Everest – The Hard Way lecture report

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British Everest Expedition 1975 – 40th Anniversary Lecture  RGS London, Thursday 24th September

Report by Noel Dawson (photos by Noel Dawson and David Nightingale)

As the light slowly faded on the evening of 24th September 1975, Doug Scott and Dougal Haston stepped onto the top of the world. The view filled them with awe and wonder. They enjoyed an unbelievable sunset.

“We then walked up side by side the last few paces to the top, arriving there together.
All the world lay before us.” Doug Scott.

The British Everest Expedition flew into Kathmandu in July 1975. It was an enormous team consisting of many of the finest British climbers of their generation including Chris Bonington, Hamish MacInnes, Doug Scott, Dougal Haston, Peter Boardman, Paul Braithwaite, Martin Boysen, Mick Burke and Nick Estcourt. The expedition took 30 tons of equipment including a magnificent 13 tons of food! Each team member was equipped with an Olympus camera and had access to an amazing 1100 rolls of film! The expedition was to be filmed by Ian Stuart and Mick Burke who planned to produce a 75 minute documentary and news reports for the BBC and Blue Peter. They would end up shooting 39,000 feet of film! The British team’s aim was to summit Everest by the South West Face. Five previous attempts, including one by another British team in 1972, had failed.

During the evening of the 24th September 2015, exactly 40 years after Doug and Dougal stood on the highest point on Earth, many ‘veteran’ climbers from the expedition met again at the Royal Geographical Society to tell their stories to a sold out audience. We were introduced to Chris Bonington, Doug Scott, Paul Braithwaite, Mike Thompson, Charles Clarke, Pertemba Sherpa, Ang Phurba, Adrian Gordon and Mike Rhodes. We were also introduced to Alan Tritton who was instrumental in persuading Barclays Bank to sponsor the expedition. It was simply a magnificent gathering.

Mike Thompson explained how the climbers were divided into two teams, unfortunately named the ‘A’ team and the ‘B’ team! Mike Thompson was in the ‘B’ team and forty years later he still has not got over it! Mike explained that while the ‘chaps’ of the ‘A’ team raced on, the ‘lads’ of the ‘B’ team did a lot of lying around and partaking of the ‘smoking of the local vegetables’!

Charles Clarke told how the ‘A’ team were certainly not allowed to do such a thing so they had to enjoy the same ‘local vegetables’ in secret. Charles was overwhelmed and a little frightened by the huge challenge the team had been set. The Western Cwm was totally unforgiving and at times climbing and the carrying of loads had to be halted due to the real risk of powerful and deadly avalanches.

The team pushed on and established Camp V. Mike Thompson recalled a comfortable night at Camp V when he and Dougal Haston enjoyed the luxury of a whole night on supplementary oxygen. Mike prepared a meal while Dougal set up the oxygen bottle to feed two masks. How well they slept! But when Dougal woke the following morning he declared a few harsh words to himself when he realised that he had not actually turned the oxygen bottle ON!

Paul Braithwaite passionately described his special memories of 1975. He said it seemed like yesterday. He remembered how both he and Nick Estcourt felt honoured to be given the opportunity to tackle the Rock Band which had defeated so many. They were climbing into the ‘jaws of hell’. They reached a point of no return but pushed on. The climbing was so hard to protect. Paul and Nick became totally immersed in the challenging technical climbing but, being ‘hard lads’, it was just ‘another day on the crags except … it was Everest’. Paul and Nick opened the magical door. It was a superb piece of route finding. It was their massive contribution to the team. It was always the team that was important.

Doug Scott came to the stage of the RGS. Doug had the hardest story to tell but it was not about climbing. This was an evening of celebration but it was also an evening of reflection. Nepal was changed for ever on the 25th April 2015. Life changed. Lives changed. For many weeks we mourned for the people of Nepal so famous for their welcoming nature and endless good humour. We mourned for a happy people with so little but seemingly with so much to share. And yet again these resilient people have taught us a humble lesson.

We must remember that the past is important but the future is more important. Doug Scott reflected on a whole generation of good works virtually all destroyed. It seemed that this horror of nature had broken even the hardest of men. Doug spoke of the determination of Community Action Nepal to start again. What has been built and destroyed can be built again. Nepal is loved by so many. All those who have ventured to this inspiring country will help. Out of the tears new villages will be built and holy temples rebuilt. Climbers and trekkers will return because this land offers endless opportunities and adventures. Nepal is reaching out to its many friends around the world. It is the hardest of times. We cannot change the past but we can help to build a better future.

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During the interval there were scenes I have never witnessed at the RGS before. The climbers sat at a long table and the audience were invited to queue to have souvenirs of the evening signed. The queue was endless! We all wanted to take away just a little of the magic of the evening in the hope that some of it would rub off on us. I congratulate the climbers for their determined efforts to complete this seemingly impossible task. I think they were all taken aback a little by their ‘pop star’ status!

Doug Scott took up the story. Doug and Dougal Haston set off for the summit. It was too many hours of climbing. They reached the South Summit at 4 p.m. Altitude started to have the same effect as the ‘local vegetables’! They both ‘enjoyed’ out- of- body experiences. Doug remembers sitting in the sky looking down on himself as he headed for the summit. Doug and Dougal reached the summit at 6 p.m. and watched a sunset from the top of the world. It was for both climbers a humbling experience. They hugged and took photographs but realised they were actually not in a good place. They retreated, dug a snow cave and endured the highest ever bivouac on a mountain.

Pertemba Sherpa remembered the second summit attempt. As he and Peter Boardman worked their way towards the top of Everest he could see the weather was changing. They pushed on to the summit and enjoyed a handshake, photographs and chocolate. On their way down they met Mick Burke. They agreed to wait for him at the South Summit. Mick never returned. It took all their strength and determination to retreat from the anger of Everest.
Chris Bonington spoke his final words of the evening. The team lost a dear friend. It always hurts. It was never easy to continue but climbers nearly always return to being climbers. It does not take away the pain. It does not extinguish the grief.

Everest 1975 was full of memories. It was … ‘a special expedition, remembered and cherished’.
At the end of Everest-The Hard Way which documents the 1975 expedition, Chris Bonington concludes,
“One of the joys of mountaineering in this fast shrinking world is that mountaineers for many generations to come will still be able to discover untrodden corners in the greater mountain ranges of the earth. We, however, shall always feel fortunate and privileged to have been able to unravel the complex problems that were presented by the world’s highest and steepest mountain face.”

The ‘veterans’ took to the stage and the audience applauded their magnificent achievements on Everest in 1975. Julie Summers thanked the climbers for telling their stories. She said it had been …’an extraordinary, wonderful and magical evening.’ And indeed it had.

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