Attack on Everest
Everest, 1933. By Hugh Ruttledge. -(Hodder and Stoughton. 25s.)
THE Ruttledge expedition to Mount Everest left this country in the early part of 1938 and began to assemble at Darjeeling towards the end of February. It was composed of fourteen men, among whom were such first-class mountaineers and explorers as F. S. Smythe, who had climbed Kamet, L. R. Wager, a companion of Gino Watkins, and Shipton, Greene
and Birnie, also of the successful Kamet expedition.. It was a party of tough customers. It was made even more so by the acquisition at Darjeeling of the Sherpa and Bhutia
porters, among whom were men who had served in previous expeditions with Ruttledge and in the 1924 attempt on Everest itself. It seemed likely that they would make a strong attack on the mountain. Inventors had conferred on them all sorts of new equipment, from a special-double- skinned octagonal tent, " a combination of a Tartar ' and Watkins' Arctic tent," to an ingenious breathing mask designed to prevent sore throat and loss of body heat at high altitudes. The expedition had even had to reject the
offers of certain inventors : of one gentleman who was anxious to lay gas-piping up the mountain with a view to having oxygen on tap, of another who was willing to supply a man-raising kite " inscribed with the legend ',Buy New
Zealand butter.' " The plan of attack on Everest was different from anything previously attempted. . The keynote of it all was acclima- tization. By moderate progress and slow acclimatization up to 23,000 feet it was hoped that the party would arrive on the North Col in a condition of first-rate freshness. Above
that altitude, when deterioration sets in rapidly, a series of short hammer attacks were to be launched. Then also camps were to be higher than in 1924. Camp VI was to
be not at 26,800 feet but at 27,700 feet. It was even possible that there might be a camp VII. Three attempts, and possibly four, were to be made on the mountain. Actually three were made. All were failures. The weather was atrocious. Indeed the weather is really, like Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, the greatest protagonist in the drama. Everest itself remained aloof and static ; but the weather was fickle, cruel, relentless in its bitter perversity.
It shattered the third attempt almost before it had begun. But by that time two remarkable assaults had been made, the first by Wyn Harris and Wager, .the second by Shipton
and Smythe, and they are each bits of epic climbing. It is hard to say which is more admirable, but the first will surely become historic. For on it Harris and Wager made
an amazing discovery :
" The sun had not yet reached them, and they suffered much from cold during the first hour while traversing diagonally upwards towards the north-east ridge. Wager noticed that excessive panting resulted in rapid loss of body heat. Both felt the beginnings of frost-bite. . . Soon after this, about 80 feet below the crust of the ridge and 250 -yards east of the first step, Wyn Harris who was leading,, found the ice axe . . . It was lying free on smooth brow" boiler-plate slabs, inclined - at an easy angle but steeping con- siderably just below. It was in perfect condition, looking quite new. On the polished steel head was stamped the name of . the maker—Willisch of Tasel, in the Zermatt valley."
It is clear. that the axe belonged either to Irvine or Mallory, whd perished in their assault on the summit in 1924. But when was it dropped ? And how ? And why ? Its dis-
covery was a piece of sublime chance. The axe had resisted the wind and the snow and the pull of gravity for nine years. It seems incredible ; and its presence there, on that boiler- plate slab, seems likely to remain, in spite of all conjecture and argument and controversy, as much an everlasting mystery as the exact end of Mallory and Irvine themselves.
Of the second assault Smythe has written his own account. It is appropriate that he should do so, since he made the greater part of the attempt alone, Shipton succumbing suddenly to stomach trouble soon after the start of a journey they both knew would be futile. That sense of futility has crept even into Smythe's writing " We had planned to leave the camp at 5 a.m., but the wind and cold were so great.. . . We cooked some sort of breakfast." Then Shipton broke down. It was quite hopeless. Nevertheless Smythe went on, often in danger that he could not have realized. " Somewhere near my highest point a small protuberance on which I was standing came dean away. It was a near thing, but at 28,000 feet the brain is incapable of registering strong emotion."
But curiously, only a thousand feet lower, the brain— through the stomach—was capable of registering very strong emotion indeed.. At 27,000 feet, a height at which food and even the thought of food had always been intensely nauseating to climbers, Smythe and Shipton were afflicted with sudden gargantuan appetites, Smythe tortured by Teutonic visions of Frankfurter sausages and sauerkraut, Shipton complaining bitterly for a dozen eggs. Such was the success of the policy of acclimatization. It had worked almost too well. Former expeditions had just managed strawberry jam and carbo- hydrates in varied forms. " We wanted," says Dr. Greene, " meat, cut off the joint, and two veg." The lesson for future expeditions is clear.
After the return of Smythe, who slept alone at 27,400 feet and who experienced a strong sensation that someone else was everlastingly climbing with him, it was virtually all over. The weather became worse. The party descended. The expedition was a failure.
A failure, that is, compared with Miss So-and-So's successful swimming of the Channel or somebody else's record dance of 300 hours on nothing but a coddled egg and a pea-nut. Otherwise not. The climbing of Everest, successfully or unsuccessfully, is, as Mr. Ruttledge remarks, " one of the last great adventures which the surface of the earth has to offer." And his book is an exhilarating record, worthy of