The Assault

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

In the agreeable climate of Kharta we were sufficiently occupied with the results of photography and preparations for the future; and there was time besides for unmixed idleness, which we knew how to appreciate. Our thoughts turned often to the weather. Local lore confirmed our expectations for September, and we looked each day for signs of a change. It was arranged, in hope if not in confidence, to move up on the first signs of improvement. Already before we came down to Kharta our Advanced Base Camp had been moved up; it was now situated at about 17,300 feet on a convenient grassy plateau and only a reasonable stage below our 20,000-foot camp, where some light tents and stores had also been left. At these two camps we had, in fact, left everything which we should not absolutely require at Kharta, so that few mountaineering stores would have to be carried forward from the Base when we came up again. Our first task would be to supply the Advanced Base with food and fuel, and a start had already been made by collecting here a pile of wood, nominally thirty loads. Transport in any case was not likely to be a difficulty in the early stages. Local coolies could easily be hired, and Howard-Bury was to follow us up after a short interval with all available strength to help in every possible way.

The first object which our plans must include was, of course, to reach Chang La; by finding the way to this point we should establish a line of attack and complete a stage of our reconnaissance. Secondly we must aim at reaching the North-east Shoulder. In so far as it was an object of reconnaissance to determine whether it was possible to climb Mount Everest, our task could never be complete until we had actually climbed it; but short of that it was important to have a view of the final stage, and could we reach the great shoulder of the arete we should at least be in a better position to estimate what lay between there and the summit. Finally we saw no reason to exclude the supreme object itself. It would involve no sacrifice of meaner ends; the best would not interfere with the good. For if it should turn out that the additional supplies required for a longer campaign were more than our coolies could carry, we would simply drop them and aim less high.

In organising the assault we had first to consider how our camps could be established, at Lhakpa La or perhaps better beyond it at a lower elevation, at Chang La, and finally as high as possible, somewhere under the shoulder, we thought, at about 26,500 feet. From the camp on Chang La we should have to carry up ten loads, each of 15 lb., which would provide tents enough, and sleeping-sacks and food for a maximum of four Sahibs and four coolies; sixteen coolies were allowed for this task; twelve therefore would have to return on the day of their ascent and sleep at Chang La, and on the assumption that they would require an escort of Sahibs who must also sleep at this camp, four small tents must remain there, making six in all to be carried up to this point. The lower end of the ladder must be so constructed as to support this weight at the top. It was comparatively a simple matter to provide the earlier camps. The first above the advanced base – that at 20,000 feet – could be filled before we moved up to sleep there, the coolies returning on the same day whenever they carried up loads. And the same plan could be adopted for the second at Lhakpa La; only one journey there, I calculated, would be required before we started in force from the 20,000-foot camp to go straight ahead without delay. The crux would lie in the stage from Lhakpa La to Chang La. At the most we should have twenty-three coolies, sixteen who had been all along with the climbing party, three whom Wheeler had partially trained, and four more Sherpas, the maximum number being determined by the supply of boots. But it would not be necessary to carry on all the loads from Lhakpa La; and return journeys could be made from Chang La both by those who were not to stay there and by the twelve already mentioned who might fetch supplies if necessary on the final day of the assault. This plan was never executed in its later stages, and we cannot know for certain whether it would have held good. But it may be conjectured, in view of our experience, that the weakest link would have broken; either an extra day would have been spent between Lhakpa La and Chang La, or, if we had reached Chang La according to programme with the minimum of supplies, the coolies would not have been brought to this point a second time and the climbing party would have been cut off from its reserves. And, granted the most favourable conditions for the attempt, in asking the coolies to carry loads of 30 lb. on two consecutive days at these high altitudes, we were probably expecting too much of them. It must be concluded, if this opinion is correct, that we had not enough coolies for what we intended.

On the last day of August, Bullock and I were established once again at our Advanced Base. The weather had not yet cleared, though it was showing some signs of change. But it had been necessary to move up for the coolies’ sake. At Kharta, where they found little to amuse them and no work to employ their time, they had sought diversion with the aid of liquor and become discontented and ill-affected. They were badly in need of a routine, which at the Advanced Base was easily enough provided. Besides, I wanted to be ready, and it seemed not too soon to begin carrying loads up to the next camp. There was no occasion for hurry in the event. We were obliged to wait nearly three weeks, until September 19, before moving forward. The delay served no useful purpose, the work of supplying our present needs and providing for the future was sufficiently spread over the long tale of days, but interspersed with more rest and leisure than anyone required.

