We were winning
until the rope broke. Men flew backward onto the ice. Carman yelled. "My
finger is dislocated!" Almost in one motion Mike Graber jumped onto the
glacier, grabbed Carman's finger and yanked it into place with surprising
force. "To be an orthopedic surgeon." he announced with a twinkle in
his eye, "you have to be able to bench-press twice your IQ."
The loss of The
Great Yak War forced us to become the yaks. For the next two weeks we undertook
the task of ferrying loads up the rock-strewn ice while an advance guard of
Graber, Momb, Roskelley and Tackle began fixing ropes up an un-climbed arête on
the West Ridge.
On April 5,
Roskelley and Momb crested the ridge at 24,000 feet. Seven thousand feet of
rope were fixed on the face below to facilitate hauling loads. The two men had
reached the Tibet/Nepal border, from where they could look down for the first
time into the Western Cwm (a Welsh word which means circular depression).
We didn't know
that the Bass/Wells team was working lower down in the Khumbu Icefall, a moving
river of ice in which crevasses open and close and house-sized blocks of ice
tumble without warning. Their six principal climbers had first go at the
summit, fixing the route along the way through the icefall and up the headwall
to the South Col at 26.000 feet. After nine spooky days of setting up ropes and
ladders, 25 Sherpa porters began hauling loads into the Cwm, while Bass and
Wells passed through the danger zone but once.
We were confident
that unless something unusual happened we could put at least two men on the
top. A summit bid seemed possible as early as April 20, and our chief concern
was whether we would be well enough acclimatized to proceed so high so soon
On April 12, a
storm, lasting a week, dashed our hopes of an early summit bid. When the clouds
finally parted we were glad to see that high winds had kept the snow from
sticking. On April 26, we established Camp V at the base of the final rock
pyramid. We had 11 men capable of working above 20,000 feet to stock the upper
camps, whereas the only successful ascent of the direct ridge, by Yugoslavs in
1979, had utilized 25 climbers and 40 Sherpas, plus oxygen.
On May 3, while
Roskelley and Momb were reaching 26,000 feet on the ridge, three of our support
climbers packed to leave. One had dysentery and the other two had business
commitments. Our manpower was dipping low.
The next morning
Roskelley woke up at 5 a.m. at 25.000 feet to tell Momb that he was certain he
had pulmonary edema. They were alone in Camp V.
pulmonary edema is a spontaneous, often fatal filling of the lungs with fluid.
Its cause is still something of a mystery. Both men knew that the only sure
treatment was rapid descent. Roskelley's case was advancing so quickly, he had
become so weak and uncoordinated, that he was unable to tie his shoes or put on
his crampons. Momb helped him to do so, and immediately they started down roped
together. A mile and a half of corniced ridge led to Camp IV, where Tackle,
Carman. McKinney and Houston were still in their sleeping bags.
After an hour's
rest Roskelley, sandwiched between Houston and Momb, started down the fixed
rope. "If it wasn't for the fact that John is so damned strong.' "Momb
told us at 19,700-foot Camp II that afternoon, "he wouldn't be here
alive." Once down. Roskelley began recovering very quickly, but it was
doubtful that he could go back on the mountain.