"Mountains My Lab" Part 9



Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Jan 31, 2020

Jim Milledge has been one of the UK's leading figures in mountain medicine for many years. In 2018 he completed a long awaited memoir - "Mountains My Lab". Although Jim's intention was not to publish the book widely he has granted us permission to reproduce extracts on our blog. Over the course of the next year we'll bring you images and text that describe Jim's extraordinary life. 

Part 1 includes an overview of Jim's life. Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7 and Part 8 can be found in earlier posts.

In Part 9 Jim describes his role in the 1960-61 Silver Hut Expedition...


It was wonderful to arrive at last in the Sherpa country, which Norman Hardie had told us so much about. We paid off the lowland porters at Thyangboche and were very hospitably entertained by our Sherpas. There was still a lot of monsoon snow about and we had difficulty making our way up the Mingbo valley towards the site, which we had planned to place the high altitude winter station. This valley branched right (east) off the Dudh Kosi, the main valley running north to Everest. The valley curves round the east side of Ama Dablam.

Ama Dablam, this most beautiful of mountains, was to be our constant companion for the next six months, our eyes being drawn repeatedly to its wonderful lines. “This mountain” wrote John Hunt, in The Ascent of Everest, (p64) “rises to 23,300 ft and appears utterly inaccessible, out-rivalling the most sensational aspect of the Matterhorn”. From the south, the direction from which we approached it, its bold front rises to an ice field with a hanging glacier at its base. Such is the scale of Himalayan peaks that this glacier looks like a large block of ice and gives the peak its name. A dablam is a charm box or phylactery worn by Sherpa women, often with a photo of the Dali Lama, or a Buddhist prayer, inside. Ama means mother and derives from the two ridges running down from the central peak like enfolding arms.

We reconnoitred the route up the Mingbo Valley behind Ama Dablam and in October, with Pemba Tensing, one of our senior Sherpas, I climbed the fluted walls that limit the nevè basin. It was a great thrill to reach this col at 5866m (19,250 ft), the highest I had ever climbed to, and look out into the vast Hongu Valley basin on the far side. This was the site Ed Hillary had suggested for the high winter station (Silver Hut). It was a clear sunny day but blowing hard and it seemed a very exposed site. Later after the Yeti hunting party arrived and Ed and others spent a night here they quickly decided, wisely, to relocate the Silver Hut on Mingbo glacier basin below.


View of Everest and Ama Dablam from above Namche Bazaar. Tangboche is on the ridge below Ama Dablam. The Mingbo valley is off right in front of Ama Dablam.


On November 7th the whole expedition mustered on the site and erected the shell of the hut in one day. A small group of us spent the next 10 days fitting it out with stove, bunks, shelves etc. We had a 12-volt electrical supply from a windmill generator and a bank of marine batteries. This gave us lighting and power for our scientific instruments. We also had a small petrol generator; but the wind generator was adequate for our needs until the spring, when we started using a power hungry single sideband radio.

Above the col to the north, was a peak on a ridge, which then ran on to Ama Dablam. The ridge from the col looked a feasible route and was a tempting climb. Starting from our newly built hut, Peter Mulgrew, Barry Bishop and I made a first attempt. The route was either on the ridge or on the right flank and was mostly on snow with short rather rotten rock passages. We were three on a rope and moving rather cautiously, since none of us were experienced Himalayan climbers. We ran out of time and retreated. Whilst I was at Base Camp another attempt was made which also failed through lack of time and poor weather. 

So on November 18th on a perfect morning I tried again with Sherpa Ang Tsering Panch, the Sherpa who had helped me with sick parades on the march out. As a party of 2 and with the snow now more consolidated we made faster progress. The continuation of the climb was mostly confined to the ridge now and was continually interesting. Small rock steps, sharp snow ridge sections, great bulbous stacks of snow baring the ridge which had to be turned or climbed over, all presented problems to be overcome. Finally, there was a 50m chimney with rock on one side and ice on the other. The rope ran out when I was about two thirds of the way up. I made a very inadequate belay and brought up Ang Tsering who went on to the top of the chimney and took in the rope. I climbed up out of the chimney to find him just sitting on a outward sloping slab of rock covered with gravel, no sign of a belay! However, from there was it clear we had made it and a 12m ice rib, led to a perfect summit, so sharp that only one of us could stand on it at a time.