In some respects life at the Advanced Base compared favourably with our experience at other camps. The place had a charm of its own. The short turf about us, the boulders and little streams reminded me of Welsh hillsides; and these high pastures were often decorated by the brilliant blues of Gentiana ornata and by the most exquisite of saxifrages, which, with the yellow and ochre markings on the cream glaze of its tiny bowl, recalls the marginal ornament on some Persian page. Whenever the weather cleared for a few hours we saw down the valley a splendid peak in a scene of romantic beauty, and by walking up to a stony shoulder only 2,000 feet above us, we had amazing views of Everest and Makalu. And it was an advantage during these days of waiting to be a larger party, as we soon became.

Bury and Wollaston, and also Raeburn whom we rejoiced to see again, had come up on the 6th, Morshead and Wheeler on the 11th, and for two nights Heron was of our company. We made little excursions to keep ourselves fit, and on one occasion enjoyed some rock-climbing. But it amused nobody to watch the procession of clouds which precipitated sleet by day and snow by night, and our appetite for adventure could not be stimulated by making time pass in some endurable fashion and counting the unhopeful signs.

Under these circumstances I became more than ever observant of the party’s physical condition. I find a passage in one of my letters written during this period of waiting in which I boast of finding myself “still able to go up about 1,500 feet in an hour – not bad going at these altitudes” – a reassuring statement enough but for the one word “still,” which betrays all my anxiety. In fact there was too much cause to be anxious. Three of our strongest coolies were ill at this camp; others seemed to be tired more easily than they should be. And what of the Sahibs? At least it must be said that several of them were not looking their best. Bullock, though he never complained, seemed no longer to be the fit man he was at the end of July. And for my part I began to experience a certain lack of exuberance when going up hill. I came to realise that all such efforts were unduly exhausting; my reserve of strength had somehow diminished. The whole machine, in fact, was running down; the days continued to pass with their cloud and rain and snow, always postponing our final effort to a later date and a colder season; and with them our chances of success were slowly vanishing.

When at last the weather cleared, it was evident that the fate of our enterprise would be decided by the sun’s power to melt the snow. In a subsequent chapter I shall have more to say about the snow’s melting; it may suffice to remark here that, before we left the Advanced Base, I had good reason to expect that we should meet adverse conditions, and was resolved at the same time that nothing was to be gained by waiting. The coolies were lightly laden up to the First Advanced Camp and sufficiently unfatigued to proceed next day. On the 20th, therefore, leaving Bullock to accompany Wheeler, Morshead and I set forth to get fourteen loads up to Lhakpa La. We had one spare coolie who carried no load, and Sanglu, who was now our acting Sirdar, four of us in all, to break the trail for the loaded men. Snow-shoes were not carried because there were not enough to go round. Though our prospects of reaching a high point on Everest were already sufficiently dim, I intended to carry out the original plan until obliged by circumstances to modify it; it might prove necessary to spend an extra day in reaching Chang La, and in that case we could perhaps afford to stop short of Lhakpa La and establish our camp below its final slopes. But if the strain on this first day was likely to be severe, I argued that the coolies could rest to-morrow, and that the second journey in frozen tracks would be easy enough. That we should be passing the night a few hundred feet higher (at 22,500 feet) was a relatively unimportant consideration. The great matter was to put heart into the coolies; it would be infinitely more encouraging to reach the crest with a sense of complete achievement, to see the clear prospect ahead and to proceed downwards on the other side.

Our start at an early hour on the 20th was propitious enough. It was the same moonlit glacier of our expedition a month before as we made good our approach to its surface. But the conditions were altered. For the first time since we had come to these mountains we experienced the wonderful delight of treading snow that is both crisp and solid. We walked briskly over it, directly towards Mount Everest, with all the hope such a performance might inspire. The night was exceedingly cold and there was no untoward delay. In less than an hour we were at the foot of the icefall. We were determined on this occasion not to avoid it by the rocks of the left bank, but to find a quicker way through the tumbled ice. At first all went well. A smooth-floored corridor took us helpfully upwards. And then, in the dim light, we were among the crevasses. To be seriously held up here might well be fatal to our object, and in the most exciting kind of mountaineering adventures we had the stimulus of this thought. We plunged into the maze and struggled for a little time, crossing frail bridges over fantastic depths and making steps up steep little walls, until it seemed we were in serious trouble. One leap proposed by the leader proved too much for some of the laden coolies and a good deal of pushing and pulling was required to bring them over the formidable gap. We had begun to waste time. Halted on a sharp little crest between two monstrous chasms Morshead and I discussed the situation, and thereafter gravely proceeded to reconnoitre the ground to our left. In ten minutes we came to another corridor like the first, which brought us out above the icefall.

We were well satisfied with our progress as we halted at sunrise, and it was a pleasant change to get our feet out of the snow and knock a little warmth into chilled toes. But our confidence had ebbed. Even as we entered the icefall our feet had occasionally broken the crust; as we came out of it we were stamping a trail.

