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Mount Everest Pure And Simple
Galen Rowell
November 14, 1983
This 1983 American expedition was well prepared for its ascent without oxygen tanks, of the world's highest peak, seen here at nightfall from the party's base camp at 17,200 feet. But would the climbers be ready to deal with failing to reach their rarefied goal?
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November 14, 1983

Mount Everest Pure And Simple

This 1983 American expedition was well prepared for its ascent without oxygen tanks, of the world's highest peak, seen here at nightfall from the party's base camp at 17,200 feet. But would the climbers be ready to deal with failing to reach their rarefied goal?

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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 another."

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.

The multinational 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.

Challenging 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 permit futures

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 one stroke.

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.

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