I thought back to
the first Everest expedition, which escaped London in 1921 "proud of our
success of getting the whole party off without interviews and photographs."
The desire to avoid publicity runs deep in climbing, yet there's an eternal
conflict between the urge for pure personal challenge and the urge for
achievement, defined as "accomplishing something in the mind of
Those who go on an
Everest expedition know they are entering a public arena that passes judgment
strictly on achievement. There's no denying the basic fact that an expedition
that doesn't place a member on the summit is judged a failure. If I did reach
the top and did write a book, it would indeed further my career. But I saw
little difference between this and the situation of the rest of the team. We
had all agreed to seek funding for the expedition from television and other
media. Whoever got to the top would be, if not a full-fledged celebrity at
least a short-lived American phenomenon.
scramble to climb Everest is often called the Olympics of mountaineering. In
reality, a less Olympian sport would be hard to find. Mountaineering has no
rule books, judges, formal spectators or direct competitions. Most of the
world's best climbers never go to Everest. Intent on preserving their private
joy, they remain in their Czechoslovakian Tatras, New Zealand Alps or American
Yosemite Valley. For those who do want to stand on top of the world, the name
of the game is money: You can decide to run a marathon, but you can't just
decide to climb Mount Everest.
Everest is something like building a house. It costs an arm and a leg (or a toe
or a finger), takes months to complete and requires a permit in advance. Both
1983 American expeditions started more than two years before to procure their
permits through convoluted channels. From Nepal the mountain was booked by
Russians, French, Japanese and Canadians for 1982, Germans and Japanese for
1983, Indians. Dutch, South Koreans, New Zealanders and Bulgarians for 1984,
followed by Americans, Swiss, Austrians, Spaniards, Britons, Belgians,
Canadians and others all the way to 1988. From Tibet the mountain was booked to
1989. It's only a matter of time before someone begins trading in Everest
My expedition came
into being in 1980 when Don Castle, an economic consultant, was invited to
Peking by the deputy premier of the People's Republic to instruct Chinese about
American business practices. That year the Chinese had opened mountaineering to
Westerners for the first time since 1945. In return for his instruction. Castle
asked for a permit to climb Everest from Tibet.
Normal routes on
the mountain were sold out, but Castle was offered the West Ridge for 1983 if
he could produce a leader the Chinese knew and trusted. I had been on the first
American climbing expedition to visit Communist China in 1980, and I accepted
Castle's invitation to head up his climb on condition that it would be done
with a small group of friends, without porters or oxygen and for as little
money as possible.
Our goal was the
Direct West Ridge, climbed once from Nepal but never from Tibet. I led the
first American trekking group to the Tibetan side of Everest in the spring of
1981, and I had a fine opportunity to reconnoiter the climb. It looked long and
technically difficult, but I was happy to see that it lacked the avalanche and
icefall dangers that guard other approaches to the peak.
Upon my trekking
group's return to Peking, the Chinese gouged us for thousands of dollars of
unexpected overcharges. I felt unwilling and unqualified to ever negotiate with
the Chinese government again, and I resigned as leader of the Everest climb.
Castle asked if I would stay as climbing leader—responsible for on-the-mountain
decisions—if we found another overall leader. Bob Craig, our first choice,
immediately accepted. At 58, Craig had no expectations of going to the summit,
but he had everything we wanted in a leader. Mountain experience: In 1953 he'd
reached 26,000 feet on K2 without oxygen. Outlook: He was 100% behind the idea
of a self-contained climb Diplomacy Creating teams out of diverse individuals
was a talent he'd honed as director of a think tank called the Aspen Institute
for Humanistic Studies.
Now, as president
of a similar institution in Keystone, Colo., Craig had on his board of
directors a man with a lifelong fascination for Mount Everest, Clay Whitehead,
who also happened to be president of Hughes Satellite Corporation. The two men
brainstormed a proposal for a live telecast via satellite from the summit of
the mountain. If a network bought the idea, the expedition could be funded in
About this time
Frank Wells, president of Warner Bros., and Dick Bass, owner of the Snowbird
Ski Area in Utah, started looking for an Everest expedition they could join. It
was part of their Seven Summits Odyssey, an attempt to reach the highest peak
on each of the seven continents in a one-year period.