Dorji Gompa, our unladen coolie, and perhaps the strongest man of all, took the lead when we went on, and plugged manfully upwards. But already the party was showing signs of fatigue. One coolie, and then two others, fell out and could not be induced to come further. I sent Dorji Gompa back to bring on one of their loads. Morshead, Sanglu and I took turns ahead and soon came to the worst snow we had encountered anywhere. In it no firm steps could be stamped by the leaders to save the coolies behind, and each man in turn had to contend with the shifting substance of fine powder. The party straggled badly. It was necessary for some of us to press on and prove that the goal could be reached. Many of the men were obliged to halt at frequent intervals. But time was on our side. Gradually the party fought its way up the final slopes. As we approached the pass I looked back with Morshead over the little groups along our track and saw some distance below the last moving figure another lying huddled up on the snow. I soon learnt the meaning of this: it was Dorji Gompa who lay there. He had carried on not one load as I had asked him, but two, until he had fallen there dazed and exhausted.

At length eleven loads reached the pass and two more were only 800 feet lower. If we had not done all we set out to do I was satisfied we had done enough. We had established tracks to Lhakpa La which should serve us well when they had frozen hard, and not too many loads remained below to be brought up two days later.

We now obtained a clear view of Chang La; it was possible to make more exact calculations, and it was evident we must modify our plans. We saw a wall of formidable dimensions, perhaps 1,000 feet high; the surface was unpleasantly broken by insuperable bergschrunds and the general angle was undoubtedly steep. The slopes of Everest to the South were out of the question, and if it were possible to avoid a direct assault by the North side the way here would be long, difficult and exceedingly laborious. The wall itself offered the best chance, and I was in good hopes we could get up. But it would not be work for untrained men, and to have on the rope a number of laden coolies, more or less mountain sick, conducted by so small a nucleus as three Sahibs, who would also presumably be feeling the effects of altitude, was a proposition not to be contemplated for a moment. We must have as strong a party as possible in the first place, simply to reach the col, and afterwards to bring up a camp, if we were able, as a separate operation. With this idea I selected the party. Wollaston felt that his place of duty was not with the van; only Wheeler besides had sufficient mountaineering experience, and it was decided that he alone should accompany Bullock and myself on our first attempt to reach the col. Nevertheless, it seemed undesirable to abandon so early the hope that Bury and Morshead would be of use to us later on; and Wollaston clearly must start with us from the 20,000-foot camp where all had gathered on the 20th.

I had hoped we should have a full complement of coolies on the 22nd, but when morning came it was found that three, including two of the best men, were too ill to start. Consequently some of the loads were rather heavier than I intended. But all arrived safely at Lhakpa La before midday. Visited by malicious gusts from the North-west, the pass was cheerless and chilly; however, the rim afforded us some protection, and we decided to pitch our tents there rather than descend on the other side with the whole party, a move which I felt might complicate the return. I was not very happy about the prospects for the morrow. For my own part I had been excessively and unaccountably tired in coming up to the col; I observed no great sparkle of energy or enthusiasm among my companions; Sanglu was practically hors de combat; some of the coolies had with difficulty been brought to the col and were more or less exhausted; and many complaints of headache, even from the best of them, were a bad sign.

There was no question of bustling off before dawn on the 23rd, but we rose early enough, as I supposed, to push on to Chang La if we were sufficiently strong. Morshead and I in a Mummery tent had slept well and I congratulated myself on an act of mutilation in cutting two large slits in its roof. The rest had not fared so well, but seemed fit enough, and the wonderful prospect from our camp at sunrise was a cheering sight. With the coolies, however, the case was different. Those who had been unwell overnight had not recovered, and it was evident that only a comparatively small number would be able to come on; eventually I gathered ten, two men who both protested they were ill casting lots for the last place; and of these ten it was evident that none were unaffected by the height and several were more seriously mountain-sick.[1] Under these circumstances it was necessary to consider which loads should be carried on. Bury, Wollaston and Morshead suggested that they should go back at once so as not to burden the party with the extra weight of their belongings, and it seemed the wisest plan that they should return. Certain stores were left behind at Lhakpa La as reserve supplies for the climbing party. I decided at an early hour that our best chance was to take an easy day; after a late start and a very slow march we pitched our tents on the open snow up towards the col.

