Dispatch—Day 36: May 1, 2009
Team Pays Tribute to the First American Ascent
Photo: Jim Whittaker, member of the first American team to summit Everest in 1963
By Jake Norton
Video still by Gerry Moffat
TwitThis

Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'

I probably shouldn't have accepted the toast from Dave Hahn... after all, red wine with antibiotics to treat a deep-seated chest infection is perhaps not doctor-recommended. But how could I pass it up?

It was nearly ten years ago that Dave and I and three others—Conrad Anker, Andy Politz, and Tap Richards—stood on a lonely patch of rock at nearly 27,000 feet [43,450 kilometers] on Everest's North Face, each in stunned silence, for lying at our feet were the remains of a legend, a hero, a mystery: George Leigh Mallory. He and his climbing companion, Andrew Irvine, had disappeared 75 years before, virtually without a trace, some 800 feet [240 meters] below the summit.

Yup, this is definitely an anniversary worth toasting, antibiotics or not.

That day was, and is now, the most poignant day in my climbing career, far surpassing the fleeting moments I've spent on top of the world, or on top of other peaks around the world. Far removed from personal achievement, our discovery of Mallory was a collision with history, a step back in time, and a humbling, welcome reminder that our goals and accomplishments, successes and failures in the mountains—and in life—are predicated on the efforts of remarkable people who came before. We are, as I wrote in Issue 1000 of Trail & Timberline magazine, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Indeed, as I sit in my Base Camp tent reflecting on May 1, 1999, I can't help but think about my predecessors on this side of the mountain on May 1, 1963, when Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu (clad in Eddie Bauer down) struggled through deep snow and blasting winds to stand on the summit of Everest, Jim becoming the first American to reach the top. (Two years later, Gombu would reach the summit again on an Indian expedition, becoming the first person to reach the summit twice.)

Whittaker and Gombu's ascent was made no less impressive by the tracks that came before: Hillary and Tenzin in 1953, the Swiss in 1956, and the oft-forgotten Swiss expedition of 1952, which put Raymond Lambert and Tenzin Norgay within 800 feet [240 meters] of the summit. And, of course, their tracks were only made possible by the reconnaissance expeditions of '50 and '51. And, those, in turn, were enabled by the efforts of the pioneering Everesters of the pre-World War II expeditions of 1938, '36, '35, '33, '24, '22, and '21. None of those would have happened without Sir Martin Conway, the Duke of Abruzzi, Fanny Bullock Workman, General Bruce, Sir Francis Younghusband, John Noel, and countless others who pushed the limits years before. And... the tracks go back through the ages, each generation standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before.

To some, that may be demoralizing... to them, the idea that someone had climbed the route before takes something essential away from the enterprise today. For me, however, it is far from demoralizing, and rather is invigorating. To look around me high in the Western Cwm and see hidden in the layers of snow the footsteps of Hillary and Tenzin, the toil of Whittaker and Gombu, the inspiration of those who came before... well, it inspires me to push on against the demon of the day, against the gnawing forces of inertia, lethargy, and the want of comfort, rest, food, and air. Seeing the giants in these hills, the things they accomplished and all they endured, pushes me onward, upward, and forward.

May 1, 1999, was an amazing day, a direct interaction with one of the many giants on whose shoulders we all stand. Tonight, perhaps another toast.

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