Everest Anniversary Climbers Wait Out Bad Weather

Compiled by Brian Handwerk
From Contributions by Liesl Clark, John Bredar, and Yvonne Oomen
May 3, 2002
The National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition commemorates the first ascent of the world's highest mountain, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in May 1953. It also honors the first Americans to stand on the top of the world, including Barry Bishop, in 1963.

The sons of Everest pioneers Hillary, Norgay, and Bishop—Peter Hillary, Jamling Norgay, and Brent Bishop—are helping make a documentary that will air on the National Geographic Channel in the United States and internationally in 2003.

The National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition is made possible in part by the generous support of American International Group, Inc.

After several harrowing days high on the world's tallest mountain, Peter Hillary, Peter Athans, Brent Bishop and the rest of the National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition team have returned safely to Base Camp. There, they are enjoying a brief rest to recover from the grueling conditions, that have recently claimed its first fatality of the climbing season.

The Geographic team climbed as high as Camp III (altitude 23,700 feet), where the nasty weather for which the mountain is famous made life quite uncomfortable. A jet stream was howling only 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) above the camp, which meant a nerve-wracking night, according to Yvonne Oomen, Peter Hillary's wife, who is in the couple's home in New Zealand. She receives regular satellite phone calls from Hillary.

While at Camp III, the group got little sleep, instead spending the night holding their tents together in the fierce wind. Their efforts paid off, and they survived the ordeal with no damage to tents or gear. Climbers who were not at Camp III to tend to their tents were not so lucky, the empty camp of a Swiss team was flattened.

The jet stream on the summit of Everest can reach as much as 350 miles per hour, blowing equipment and even people right off the mountain. At lower altitudes the wind velocity is not as life-threatening, but it is certainly uncomfortable.

Treacherous conditions dogged the team all the way back to Base Camp, including recurring avalanches on the Western Cwm and treacherous collapses in the ever-dangerous Khumbu Icefall, where climbers rely on a precarious array of fixed ropes and ladder-bridges to negotiate massive, shifting blocks of ice.

The team found the icefall a "significantly different place from mere days earlier," said Oomen.

Whole "garage-size" chunks of ice had moved around and some of the fixed ladders had been wrenched out of position. One large piece of ice collapsed in near proximity to the team and gave them, according to the ever-understated Peter Hillary, "a bit of a fright."

Despite the scare, the entire team is reported to be in good shape, although many are suffering from the hacking coughs common at high altitude. Their spirits are ebullient, however, although they were saddened to hear of the death of a British climber from another expedition—the season's first fatality.

British Climber Killed in Fall

Nepal's tourism ministry identified the deceased mountaineer as 38-year-old Peter Legate, a business manager from Lymington, Hampshire. While apparently attempting to descend from Camp III to Camp II, Legate lost his footing and fell some 650 feet from the Lhotse Face.

The National Geographic team will spend about three days at Base Camp before heading back up the mountain. Some members could only shake their heads when the first day at Base Camp dawned with the perfect weather they had longed for higher on the mountain. However, it did afford Peter Athans the opportunity for a luxury rare on Everest—a high-altitude (cold-water) shower.

Himalayan veteran Peter Athans—who holds a record six Everest summits for a Westerner—is leading the National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest expedition. Its members include a new generation of accomplished mountaineers carrying on the Everest traditions of their famous fathers, while honoring their historic achievements. Peter Hillary is currently following the South Col route by which his father, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb to the top of the world's highest mountain.

Brent Bishop is also on the mountain, following in his father's footsteps. Ten years after Hillary and Norgay's first ascent, Barry Bishop was part of the first group to carry the American flag to the summit, which did so by the previously unclimbed West Ridge.

Norgay's son, Jamling, has accompanied the group only as far as the Base Camp for this expedition.

The National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition will be filmed for a special documentary provisionally entitled National Geographic Channel Presents Surviving Everest, premiering globally on the National Geographic Channel (in the United States and internationally) in spring 2003. While exclusively following the struggles of the climbers, the documentary will also shed new light on the historic expeditions and their members, as well as map the human impact of 50 years of climbing Everest.

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