Tuesday, March 20

Inspiration for my climb - 1962

An Expedition like no other
In 1962, three amateur mountaineers from New England and one from Switzerland embarked on a remarkable attempt on the unclimbed North Face of Mount Everest. A year before the first successful American expedition reached the summit of Everest backed by 27 tons of equipment and $1.8 million (1999 equivalent), this small, unsupported team climbed to 25,500 feet on 3% of this funding (just over $12,000 in 1962) and set a standard for superalpinism, the fast and light ascents of the highest peaks.

Chessler Books rated the expedition account by Woodrow Wilson Sayre, Four Against Everest, one of the top 100 mountaineering books of all time, judging from early sales demand and surveys conducted in the mountaineering community. The foremost Himalayan expedition leader, Eric Shipton, himself wrote a flattering letter of acknowledgment in the opening pages, calling the expedition a "magnificent achievement" and acknowledging the lightweight style that was ahead of its time and long Shipton's preference. And just last year, Outside Magazine rated the book one of the top 10 Everest adventure stories.

For Woody Sayre, climbing Everest without Sherpas, oxygen, or even logistical support to base camp was both a matter of principle and the necessity of an outsider. He had long practiced the skills required to lead and succeed on expeditions to remote locations with limited support. His climbs on Denali in 1954 and later Mt. Whitney exemplified the purity of his superalpine spirit.

But, long before these "training climbs," he had set his sights on Everest, and he knew he would not be climbing the mountain with any group of professional mountaineers. The style of the day was a three-month-long siege effort with dozens of climbers, hundreds of porters, and tons of supplies. Despite the expense and extended time spent on the target, these expeditions hardly had enviable success rates, and multiple casualties and even fatalities were by far the norm.

Woody was an idealist, and was convinced that in-depth study and extensive preparation could give a small team the same essential skill set with a far greater operational flexibility. The spirit of superalpinism, seen in the writings of Eric Shipton since the late 1940s, had a hold on Woody. It was also his only real choice to fulfill his life-long dream.

Assembling his Team
Longtime friend Norm Hansen was a natural first choice as a teammate on Everest. He and Woody had climbed Denali, and their personal styles were compatible. Assembling the rest of the team was, however, a significant challenge. Woody knew that safety and logistical realities made a team of four the ideal superalpine arrangement. Getting those four would be such a challenge however, that the final team member was literally chosen while they were enroute to Everest.

Selecting a Route
Well into the 1980s, the 8000 meter peaks of the Himalaya were the sole preserve of sanctioned national climbing efforts. Independent teams were not even allowed permission to apply to climb these peaks, and only applications from recognized national alpine clubs had a chance of acceptance. In 1962, Nepal had granted access to Everest to India and a team of professional Indian mountaineers. In the north, Tibet was still reeling from its occupation by China, and was closed to westerners.

So, what options did Woody Sayre have to attempt Everest? No official attempt was possible on either side. For Woody, a perpetual outsider with little interest in playing by anyone else's rules, a feint from a "nearby" peak was the only choice. It would not be easy, but then what Everest attempt ever could be? See the route to gain an appreciation of the tremendous distance and technical challenge the Sayre party accepted, and nearly completed.

As part of my acclimatisation I intend to go out to Nepal 10 days before the "official" climb. Weather permitting, I'll fly to Lukla, and then trek north west through Thame up to the Nangpa La pass - this route has been inspired by Sayre