The expedition members in November 1960. Back row (L to R) - Pat Barcham, Desmond Doig, Mike Gill* and Jim Milledge*. Middle row - Barnu Banerjee, Ed Hillary, Wally Romanes*, Peter Mulgrew and Larry Swan. Front row - Tom Nevison*, George Lowe, Marlin Perkins, Capt. Matwani and Griffith Pugh*. Mike Ward* and John West* arrived in December. *Member of the winter party. Others left soon after this, some to return in the spring with other new members.

 

It was 11.45am and the weather was still perfect. We had superb views of Everest over the Nuptse wall. Ama Dablam, only 464m higher, looked very close, though the connecting ridge, dropping down 230m before rising steeply to Ama Dablam, looked formidable. Looking down to the Mingbo glacier we could see the Silver Hut, tiny on the expanse of snow and away southwest the peaks of Kangtaga, Tamsercu, Numbur and Kariolchang.

We climbed down carefully and without mishap to reach the Silver Hut in time for tea. After a short break we went on down to the Green Hut for the night. Since our peak was lower than Ama Dablam and certainly feminine in character, (it had repelled us twice and kept us guessing at to its intention about surrendering, until the very end,) we decided to call it, Puma Dablam, Daughter Dablam. It is now shown on the Nepali Everes 1:50,000map (2003) maps as Omigaichan with a height of 6340m (20,922ft). The National Geographic Mount Everest map (1988) 1:50,000 gives it 6,364m (21,000ft).

We planned to start serious physiology in the winter, that is from mid-December, when we would be joined by John West and Mike Ward. Griff Pugh had started some work at our base camp at Mingbo itself, a small alp with a few stone huts at 4538m. In early December the Sherpas have one of their most important festivals, Mani Ram Du held at Thyangboche monastery. Before that there were a few days to spare so, at Norman Hardie’s suggestion, I planned a trip from the Silver Hut to go over the col just above the Hut, into the upper Hongu, down this valley then up to the Mera La, a pass that connects with the Hinuku Valley. Then down that valley and over another pass to get back into the Dudh Kosi at the village of Lukla, where there is now an airstrip. Finally back up the main trail to Namche Bazaar and to Thyangboche in time for the festival.

I took 3 Sherpas with me and supplies for 6 days. We had beautiful weather with clear sunny days and cold frosty nights. Our first day from the Silver Hut was over the col into the Hongu, down across frozen lakes and down off the snow into a valley with dwarf juniper, azalea and grass. Here we saw a fox run unconcernedly across our path. We camped at about 4900m at the highest pasturage. Sherpas from Lukla used to drive their yaks here for summer grazing, a trip that involves crossing two high passes, one of them, the Mera La, is 5640m. Our camp site was dominated by the long bulk of Chamlang (7300m), unclimbed at that time, and we watched the sunset turn its upper snows to orange, pink and flame as we huddled into our down jackets and sleeping bags round our camp fire. The next day we walked down valley then turned right and up to the Mera La. This proved to be an easy snow covered pass with yak tracks over it. From the pass we had breathtaking views of the peaks that divide the Hinuku from the Dudh Kosi including Kangtega and the fine sharp Peak 43. Further left was the huge snow ramp leading up to Nau Lek, a perfect ski mountain I thought. Immediately left (south) of the col were the gentle snow slopes leading to Mera Peak (6470m). I was very tempted to try and climb it. It had been climbed just once, by Jimmy Roberts in 1953 after he had brought oxygen supplies to the Everest Expedition. However I had this date at Thyangboche to keep and left it, regretfully. It has since become one of the most popular of trekking peaks and I was very pleased to climb it, 42 years later during a Medex Expedition 2003 with my son John and friends.


