The Boys of Everest

Posted on: July 30, 2008

The following feature has been excerpted fromThe Boys of Everest, a semi-historical ride through the life of Sir Chris Bonington and the ragtag group of Brits—Whillans, MacInnes, Harlin, Haston, Boardman and Tasker and so many others—who followed him to the world's greatest peaks. We at Alpinist found the read riveting enough that we had to share. Here, find the account of a 1980 attempt to climb K2 made by Joe Tasker, Dick Renshaw and Peter Boardman.

Excerpted from The Boys of Everest by Clint Willis, by arrangement with Da Capo Press. Copyright (c) 2006. To read more about the book, or to order a copy, please visit

The Boys of Everest by Clint Willis, Da Capo Press. Copyright © 2006

The three climbers returned to the mountain on July 2. They moved slowly. They had been here for six weeks. Their strength was fading, but they did not expect to encounter much difficult climbing on the upper sections of the Abruzzi. Joe and Peter figured the three of them could climb the route in less than a week. They carried on their backs everything they needed for the attempt—there would be no porters, no lugging gear between camps.

They found the climbing harder than they had expected—nothing extreme, but consistently challenging. The weather broke again. They sat out the worst of it but climbed when they could, often moving in high wind and heavy snowfall. They spent four nights at 23,000 feet, making twice-daily radio contact with Major Sarwat. The major passed along regional weather reports that rarely seemed to apply to the mountain.

They set out again when the weather improved. They had camped below the Black Pyramid, a steep section of dark rock that reared up hundreds of feet to the start of an ice field. The rock had few cracks or features, so it was difficult to climb and to protect. They managed it, leaving fixed rope in place for their retreat. Dick then led the others up the ice, which proved dangerously brittle; it splintered when he struck it with his axe. Joe saw evidence of previous expeditions—frayed ropes, bits of gear and cloth. He could not imagine how the climbers of an earlier generation had managed this section.

The climbers carried fragments of stories. An American climber and three Sherpas had disappeared high on this route in 1939. Another American had died during a rescue attempt in 1953. Joe and Peter felt as they had on the glacier beneath Kangchenjunga the previous year—not haunted by past climbers and their stories, but possessed by a sense that no time had passed since those early disasters, or rather by a notion that time had collapsed into itself, muddying the laws of sequence and narrative. It was as if the three of them had fallen from some map of the past and into the actual territory of it—as if the past were ongoing.

They made a fourth camp on a shelf on the Ridge, at 24,700 feet. Dick had never been this high. They were moving well given the altitude. They could look down 9,000 feet to the Godwin Austen glacier. Their Base Camp was invisible in the distant glacier's immensity. They felt themselves to be voyagers from an already remote outpost. The climbers had come to a place that puzzled more than frightened them. The four men who had disappeared here in 1939 had broken their orbit and sailed into space.

The three living climbers knew that another two days—perhaps three—would see them to the top of the mountain. Then they would have to try to get down. The good weather persisted another day. They climbed without oxygen and they suffered greatly from the altitude now. There was nothing to be done about it. They moved up easy snow, skirting a cornice to reach a short section of ice that surprised them; it was very steep. Peter led the ice. The climbers arrived at a shoulder that rose easily to the base of the huge summit pyramid.

They made their fifth camp here, below the pyramid. They gazed up and picked out a way to the top. The route led up to rock and across to a gully of snow, then up the gully to a final ice cliff and easy ground. For now they looked across to Broad Peak, and down up on the rest of the surrounding mountains. The climbers were not terribly far from the summit; it seemed for the moment as though they could turn around and go down now and it would hardly matter. This was just another vantage point, another place from which to view parts of the planet. The sky looked like the beginnings of space to them. They were very high. They knew themselves to be inhabitants of one planet among many—the earth was not the center of things.

They slept heavily and woke in the morning to snow and high winds. They had been on the route for ten days. Their reserves of food were running low and they worried about altitude sickness; if they stayed here too long they might become too weak to move. They would become names in stories.

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