15 MAY 1936, Page 11



THE present expedition is the sixth to be sent to Mount Everest. It is the fourth expedition to enter Tibet with every other aim subordinated to the attempt on the summit. These reconnaissances and these assaults have slowly revealed the striking combination of difficulties and circumstances which delay the climbing of the mountain. The 1921 Reconnaissance, led by Col. Howard-Bury, M.P., found that summer conditions, those obtaining during the S.W. Monsoon in India, were unsuitable ; the snowfall was too heavy and too persistent for climbing. The 1922 party reached Base Camp on May 1st, but were dogged the whole season by the fact of being rather too late in the field. In 1924, Mallory and Irvine died, somewhere on the final thousand feet. After a pause until 1933, when the Tibetans again gave permission for an expedition to Mount Everest, Wager, Harris and Smythe were all checked at much the same position, slightly above 28,000 feet. The 1985 Reconnaissance confirmed the observation of the 1921 party, that the monsoon period was impossible.

Mount Everest lies on the border between Tibet and Nepal ; both these countries are unwilling to admit foreign visitors. That Tibet has consented at all to these vast caravans marching across the southern terri- tories is an act of grace. A Mount Everest Expedition may require 300 transport animals for its baggage : apart from the dozen Europeans there may be 100 porters who have been collected in Darjeeling and must be marched to the Base Camp. The precarious economy of a Tibetan community is unbalanced by the passage of such a hungry horde. Mount Everest cannot be approached direct. The Himalaya must be crossed at a point over a hundred miles further to the east. The route thence goes along the paths of southern Tibet until a valley is reached running due north from Mount Everest itself.

There can be no choice of a time for a Mount Everest Expedition : the occasion for an attempt depends on the rulers of Tibet. The Base Camp, 17,000 feet above sea-level, is three weeks' march from the rail-head. The journey through the first three camps above Base Camp is only approach to the mountain ; it is in fact a walk to Camp III at 23,000 feet. Climbing Mount Everest begins with the ascent to the North Col and Camp IV up a steep crevassed ice face. Much of the expert strength of the party may go to finding, shaping and roping a way to Camp IV ; particularly as much equip- ment must be got up to this sub-base camp.

From Camp IV at 24,000 feet to the top all the devilry of Mount Everest is at work. Technical, physiological and psychological difficulties pile one upon the other. To avoid the snow which comes with the monsoon the party has to work at great heights in the late spring, in May.. There is indeed no snow then ; the mountain is dead black ; the glaciers a glassy blue. Every fragment of snow has been carried away by the bitter north-west wind, rushing from the cooled plains- of Asia and made more cold by being forced up to Himalayan heights. Chilled, blinded and blown about, a man is helpless in this wind, just as much as if he . were floundering in deep snow. His chance to climb the mountain depends on this wind vanishing for 'a short interval before the monsoon breaks. Even then the climber, huddled in his tent at night, hardly dare expose himself to the frigid air before the sun rises over the ridge of the mountain above hith. This shortens the day of one whose worst fear is to be over- taken by nightfall away from a camp ; a. night outside on Mount Everest would mean certain death.

At the summit the air pressure is about one-third of an atmosphere. The shortage of oxygen affects the indi- vidual in two ways. Any effort is accompanied by distress and rapid breathing. To some extent this is compensated for in the course of time by an increase in the red corpuscles of the blood and by the habit of deep breathing. This is acclimatisation. But above a certain height a physical deterioration sets in at the same time as acclimatisation is taking place. The climber loses muscle and gets out of condition. Acclimatisation taken alone would indicate a slow climb with days of rest ; but the improvement in oxygen-interchange would then be more than counterbalanced by the loss of physique.

Auxiliary oxygen from a supply carried by the climber was unpopular amongst the assaulting parties of 1933. Their efforts showed that 28,000 ft. was within the reach of a man unaided by oxygen : but it is still unknown whether a man can live and work at 29,000 ft. There is an obvious difference in quality between success with and without recourse to mechanical technique.

As though the obstacles so far described were not enough, the summit of the mountain is defended by eon- figurations of rock that would be difficult even at normal heights. The ridge to the summit has impassable incidents, the so-called steps. These steps, edged by a wall-like precipice, force the climber out on the steep northern face, where the rock-strata, dipping away from the mountain like the tiles of a roof, allow him no sure footing. As he progresses over this slippery pitch he encounters the severest • passage yet known on Mount Everest. The mountain throws out a buttress to the north, so that a couloir is formed in the angle between the face and the buttress ; precipitous rock is not only above but also ahead. These were the difficulties con- fronting the 1933 high climbers when they were forced to turn back, a thousand feet from the summit.

Mallory wrote in a letter in 1922 : " It's an infernal mountain, cold and treacherous. Frankly the game is not good enough. The risks of getting caught are too great ; the margin of strength when men are at great heights too small. Perhaps it's mere folly to go up again. But how can I be out of the hunt ? And then, given the right weather, there's quite a good chance of reaching the top, at all events with oxygen." These remarks have in them the effect of exposure to this conspiracy of hostile conditions about Mount Everest. Above 24,000 ft. the finest climber has to contend with a harmonious under- mining of his purpose by body and mind. The one will show its health by resisting all efforts to move further away from its proper habitat : the other will support these tendencies by devising every kind of excuse for a return to reasonable altitudes.

The summit of Mount Everest cannot be attained by climbing 1,000 feet twenty-nine times. Twenty-four thousand feet can perhaps be reached in this way by an acclimatised Himalayan climber. But the remaining 5,000 ft. can only be conquered by accepting progressively an accumulation of physical difficulties and adversities greater than a man has ever otherwise voluntarily taken upon himself,