Mera Central (6654m) first climbed by Jimmy Roberts and Sen Tenzing in 1953. Due to easy access and a low technical grade, the standard route from the north is amongst the most popular climbs in Nepal.


We descended snow then scree slopes and camped at the first pasturage in the Hinuku. It was wonderful to be the only Westerner with three Sherpas. They were all very different. Pemba Tensing was an experienced Sherpa in his mid or late thirties and had been on a number of large expeditions including the French 1954 Makalu Expedition. Phu Dorgie was the youngster and one of our two cook boys, very strong and always smiling. Da Tsering was the oldest and still wore his hair in the old style in a braid, either hanging down his back or more usually wound round his head. The other two tended to poke gentle fun at him but he took it all in good part. We carried quite large loads since we had our three/four man tent, sleeping and cooking gear and food for 5/6 days. I made up a song to the tune of “Four jolly sailors”;


            We’re four jolly climbers come up from Mingbo

            And jolly good climbers, although we say so.

            We’ve come to the Hinuku to see what we could see;

            Pemba Tensing, Da Tsering, Phu Dorgi and me.


The next morning, leaving our packs in camp, Pemba Tensing and I went up valley to get a view of the approaches to Kantega, then unclimbed. The route up it looked feasible and three years later it was climbed by this route by Mike Gill and others. We then hurried back and with the other Sherpas, went down this beautiful, uninhabited valley. In 1997 there was a devastating flood down this valley due to a natural dam burst and most of the yak pastures were washed away leaving fields of huge boulders. The result was that Sherpas no longer bring their yaks into this and the Hongu valley for summer grazing. However, because of the popularity of Mera Peak it is visited by many climbers with Sherpa guides and a number of lodges have been built to cater for them. None of the Sherpas with me knew the valley and we missed the first possible pass over the wall to our right. Perhaps this was just as well since I found out, four years later, that this pass is not easy to find and requires some rock climbing or scrambling on the far side.

We descended to about 3000m and camped amid lush thick vegetation. The rhododendrons here were tree sized with twelve-inch hands of leaves and blossoms of a deep red. Next day we thankfully picked up the trail to the lower, yak pass. This, many years later, I found out to be the Zatwa La (4,600m) and is now served by a lodge on the Hinuku side. The path zig-zaged up the valley side. In one place it traversed a smooth face and the Sherpas had fixed small tree trunks as a footway. As we climbed the rhododendrons became paler until at about 4000m the flowers were pure white. Above this were azalea and dwarf juniper with their evocative scents. Finally we topped the pass at about 4500m and we looked south over innumerable foothill to the hazy plains. Actually there were three ribs to cross and it was getting dark as we scuttled down the uppermost slopes of the Dudh Kosi Valley walls. We pressed on but night found us well short of the village of Lukla so, coming to a cave, we stopped for the night. The next morning we walked into Lukla and breakfasted on eggs we bought there.

Pemba Tensing and I then hurried on to reach Kumjung that night (usually a two or three  day journey) so as to meet the rest of the expedition at Thyangboche the next day for the Mani Ram Du. On the “Main Road”, the track up to Thyangboche monastery it was fascinating to see whole Sherpa families walking from far and wide, in some cases many days march to this most important festival at the foremost Gompa (temple) in Sherpa country. They were dressed in their finest traditional costumes, the men in their long Tibetan gowns gathered at the waist with one arm free and its sleeve down their backs. The women in long gowns with rainbow coloured hand woven aprons fore and aft and their dablams on the chest. Some of the older women had finely wrought, silver chain belts of a design suggesting chastity belts. I thought it was like a Sherpa version of Canterbury Tales. It was great to arrive at Thyangboche, meet the other expedition members and swap news. It had been a truly wonderful trip for me.


Upper Mingbo basin. Site of Silver Hut below the Mingbo col. The peak, left was an obvious goal, the route lies up the sky-line from the col.


