The pull of Everest

A century after a Canadian was instrumental in charting the world's highest peak, a fellow Canadian reflects on the magnetism of Everest

  • Apr 02, 2021
  • 4,083 words
  • 17 minutes
Everest by sunrise Expand Image

It’s a perfectly cloudless day in November 1981, and I’m scrambling up a ridge on the south side of Lhotse, the fourth-highest peak in the world. Or maybe it’s Lhotse’s neighbour, Nuptse. I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell from my map where one mountain ends and the other begins. But I do know that I’m ascending the flank of the Everest massif, in Nepal. And, thanks to the altitude, I’m moving surprisingly slowly.

Yesterday I was on the western side of Everest’s giant pyramidal peak, looking up at the storied Southeast Ridge, the route taken by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their way to the summit in 1953. Down below, the Base Camp area was empty. Apart from a few other trekkers, there was no one to be seen. An American expedition left the mountain about three weeks ago, after successfully putting five men on the top — the only Everest summiteers of the year.

Today, I’ve decided that, just for fun, I want to go as high as I can by myself. As it happens, I get only to about 5,800 metres before I’m forced to turn around. The way ahead looks too dangerous. I don’t want to have an accident because, as far as I know, there is nobody within miles of me. And I have no way of contacting anyone.

It’s the highest I’ve ever been, but I’ve just turned 22, and I hope that in a few years I’ll go much higher. About 3,000 metres higher, in fact — up to 8,848 metres. I’ve come to Everest on a personal reconnaissance mission. When I return, ideally before the end of the decade, I plan to be the first Canadian to climb the world’s highest peak without supplemental oxygen.

Author in Himalayas with Everest in the background Expand Image
Writer James Little in 1981 with Everest in the background (Photo courtesy James Little).

I can’t remember exactly when I began to feel the pull of Mount Everest. Nor can I explain why. I grew up in southern Ontario, with no peaks anywhere in sight. But I loved the mountains every time I was lucky enough to visit them — first the Eastern Townships and the Laurentians in Quebec, then the Rockies and later the Alps. However, it wasn’t until 1979, when I was a 19-year-old university student working in Banff for the summer, that I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the mountains. I was a decent long-distance runner, and there was nothing I liked more than speed-hiking up the nearby peaks. After university, I moved to Alberta to be closer to the Rockies.

By then, I’d already begun immersing myself in all things Everest. I read about some of the classic expeditions to the mountain, starting with the successful British effort that put Hillary and Tenzing on top, then the teams led by England’s Chris Bonington in the 1970s. But it was the climbs of Italian Reinhold Messner and Austrian Peter Habeler that really captivated me. Together, they were the first to reach the summit without bottled oxygen in 1978. And in 1980, Messner climbed the mountain not only without extra oxygen but also by himself.

At the time I went to Everest — about seven months after graduating — Messner represented the cutting edge of mountaineering (many people still consider him to be the finest alpinist in history). But I preferred the more laidback Habeler, which is why I had a poster of him on my wall. Looking back, I wish I’d also had a poster of a Canadian named Oliver Wheeler.

Climbers descending from Carpo Ri, Everest, 1921 Expand Image
Expedition members descend from Carpo-ri in 1921 (Photo: © Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers)

A century ago this spring, the first British Everest expedition set off for the Tibetan side of the mountain from northern India. It was largely an exploratory trip, because no Europeans had previously been able to get near the peak. (Back then, Nepal was closed to foreigners, and it would remain so until 1949.) The British adventurers had been keen to climb Everest for several decades and were even keener after having lost both races for the Poles. The best-known member of that first expedition was England’s George Mallory, who famously quipped that he wanted to climb the mountain “because it’s there,” and who also famously disappeared in 1924 after ascending high on the mountain.

All of the members on that initial team were British except for one: Oliver Wheeler. Wheeler, born in Ottawa in 1890, was the son of A.O. Wheeler, a legendary Canadian surveyor and mountaineer, who co-founded the Alpine Club of Canada. As a young man, Oliver had followed in his father’s footsteps, literally, climbing in the Canadian Rockies. After serving in the First World War, Wheeler headed to India (then part of the British Empire), where he joined the highly respected Survey of India. While there, he introduced a photographic surveying method that had already been proven effective in Canada. (This technique used a camera to record topographic information in the field, rather than the more time-consuming process involving paper and a plane table, see page tk.) When the first British expedition went looking for a skilled surveyor to map the area immediately surrounding Everest, the Survey of India picked Wheeler.

