three
tents had been pitched on a level platform. Hours of digging brought us to a
collapsed tent eight feet below the surface. Chilled with freezing sweat, we
crawled into our sleeping bags at dusk. Then we started a small stove to melt
snow for hot drinks and a freeze-dried dinner.
schedule, I made radio contact with the other camps at 6 p.m. Tackle had been
at 25.000 feet in Camp V for 10 consecutive nights without oxygen. He sounded
tired, but he and Houston were game to keep going. In the lower camps people
were getting impatient. They wanted us to succeed or fail so the expedition
could go home.
the 17 rugged, individualistic men had been so smooth there had rarely been a
raised voice, but now I overheard a climber who had burned out after several
stints above 24.000 feet call and advise Camp V from below: "You guy-,
should quit. You're foolish to stay up and wait for Galen and Kim. Conditions
are getting worse, and you aren't going to get anywhere. Galen just wants to
get higher than anyone else so that he can write a book about it."
I didn't sleep at
all. I wondered if any others thought my motivation was so shallow. What if our
expedition ended this way, with Tackle and Houston quitting after the radio
call? In the past, I had been crossed off the rosters of several climbs that
greatly interested me because, as I later learned, people were worried that
having a writer on the inside of the team might result in the divulging to the
public of sensitive issues, just as I find myself doing now.