The whole expedition assembled for this three day festival which happens every year around the beginning of December. The first 2 days are more serious with the Head Lama blessing the people and serious dances by the Lamas. Then more comic dances are interspersed and on the third day, it’s more of a common people’s celebration with dance and song. Too much chang (rice/millet beer) and rakshi (potato spirit, both home made of course) was drunk by both Sherpas and Climbers, the celebrations going on well past midnight.

After Mani Ram Du many of the climbers and Yeti Hunters left, some for good, others, including Ed to return in the spring for the Makalu climb. This left us, mainly scientists, to do our physiology over the winter. It is interesting how our expectations, our mind-set, determine our attitudes. Talking to Norman who was leaving after being away from home for three months, this came home to me. He was yearning to get back to home and family and only fretting that he had a two week (wonderful) trek to Kathmandu ahead of him before getting a plane back to New Zealand. I, on the other hand, considered that the expedition had only just begun. Though it had been great, I thought the best was yet to come; a winter to spend at high altitude doing fascinating science, then a real major 8000m peak attempt. If I had been ordered home with the outgoing party I would have been devastated!

So about the second week in December we took up residence in the Silver Hut. The winter party included Barry Bishop, Wally Romanes, Mike Gill and me. We had been at altitude since September and were sufficiently acclimatized to stay at 5800m, (19,000ft). Griff Pugh and Sukhamay Lahiri had come out later and even later came John West and Mike Ward. These four joined us at various times during the next month. Sukhamay was a small, jolly physiologist from Calcutta who had done his PhD in Oxford with Cunningham and Lloyd. He later settled in the USA and with me, took part in 2 further scientific expeditions. He and Griff had some difficulty acclimatizing to the altitude of the Silver Hut but by going down to Mingbo when they felt too bad and then returning, they both eventually were able to stay and work there. Mike and John were the last of the winter party to arrive. A crucial piece of equipment for a number of our projects was the Lloyd-Haldane apparatus. This was a beautiful thing of blown glass filled with mercury and coloured reagents, mentioned in the previous chapter. It is used to measure the carbon dioxide and oxygen in gas. Now, of course, these are measured by electronic analyzers but then, only chemical analysis was available. We had brought two of these Lloyd-Haldanes but both had been smashed on the march out. We had sent an SOS message to John and Mike to bring two replacements and be sure to get them to us without breakage. They had done this and had carried one each in their own rucksacks all the way from Kathmandu. But for them, at least 3 of the most important projects would have failed completely.

On Christmas day we residents of the Silver Hut, welcomed the other members of the team for lunch. They had stayed the night of Christmas Eve at the Green Hut and on Christmas morning, which was clear, sunny but quite cold, they walked slowly up through the icefall and then up the slope of the glacier. We stood on the ridge below the Hut waiting for them and encouraged them with appropriate carols. We sang, “Dingdong merrily on high” and “Christians awake salute the happy morn” amongst others. Christmas dinner included roast mutton, roast potatoes, peas and corn (all freeze dried). Then of course, tinned Christmas pudding (again) for sweet but this time with brandy butter made by Tom Nevison. Tom was an American physician working for NASA at the time. He had done much of the fitting out of the hut but had been plagued with tummy trouble. He could not stay for the winter and left soon after Christmas to return in the spring.


Ang Tsering on the summit of Puma Dablam  


John West and Mike Ward acclimatized quite quickly and were able to come up to the Silver Hut soon after Christmas after working at Mingbo on the various physiological projects. Life in the Silver Hut settled into a routine. I was interested in the fact that, although we could have been completely free of any time table we actually adopted quite strict routine of getting up and meal times etc. We usually worked from about 8.30 to 5.00 with breaks for lunch and drinks. Then we often would get out and take a ski run down the glacier before relaxing. In the evening we would write up the results of the day’s experiments, read or write up diaries. We had some music from an early battery tape recorder (reel to reel). I had got hold of this and asked members to record their favourite music for the expedition. There were no pre-recorded tapes in those days. I recorded a number of tapes from records, of various types of music, mostly classical but some jazz as well. The only member to take up my suggestion was John West. He recorded just one work, Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues and he also brought the two volume score!