1921 Everest expedition team Expand Image
The 1921 expedition team — Wheeler is in the back row, second from right, beside Mallory, far right. (Photo: © Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers)

That first expedition arrived near the northern side of the mountain in late June after travelling for a month through Sikkim and Tibet. Then the team split up. Mallory and the other members of the climbing party he was unofficially leading explored the area around the Rongbuk Glacier, directly north of the mountain, hoping to find a spot from which they might ascend. Wheeler headed off with several ethnic Tibetan assistants to a remote location farther west, to begin the laborious process of taking the photographs that would be necessary to accurately map the Everest region. All told, he would spend nearly three months away from the other team members, living in a small tent at between 5,500 and 6,800 metres for about half of that time. In the official expedition account, the senior surveyor Henry Morshead wrote that “Wheeler had probably the hardest time of any member of the Expedition, and his success in achieving single-handed the mapping of 600 square miles of some of the most mountainous country in the world is sufficient proof of his determination and grit.”

Oliver Wheeler with his two assistants and their instruments Expand Image
Oliver Wheeler with his two assistants and their photographic instruments (Photo: © Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers)

While Wheeler was off surveying to the west, the rest of the team failed to find a way to get onto the mountain from the north side of the peak. Wheeler briefly rejoined his teammates there, before they moved to a location to the east. Wheeler stayed behind to survey the area that Mallory and others had previously explored, and he discovered something they had missed: a side glacial valley up above the main Rongbuk Glacier. (In his book Into the Silence, Wade Davis writes that it was “an embarrassing oversight that Mallory went out of his way in the official expedition account to obscure.”) Wheeler, accompanied by his assistants, spent a week exploring the valley and observed that the glacier flowing through it — the East Rongbuk — led directly to the base of the mountain. 

It was arguably the most important discovery of the expedition. To this day, the East Rongbuk Glacier remains the main gateway for climbers coming to Everest from Tibet (now officially part of China). Wheeler was undoubtedly pleased by his find, but I suspect he was just as elated to be, in all likelihood, the very first to set foot up that high hidden valley. While I liked to think of myself as an adventurer scrambling solo up that ridge in 1981, Wheeler had been the real deal 60 years earlier.

When the expedition finally launched the very first attempt to climb the mountain, via the now-standard Northeast Ridge route, only three westerners were included in the party, among them Mallory and Wheeler. They set out with three porters from what is now called Advance Base Camp on September 24 and climbed the steep slope to the North Col at 7,000 metres, where they encountered powerful gusts. “It was difficult to stand against the wind,” Wheeler wrote in the Canadian Alpine Journal, “and it was obviously out of the question to go on up the north ridge, which was exposed to the full force of the gale and off which the snow was pouring in a continuous cloud.” The three climbers decided to head back down.

Afterward, Wheeler — who would eventually become the surveyor general of India and also be knighted — wrote in the official expedition account that he was “delighted to get into the ‘final push,’ and enjoyed the few days’ change from surveying to climbing, enormously.” He added: “I enjoyed the Expedition and my work with it, thoroughly; but in my opinion, Tibet, at any rate that portion of it in which we were, is a place to have been, rather than one to go to!”

Sketch map from Oliver Wheeler’s Everest surveys. (Map: © Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers)

When I went to Everest 40 years ago, I was unaware that a Canadian had been one of the first to attempt to climb the mountain. But I did know that no Canadians had yet reached the summit. At that time, there had been only 117 summits in total. And climbing Everest — especially without supplemental oxygen — seemed to me a noble goal.

Part of the reason that no Canadians had climbed the mountain by then was that few very Canadians had had the opportunity to do so. Until the 1980s, Nepal generally issued only one or two team permits per season, and these permits were snapped up by eager national expeditions hoping to do their countries proud. As a result, in the 60 years between Wheeler’s visit to Everest in 1921 and mine in 1981, only three Canadians had tried their luck on the mountain. But in the fall of 1982, Canada would finally have its first big chance to claim the summit, with a large, well-funded expedition that included 15 climbers.

Shortly after I returned from my own trip to Everest, I actually sent a letter to George Kinnear, the one-time leader of the Canadian team, hoping to join them in whatever capacity possible. Kinnear sent back a polite response on the official expedition letterhead: “Thank you for your interest in our expedition, but at this point in time our climbing members have been chosen.” Kinnear went on to say that I could help out by sending along a tax-deductible donation. My income at the time was small enough that I did not need the deduction. 

Even without my help, the highly publicized Everest 82 expedition went ahead. The Canadian team planned to ascend the south side of the mountain via a previously unclimbed route, but tragedy struck early when an avalanche killed three Sherpas. Then the team’s camera operator, Blair Griffiths, was killed in an accident in the dangerous Khumbu Icefall. Six of the climbers went home afterward, but the rest stayed, and the expedition eventually succeeded in putting two Canadians — Laurie Skreslet of Calgary and Pat Morrow of Kimberley, B.C. — and four Sherpas on the summit, via the standard Southeast Ridge route. (Morrow would go on to become the first person to climb the Reinhold Messner-approved version of the Seven Summits.)

