In 1988, American alpinist Ed Webster teamed up with Robert Anderson, Paul Teare, and Stephen Venables to climb a new route up Mount Everest’s massive 12,000-foot-high Kangshung or East Face. The four, in contrast to most expeditions, attempted it in the best possible style—on a new route; without supplemental bottled oxygen; without radios and satellite telephones; and without Sherpa assistance. Instead they relied on their own climbing skills, mountain experience, and friendship to take them to the summit of the world and the adventure of a lifetime.
Into the Death Zone
The expedition successfully ascended the huge ice face to the South Col, a high pass between Everest and Lhotse. On May 12, Webster, Teare, and Venables attempted the final section up the usual route to the South Summit, the Hillary Step, and the summit. Plodding upward in the dark hours before sunrise, their way illuminated by headlamps, the trio passed an abandoned Japanese tent at 27,000 feet. Higher they climbed snow slopes and couloirs into the Death Zone, the sterile oxygen-deprived world above 28,000 feet.
Lack of Oxygen
Here they began suffering severe mental and physical effects from the lack of oxygen. This quote from Ed Webster’s book Snow in the Kingdom, a marvelous account of the ascent and his other Himalyan adventures, relates the degeneration of the human body as it slowly begins dying from the altitude or what Webster calls “a human out of air.”
Buddhist Monk Hallucinations
Below the South Summit, Ed saw prayer flags strung between rocks and purple-robed Buddhist monks chanting a blessing ceremony. Not thinking he was hallucinating, he simply watched them before passing out. When he awoke he realized the perilous place he was in and that if he continued on to the summit of Mount Everest that he would never return alive. “From out of my mental haze came the inescapable conviction that if I continued I would probably be killed.” At 28,700 feet and 3:30 in the afternoon, Webster turned around and started down. Life was more important than summit. Stephen Venables continued solo to the summit, becoming the sole expedition member to reach the top and the first British climber to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen.
“Without the significant benefit of breathing life-giving bottled oxygen, when we reached twenty-eight thousand feet our bodies began to function on autopilot. Although we were a team of three, Robert, Stephen, and I were each locked into our own very private and silent realms of intense—and yet decidedly fuzzy—concentration. Taken prisoner by hypoxia, the lack of oxygen, our ‘reality’ began to more closely resemble a surreal fantasy. We had reached the limits of human existence, and our minds and limbs felt restrained, like those of an Apollo astronaut walking on the moon, caged by his space suit into a slow-motion world. I had entered into a dream-like trance, and I was unable to think of anything besides breathing, and lifting one boot at a time marginally uphill. No matter what I tried to will myself to do or to think, my brain and muscles were slowing down, and I couldn’t rouse myself. Snow was streaming in plumes off the upper rock ridge, while spindrift slithered around my boots like cascading confetti. My sense of physical and mental control, and the passage of time, began to slip away like the spindrift—so many flakes of snow swirling in so many random directions that I couldn’t keep track of them all.”
Buy Ed Webster’s book:
Snow in the Kingdom A superb account of the first ascent of Mount Everest’s Kangshung Face and one of the best books ever written about Everest.