We usually had 1 or 2 Sherpas with us who cooked our meals. It was rather boring and lonely for them, so they changed round between Base Camp and the Silver Hut quite frequently, the relief Sherpa bringing up some fresh food, messages and mail. Water had to be made from ice dug out of the glacier cave just across the open crevasse by the hut. The ice was melted in a tea urn on the hut stove so we always had water “on tap” for drinks. We were aware that our appetites were poor and that we needed to push the calories to keep weight loss to a minimum. Drinks with plenty of sugar and full cream powered milk were one way to do this. We had plenty of food to choose from. In those days before domestic freezers were common, there was a great variety of freeze-dried foods. The most successful were the fruit and vegetables including, peas, runner beans, carrots, potatoes, apple rings, raspberries, apricots and plums. We also had freeze-dried meat, beef either sliced, steak or ground up. This was not so successful as it all tasted like cardboard. We found that the best way was to have it curried or with sweet-sour sauce. We also had a variety of tinned foods as well as rice and flour from which the Sherpas made chapattis and Mike Gill made bread. But we found that all these preserved foods began to taste insipid unless jazzed up with sauces. It seems as if altitude dulls the sense of taste. We longed for fresh foods and were fortunate that we could, at times, get supplies from the nearest villages of fresh vegetables including delicious small potatoes and eggs.  However, in spite of all this, we all lost weight when living at the Silver Hut though we regained our appetites and put on weight when we went down to Mingbo. It seemed that somewhere between these two altitudes (4500 and 5800m) was the critical altitude above which weight could not be maintained, at least in lowlanders.

What about hygiene? Well, in digging out an ice cave in the side of the open crevasse beside the hut, we came across a hidden slot crevasse. So, a few metres down and right of the cave we dug into the side of this open crevasse and hit the same slot. We dug sideways following this and placing two planks across the 18 inch slot had ourselves a deep trench latrine, permanently frozen. As one spot filled up, we shovelled snow on top and dug along a bit further for the next site. Icicles formed from the roof and the light coming through the ice gave a very pretty effect. “I’m just off to the Grotto” became the euphemism.


Looking down the ascent ridge of Puma Dablam. The Silver Hut is just a dot!


The physiology...

The various projects mostly examined the way the body defended itself against the lowered oxygen pressure in the air around us due to the altitude. At the altitude of the Silver Hut, the barometric pressure was just half that at sea level. So the partial pressure of oxygen was also halved (since the percentage of oxygen, about 21%, remains constant). As oxygen passes into the lungs, across into the arterial blood and then to the tissues of the body, pressure is lost at each stage. However, the various processes of acclimatization tend to counter this effect. Probably the most important aspect of acclimatization is the increase in breathing that takes place in the first few days of altitude exposure. At sea level there is a big drop in oxygen pressure as the air passes into the air sacks of the lung due to oxygen being taken up and carbon dioxide put out into the lungs. This drop is reduced if the subject breaths more. At the Silver Hut, after we became acclimatized, we doubled the amount of air we breathed per minute at rest (and more than doubled it on exercise). The result is that the drop in oxygen pressure from outside to the lung was halved. The increase in breathing is due to a change in the automatic chemical control of breathing and the response to both carbon dioxide and oxygen lack are increased. The study of this mechanism was the project that I was mainly responsible for using the “Oxford” approach of Cunningham & Lloyd (Chapter 4). Each study took two to two and half hours and then I had to analyse the twelve or so gas samples in the Lloyd-Haldane apparatus. Now, of course, the gas would be analysed on line with electronic analysers.

