Two climbing-team members recount a doomed 1982 attempt at Everest from the Chinese side with mounting uneasiness as the expedition falls apart.
Team physician Clarke and leader Bonington take turns charting the progress of the first try at Everest via the unclimbed North East Ridge, a route that was “elegant, unknown and [that] looked, from the few photographs we had, difficult but possible.” Clarke contributes material on the history of the region, earlier British exploration, British-Chinese relations, and the logistical aspects of the climb, including commentary about the road to Everest from Lhasa, the monasteries and nunneries, pilfering of camp supplies by yak herders, and the deplorable condition of base camp, a garbage dump of earlier climbs, where the greatest danger was broken glass. Clarke’s writing, straightforward as it is, is welcome leavening to Bonington’s story of the climb once it reached high altitude. Bonington’s tale follows the slow but steady progress up the mountain, the team’s digging snow caves and getting acclimatized, the brutal wind and blinding conditions. But the climbers were all at altitude for too long, and gradually worsening health claimed two of the team’s four summit members: one climber who experienced a minor but decidedly threatening stroke, and Bonington himself, a mountaineering legend who realized fairly early that he hadn’t the strength to make the top. This was a no-oxygen, no-porter climb, so there was room for few mistakes. Two climbers fast making their name in the sport, Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman, took their chances along the absurdly steep ridgeline, where a series of pinnacles had to be overcome before the long sweep to the summit. Bonington followed their progress with binoculars for a day and a half. Then they disappeared. No trace of them has ever been found.
A sharp taste of Himalayan climbing and the way harsh terrain can make a person disappear as if from the face of the earth.