Laurie Skreslet and Pat Morrow after their Everest climb Expand Image
Laurie Skreslet (left) and Pat Morrow (right) after their 1982 Everest climb (Photo courtesy Pat Morrow)

A few weeks after the Canadian team made it up Everest, I arrived in Canmore, Alta., committed to the idea of becoming a full-time mountaineer. (For most of the previous year I’d been living in Edmonton, which was great for marathon training but too far from the mountains for climbing.) Canmore was just a village then, and I stayed with one of the older European guides, Ottmar Setzer, who listened to me patiently while I explained my dream. He informed me that there was no way I could make a living as a climber and suggested that if I wanted to be a mountaineer, I needed to learn a trade, so that I could pay the bills.

Which is how I ended up back in Ontario the following year, enrolled in a two-year journalism program at Ryerson in Toronto. My plan — which in retrospect was not well thought out — was to get a job at a newspaper in or near the Rockies after I finished my course in the spring of 1985. But just weeks before I graduated, something unexpected happened. I met a woman and fell in love.

My new partner had two children, and suddenly I had a different challenge in life: to help raise a family (ideally without supplemental oxygen). I became a magazine editor and during the following very-happy decade, I don’t think I even set foot on a mountain. My Everest obsession did not just vanish into thin air. I still hoped I would someday get back to the mountain, and for years I continued to have vivid dreams about climbing Everest. However, at some point the dreams stopped, and I even found myself starting to lose interest in what was happening on the world’s highest peak. But then, like the rest of the world, my attention was yanked back to the mountain in 1996.

Tents pitched on mountain ridge descending into clouds Expand Image
Camp II on the Northeast Ridge of Everest (Photo: Ralf Dujmovits)

During the 1980s, both Nepal and China began issuing more permits for Everest, and soon the number of people on the mountain ballooned. In the first 50 years of climbing on the peak, there had been only 28 summits. In 1988 alone, there were 50. And five years later, there were a then-astounding 129.

In 1985, a wealthy 55-year-old American named Dick Bass became the first person to be guided to the top of the mountain, and afterward a new trend began. In addition to teams of hardcore climbers, Everest began to see commercial expeditions, in which established guides would lead clients to the top in return for a healthy payment. In 1991, I asked Pat Morrow (through a mutual friend) for advice on climbing Everest. Morrow generously responded to my questions, but also commented on the idea of people being guided to the summit. “I really just shake my head when I think about the whole process,” he said. Morrow ultimately recommended that I choose a “more worthy” project.

The next year, an article in Outside magazine reported on a new daily record for Everest summiteers and asked the question, “When 32 people make it to the top in a single day, can trouble be far behind?” The answer, as it turned out, was no. In the spring of 1996 — the season immortalized in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster — tragedy struck when a storm hit the mountain just as several commercial expeditions were making their summit bids. Eight climbers lost their lives as a result, and another four died that season. For the first time, the world turned its attention to Everest with a critical eye. Were there too many climbers on the mountain? And did some of those climbers lack the necessary experience?

Since then, the world’s opinion of climbing Everest has steadily deteriorated. Each year, it seems there are photos of long lineups on the mountain and stories of garbage strewn all over the peak. Even more notorious are the dead bodies that line the two most popular routes, forever frozen in place.

Still, every year since 1996, hundreds of hopefuls have continued to show up at the base camps on either side of the mountain, and more than a few have been from Canada. In the last 25 years, Canadians have made it to the top 133 times. (In 2008 alone, 23 Canadians reached the summit.)

Map showing routes up Everest Expand Image
Map: Chris Brackley

It’s true that some of these people have been unprepared for the challenge ahead. In May 2012, Shriya Shah-Klorfine, a 33-year-old from Toronto with minimal climbing experience, died on her way down the mountain, after ascending very slowly to the top. Her Sherpas had taken nine oxygen bottles for her summit bid, but she still ran out. 

Her death shone a spotlight on how new low-cost guiding outfits were being particularly lax about screening to make sure their clients had the necessary experience. Interviewed at the time, Tim Rippel, a well-respected Canadian guide on the mountain, was quoted as saying that the commercial operator she was with should never have allowed her to attempt a climb of this magnitude. 

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who have definitely put in their climbing hours, such as Andrew Brash. In the spring of 2006, the 37-year-old teacher from Calgary went to the north side of the mountain to “test my mettle against the big one.” In the 15 years prior to going to Everest, Brash had been on eight Himalayan expeditions, and for Everest he chose to climb with a company called Summit Climb. “I have had good luck with commercial expeditions over the years, so I decided to go this route again for Everest.” The team would be led by American Dan Mazur, a climber with an extensive Himalayan resume.