Another project, measuring the diffusing capacity of the lung for carbon monoxide, which John West carried out, measured the next step in the transport of oxygen, from the lung air sacks into the blood. This, he found, did not change with acclimatization. From arterial blood to the tissues, the drop in oxygen pressure depends upon the flow of blood; for the whole body that is the cardiac output, the haemoglobin concentration and the oxygen dissociation curve. We measured all these variables and for cardiac output we did it both at rest and exercise. The largest project was on the effect of exercise on breathing, heart rate, cardiac output. Griff Pugh was responsible for this but we all helped and this was one of the projects we continued at even higher altitudes on Makalu in the spring. This involved the subject cycling on our stationary bicycle at increasing work loads up to the maximum we could manage for at least 3 minutes. At altitude it felt even more exhausting that at sea level. At each exercise level we took timed collections of expired gas whose volumes were later measured and analyzed for oxygen and carbon dioxide to work out the oxygen uptake per minute, as a measure of work rate. It was only too easy to make a mistake in these gas collections, a gas tap turned the wrong way could ruin a run and the whole exercise study would have to be repeated. Griff seemed to be most often the person to make these mistakes. A subject could only push himself to exhaustion once in a day, so a ruined study was quite a disaster!


Crossing  a stream with the segments of the Silver Hut


I also did a study of the electro-cardiograph (ECG) at various altitudes and with and without oxygen and we did a project on mental performance using a measure of efficiency of card sorting. Tom Nevison had a portable instrument for measuring electro-encephalograms (EEG), which NASA had developed, and he used this on us. Although state of the art for its time (it used valves not transistors of course) it was primitive enough that the electrodes, instead of being plates on the surface of the scalp, had to be hypodermic needles inserted under the skin of the scalp – not a popular study for the subjects! We christened the machine Frankenstein.


Life at the Silver Hut...

But it was not all work at the Silver Hut. We had been supplied with skis. These were the latest design, Head skis, the first laminated plastic and steel design I believe. Originally we had “bear trap” and cable bindings. But during the expedition we were sent out the first “safety” bindings made by Marker. These still used cables but had a triangular toe piece which, on falling sideways, would swivel and release. We had to fit these ourselves of course. We also had the latest ski boots by Hinki, nice leather (bendy) boots but with clips rather than laces! So, often at the end of a days work in the Hut, we would get out and take a run down the glacier which was a great release of tension and any frustration. Even the tedious walk back, skis on shoulder, was relaxing with the wonderful mountain views all round.

We did not know what to expect of the weather. In the event, the predominant weather was beautiful, anti-cyclonic weather, sunny days and starry cold nights with little wind. For perhaps two or three days each month we had stormy days with cloud and wind which blew spin-drift snow about but little if any snow fall. But even on these days we got out to read the instruments in our little weather station that Barry Bishop was responsible for and we could, had it been necessary, have moved down to the Green Hut or even Mingbo.


The Silver Hut


We thought we should give ourselves a day off occasionally so we decided to “observe the Sabbath”. On one Sunday we did a ski tour by carrying our skis up to the Col and skiing down the Hongu valley some way. The, using skins, we climbed up onto a ridge and after lunch, clambered down over rocks to a glacier and then skinned up to a second col, south of the first one, which led us back into the Mingbo valley. The descent from this col was quite tricky but we then had a final ski run down and a trudge back to the Green Hut where Urkien and Mingma Tsering met us. Wally Romanes nobly went on back to the Silver Hut to make sure the stove was kept going to avoid freezing in the hut which would have destroyed the Haldane apparatus. The rest of us slept at the Green Hut.

On another Sunday in perfect weather, the two Mikes and I clambered down the ice cliff the Hut was on, to the lower part of the Glacier. We then used skins to traverse below the bergschrund to the foot of a nice looking little peak we later named “Rakpa” peak, after the little Tibetan terrier we had at the Silver Hut. The two Mikes then roped up and started to climb this peak whilst I skied back to the Hut and watched and photographed them. From our grand-stand view we were treated to a fine display of steep snow climbing as they reached the top of this fluted peak. They found the snow to be in such good condition that they could front-point up using the novel twelve point crampons rather than cutting steps as was still standard practice. They came back, after dark, tired but elated from this experience and began to consider if they could not use this technique and have a go at climbing Ama Dablam! This most formidable peak had looked quite impossible from the usual Southern view but having been looking at the mountain from the East for weeks, one could see that the formidable top section did, in fact lie back at a more reasonable angle than appeared “en face” from the South. The approach to this top snow and ice section was over some difficult rock passages but both Mikes were good rock climbers.