It might have been supposed that in so deep a cwm and sheltered on three sides by steep mountain slopes, we should find a tranquil air and the soothing, though chilly calm of undisturbed frost. Night came clearly indeed, but with no gentle intentions. Fierce squalls of wind visited our tents and shook and worried them with the disagreeable threat of tearing them away from their moorings, and then scurried off, leaving us in wonder at the change and asking what next to expect. It was a cold wind at an altitude of 22,000 feet, and however little one may have suffered, the atmosphere discouraged sleep. Again I believe I was more fortunate than my companions, but Bullock and Wheeler fared badly. Lack of sleep, since it makes one sleepy, always discourages an early start, and hot drinks take time to brew; in any case, it was wise to start rather late so as to have the benefit of warm sun whenever our feet should be obliged to linger in cold snow or ice steps. It was an hour or so after sunrise when we left the camp and half an hour later we were breaking the crust on the first slopes under the wall. We had taken three coolies who were sufficiently fit and competent, and now proceeded to use them for the hardest work. Apart from one brief spell of cutting when we passed the corner of a bergschrund it was a matter of straightforward plugging, firstly slanting up to the right on partially frozen avalanche snow and then left in one long upward traverse to the summit. Only one passage shortly below the col caused either anxiety or trouble; here the snow was lying at a very steep angle and was deep enough to be disagreeable. About 500 steps of very hard work covered all the worst of the traverse and we were on the col shortly before 11.30 a.m. By this time two coolies were distinctly tired, though by no means incapable of coming on; the third, who had been in front, was comparatively fresh. Wheeler thought he might be good for some further effort, but had lost all feeling in his feet. Bullock was tired, but by sheer will power would evidently come on – how far, one couldn’t say. For my part I had had the wonderful good fortune of sleeping tolerably well at both high camps and now finding my best form; I supposed I might be capable of another 2,000 feet, and there would be no time for more. But what lay ahead of us? My eyes had often strayed, as we came up, to the rounded edge above the col and the final rocks below the North-east arete. If ever we had doubted whether the arete were accessible, it was impossible to doubt any longer. For a long way up those easy rock and snow slopes was neither danger nor difficulty. But at present there was wind. Even where we stood under the lee of a little ice cliff it came in fierce gusts at frequent intervals, blowing up the powdery snow in a suffocating tourbillon. On the col beyond it was blowing a gale. And higher was a more fearful sight. The powdery fresh snow on the great face of Everest was being swept along in unbroken spindrift and the very ridge where our route lay was marked out to receive its unmitigated fury. We could see the blown snow deflected upwards for a moment where the wind met the ridge, only to rush violently down in a frightful blizzard on the leeward side. To see, in fact, was enough; the wind had settled the question; it would have been folly to go on. Nevertheless, some little discussion took place as to what might be possible, and we struggled a few steps further to put the matter to the test. For a few moments we exposed ourselves on the col to feel the full strength of the blast, then struggled back to shelter. Nothing more was said about pushing our assault any further.

It remained to take a final decision on the morning of the 25th. We were evidently too weak a party to play a waiting game at this altitude. We must either take our camp to the col or go back. A serious objection to going forward lay in the shortage of coolies’ rations. Had the men been fit it would not have been too much for them to return, as I had planned, unladen to Lhakpa La and reach Chang La again the same day. I doubted whether any two could be found to do that now; and to subtract two was to leave only eight, of whom two were unfit to go on, so that six would remain to carry seven loads. However, the distance to the col was so short that I was confident such difficulties could be overcome one way or another.

A more unpleasant consideration was the thought of requiring a party which already felt the height too much to sleep at least a 1,000 feet higher. We might well find it more than we could do to get back over Lhakpa La, and be forced to make a hungry descent down the Rongbuk Valley. There would be no disaster in that event. The crucial matter was the condition of the climbers. Were we fit to push the adventure further? The situation, if any one of the whole party collapsed, would be extremely disagreeable, and all the worse if he should be one of the Sahibs, who were none too many to look after the coolies in case of mountaineering difficulties. Such a collapse I judged might well be the fate of one or other of us if we were to push our assault above Chang La to the limit of our strength. And what more were we likely to accomplish from a camp on Chang La? The second night had been no less windy than the first. Soon after the weather cleared the wind had been strong from North-west, and seemed each day to become more violent. The only signs of a change now pointed to no improvement, but rather to a heavy fall of snow – by no means an improbable event according to local lore. The arguments, in fact, were all on one side; it would be bad heroics to take wrong risks; and fairly facing the situation one could only admit the necessity of retreat.

It may be added that the real weakness of the party became only too apparent in the course of our return journey over Lhakpa La on this final day; and it must be safe to say that none of the three climbers has ever felt a spasm of regret about the decision to go back or a moment’s doubt as to its rightness. It was imposed upon us by circumstances without a reasonable alternative.


  1. I use this expression to denote not a state of intermittent vomiting, but simply one in which physical exertion exhausts the body abnormally and causes a remarkable disinclination to further exertion.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1924, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.