Brash’s mettle was more than up to the test. On May 26, he, Mazur and two other climbers were moving well — high on the Northeast Ridge, not far from the summit — when they encountered a half-dead Australian who had spent the night alone on the mountain after reaching the top the previous day. Even though it meant giving up on their chance for a summit, Brash and his companions stayed with the stricken climber and helped save his life. It would be another two years before Brash would be able to return to the mountain and finally turn his Everest dreams into reality. After he stepped onto the summit on May 23, 2008, he spent 45 minutes on top. “I eventually decided I should leave, but I didn’t really want to. It was difficult to turn away and start down, knowing that this was the end of a huge part of my life. And knowing that I would never be here again.”

Expand Image
Long lines on the Lhotse face in 2012. There was only one weather window that day, leading to climbers having to wait in bottlenecks, depleting their precious oxygen resources. (Photo: Ralf Dujmovits)

After I read Into Thin Air, another unexpected thing happened in my life: Despite the tragic events of 1996, I began to have those vivid dreams of climbing Everest again. At first, I thought nothing would come of this renewed spark. But during the next decade or so, I found myself making more and more trips to the mountains: I climbed in the Alps, I climbed in the U.S., and most of all I climbed in the Rockies, where a Himalayan veteran kindly took me under his wing on classic peaks such as Mount Hector and Mount Assiniboine, both of which Oliver Wheeler climbed. And to my surprise, I realized that, even with the increasing problems on Everest, I wanted to go back.

My chance finally seemed to come in the spring of 2014. I was then in my early 50s, not young but still almost 30 years younger than the oldest climber to have reached the top. I had realized many years ago that I would not achieve my one-time goal of becoming the first Canadian to climb Everest without oxygen. (A Canadian didn’t manage that feat until 2010, more than 30 years after Habeler and Messner.) I no longer wanted to impress anyone, and I no longer had what I considered a noble goal. More than anything, I just wanted to see the sacred sites: the East Rongbuk Glacier, the North Col, the Second Step. And though I wasn’t as fit as I had been in my early 20s, I was still in pretty good shape — and more experienced. 

I planned to go to the less-crowded north side of the mountain, where I would climb with an established commercial operator who had a good safety record but who also charged much less than many others (about $30,000). In the eight months leading up to the trip, I humped a pack up hills and stairwells in Toronto and peaks in the Rockies, in the U.S. and farther abroad. (I might be the only Canadian who came back from Mexico with a touch of frostbite.) I bought a high-altitude down suit, and Pat Morrow even gave me a jumar (a rope-ascending device) to take with me.

I did have some reservations beforehand — partly about the colder conditions on the north side of the mountain, but mainly about spending so much money, especially on myself. I had a book deal that would cover some of the costs, but then the publisher changed their mind. And so, I changed my mind. Instead of a full expedition on the north side, I would do a less-expensive “training” climb to 7,300 metres on the south side. It seemed like a good compromise, although it meant I would have to pass through the unpredictable Khumbu Icefall. I was just about to send off my money, when my stepdaughter told me that my two precious grandsons — aged 5 and 2 — would be very upset if something happened to me on the mountain. I thought about that for maybe two minutes, then pulled the plug. Even though I felt the climb posed only a small risk, there was no way I wanted to jeopardize my future with those young boys.

It’s a decision I have never regretted.

A view of snow covered mountains under a bright blue sky Expand Image
View from Everest summit (Photo courtesy Pat Morrow)

Two years ago, in the spring of 2019, more than 1,100 people (clients, guides and Sherpas) had permits to climb Mount Everest, and a record 878 of them reached the top, among them nine Canadians. Once again, there were long lines on the mountain, and 11 climbers died. American Everest chronicler and mountaineer Alan Arnette — who summitted the mountain in 2011 as part of a commercial team and is generally supportive of guided expeditions — called 2019 “the year Everest broke.” He linked four of the deaths on the Nepalese side to the problem of overcrowding during a brief window of good weather. “What should have been a 10- to 12-hour round trip from the South Col to the summit turned into a 16-, 18- or even 20-hour day. When you are moving, or trying to, above 26,000 feet/8,000 metres for that long something starts to give.”

One widely published 2019 photo showed dozens of climbers packed together above and below the famous Hillary Step bottleneck, waiting for their chance to go down or up. As someone who now spends most of my time in the mountains alone, I found the scene both ugly and scary. It’s a miracle that more people didn’t die up there.

Afterward, Nepal announced new rules to make sure would-be summiteers have the necessary experience. But before the rules could be implemented, the COVID-19 pandemic stepped in and gave the mountain a much-needed break, with only a few dozen Chinese citizens allowed to climb it in the spring season, from the Tibet side.  

It’s hard to predict how many people might be heading to Everest this year, a century after Oliver Wheeler visited the peak. But history has shown that even after a catastrophic event — most recently the earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015 — there will always be plenty of climbers ready to tackle the mountain as soon as they can.

Will I ever join them? Probably not. But maybe yes. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered during the last 40 years, it’s that Everest dreams do not die easily.


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