Ama Dablam climbed! 

By now, mid February, Griff and Sukhamay where up at the Silver Hut so we were a party of eight plus one or two Sherpas and it was getting crowded. So when Mike Ward proposed that he, Mike Gill, Wally and Barry go off and attempt Ama Dablam, Griff was happy to agree. In those days regulations about permission to climb lesser peaks were much less tight and we understood that we had permission to climb any of these in our area. Indeed members of the Expedition had already climbed Island Peak, Puma Dablam and Rakpa Peak with no objections raised. We considered Ama Dablam in the same light. After all it was under 7000m. So in mid February Wally started to scout the route up the SE ridge. Over the next 3 weeks various combinations of the four of them pushed the route up this ridge. They had the help of Sherpas up to their Camp 1 where the difficult rock climbing started and for some way beyond, where they fixed some ropes and a small  wire ladder, but beyond their third camp, on the a small snow patch, they were unsupported. The rock climbing was of a very high standard for that time and it was still winter of course. They were fortunate that most of the climbing and their camps were on the sunny south side of the ridge and out of the wind for the most part. There was some high standard snow climbing above the rock and their final camp was a snow hole on the hanging glacier, the Dablam. It was a very fine feat of climbing, years ahead of its time and not repeated for 20 years. It has now become one of the post popular commercial expedition peaks with fixed ropes over the technical steps. But it is still a very fine climb.


The first ascensionists of Ama Dablam


Finally, on March 13th the four of them all summited and returned safely. Unfortunately, as they were clearing the mountain of all the ropes and camping gear, Gummi Dorji had an accident. A slab of rock he was standing on broke and he dropped a few feet, the slab hit his leg and broke his shin bone. We had sent two Sherpas to help with clearing of the mountain and one of them returned with a note giving us the news and asking for supplies of morphine, splints etc. The next day I went down to the Green hut and up to their Camp 1 in time to see them carrying Gummi down to that camp. It had been a very difficult rescue over hard exposed rock. It had snowed over night making the rocks slippery as well. The next day Gummi was carried down to Mingbo and fortunately the following day a plane came in and he was flown out to Kathmandu where he made a rapid recovery from his nasty compound fracture and rejoined the Expedition in the spring.

It was while the four climbers were nearing summit of Ama Dablam that we had the incident of the lost ski. Griff was skiing near the bottom of our “run” when one of his skis came off doing a jump turn. It careered down the slope to drop into a crevice. After lunch we went down with Sherpas, crampons, ice aces and ropes. I roped up and went down the crevice, held by Ang Temba. At first it was a matter of climbing down steep soft snow for some 10 feet. Then the crevice narrowed and the walls became hard ice. I spotted the ski about 30 feet lower down. I climbed down to it using a combination of step cutting and bridging. I sent the ski up on the rope, and then started up myself. About half way up, a whole lot of icicles I was leaning against broke off and I swung along the crevice and had to pull up on some ice stumps and climb quickly for a few feet before I could rest. I was utterly exhausted and breathless!


Spring and the wives and climbers arrive

During the Ama Dablam climb, the spring party of new and returning climbers were trekking out from Kathmandu. With them were a number of wives of Expedition members including Louise Hillary and Betty. She acted as Medical Officer for the party. She had one testing episode when Louise, who knew she was allergic to aspirin, took a tablet for a headache given by another member who assured her it was not an aspirin. She rapidly started to get allergic symptoms. Fortunately Betty was able to locate adrenaline and give her a quick injection as she was beginning to suffocate and all was well. It turned out the tablet was a combination that did indeed contain aspirin. They all arrived in the Khumbu just as the Ama Dablam party got down from their mountain.

It was wonderful to see Betty again and she had double marched to reach our Expedition house at Chagmitang to meet me on the evening of March 18th. The next day we had a call to a midwifery case in Pangboche, the next village up valley on the other bank of the Dhud Khosi. Betty and I went up to see the patient with Aila Sherpa. She was obviously very sick, having had a baby 7 days earlier who also was in a poor way. The diagnosis was a retained placenta and, under morphia, Betty did a manual removal. We returned for lunch at Changmitang and in the afternoon we had a conference at which Ed outlined plans for the next phase, the attempt on Makalu. In the evening we returned to Pangboche with Aila and Pemba Tensing to find both the Sherpani and baby had died. Betty and I carried on up to Mingbo where we spent the night.


Crisis over Ama Dablam climb

The next day was cloudy and we just went for a walk up to the shoulder of Ama Dablam and back to give Betty some acclimatization. On the next day a plane arrived from Kathmandu with Griff on board (he had flown out with Gumi 4 days before) and this plane was to take Louise and June Mulgrew back. Griff had the startling news that the authorities in Kathmandu on hearing about the ascent of Ama Dablam had taken the view that this was unauthorized and were saying the Expedition must immediately pack up and leave Nepal! Griff said the only course was for Ed to return on this plane and sort things out and that the other wives should leave as soon as another plane could take them out.

This was catastrophic news. Opinions were divided on how serious it was. Were they bluffing or not? Ed returned to Kathmandu by the plane that had brought Griff out and we went ahead with the plans for getting all our expedition stuff over to the Barun valley in order to make a serious attempt on Makalu. Time was important since we had to get into position for a summit attempt before the end of May at the latest. We also hoped to continue some physiology on Makalu at a higher altitude than the Silver Hut.


The Silver Hut


We decided there was just time for Betty to get up to the Silver Hut before she went back on the next plane. So that same day we two with Tom Nevison went slowly up to the Green Hut. Betty went well considering she was unacclimatised to that altitude. We returned to Mingbo the next day and got news that negotiations were not going well in Kathmandu. The authorities were saying the expedition would have to leave immediately and it seemed likely that the girls would have to return very soon. So in order for Betty to see the Silver Hut we set off urgently for the Green Hut. The following day it was up the ice fall to the Silver Hut and after a couple of hours there, we returned down to the Green Hut for the night. The weather had been good and it was great that Betty had been able to see our winter home and even to ski down the Glacier on our way back. The next day a plane came in the afternoon and Betty, Louise and Lila Bishop and luggage piled in. My heart was in my mouth as the plane took off straight towards a small hill at the end of the runway and made a dangerous left turn to dive through a slot into the Mingbo valley. I was relieved when it appeared again down valley and flew away to the West.

Ed had a tough time in Kathmandu, doing the rounds of the ministries and apologising for our Ama Dablam climb. In the end he was made to pay a fine and permission for the expedition to continue was given. He returned by plane after 10 days in Kathmandu and with some loss of acclimatization.

 For the next three weeks we scientists continued with our physiology program whilst the climbers started to make the route from the Silver Hut over the Hongu basin and Barun Plateau to the Barun Glacier. The Sherpas began carrying the many loads over this high level route, for the attempt on Makalu.

The Silver Hut became quite crowded now with Griff, Sukhamay and Tom as well as the previous occupants all trying to work there. Those of us scientists who were going on to Makalu, John West, Mikes Ward and Gill and myself, were given a departure date of April 20th so we had to make sure we completed our experiments by then. There was also a lot of coming and going of climbers. Sherpas too were to be seen passing the Silver Hut and going in a line up the fixed ropes of the col wall like ants on a jungle trail.

The weather was fine and beginning to warm up, as John and I set off on the 20th saying goodbye to Griff and the others who were staying to complete their programs. I had spent a total of 111 nights in the Silver Hut, Mike Gill was second at 110 nights in the record stakes!  It was the end of an incredible, beautiful and never to be forgotten winter.


Part 10 can be found here.



Have something to say? Comment on this post