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The Boys of Everest

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.

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 west and south faces of K2 (8611m), Karakoram, Pakistan. [Photo] Michael Kennedy

They could not climb in these conditions. They considered retreat. The snow piled up outside of their tent as they talked. The Major radioed a forecast of clouds but no wind or snow the next day–July 12–with clear skies for July 13. They resolved to carry on. It was still snowing when they awoke the next morning but they set off in hopes that conditions would improve. The Ridge narrowed as they climbed and soon they were moving carefully across steep snow, afraid of triggering a slide that would sweep them from the mountain. They reached the gully. It was 400 feet wide–an obvious funnel for avalanches from the ice cliff above it. Joe imagined a vast white wave heaving out of the mist and breaking upon them. Any avalanche here would carry them for a time and fling them into space.

The snow in the gully was deep. They moved as quickly as they could, gasping in the thin air but afraid to stop for a rest. Each climber felt a sort of superstitious need to show his attachment to life. It might help to move as quickly as they could: some powerful witness might take note on their efforts, might be moved to intervene on their behalf. The climbers–fantasies distracted them from the knowledge that pressed at them here–that death was real and that they were not prepared for it.

They crossed to rock at the far side of the gully. The snow came down harder now. They climbed higher, searching for a place to pitch their single tent. They sought protection from the avalanches that would come; the mountain would shrug off much of the new snow during the night. Peter found himself back in snow that came up to his thighs. Dick and Joe trailed after him but it was hard to keep up. They were vastly tired. The climbers came upon a rock ledge below a wall. The risk of avalanche seemed less grave here than on the slopes that surrounded them–slopes that at moments seemed alive, as if the climbers waded through a sea of snakes that slithered and hissed at their boots.

They pitched their tents and melted snow for tea. It wasn’t enough, but they were tired. They quit while they were still thirsty. Peter and Dick lay down in their sleeping bags with their heads at the tent’s narrow entrance. Joe lay with his head at the back of the tent. The snow continued to accumulate on their shelter. Joe felt the snow fill the gap between his side of the tent and the rock outside. He worried that the snow would smother him in his sleep. The others were anxious, too.

The three of them talked about their situation. They were 1,500 feet below the summit. They hoped to reach it in the morning. But this snow might make it impossible to climb or retreat in the morning. They might be stuck here while the altitude continued to wear at their bodies. Their talk died and they lay still. They felt themselves at the very border of some mystery. Sounds seemed to drift in from a world remote from even this remote place. They did not take sleeping pills. They might need to come awake quickly.

Joe drifted into a sleep like a tide that every so often tried to cast him up. He half woke several times–each time to a sense that he had fallen asleep in a tunnel or cave; or else on an unfamiliar beach or road–and then he woke fully to darkness and squalor. The tent had collapsed as if to merge with the mountain; a river of snow flowed over the climbers. They were buried in it; they were like the villagers who died in mudslides. Joe tried to heave himself upright. He could almost move his head and shoulders–but snow hammered at his neck and forced him back; here was some astonishing powerful brute without mercy or malice. He knew death was upon him and he had no description for it. He shouted for Peter and then for Dick but now he felt Pete’s foot pressed against his own elbow. The foot didn’t move. The snow pounded at Joe’s head. He wondered if the pounding would tear the tent from its position. A bag of three bodies would slide down the mountain to tumble and smash for 10,000 feet, the corpses sliding across one another in a bloody, splintered jumble to end as a mindless pile, rags and innards from a butcher’s bin. Joe stood aloof from the possibility. It struck him as sordid. He was grieved that no one would find them or know what had happened. There would be guessing and questions; the remnants of the dead climbers would lie undiscovered. He was aghast at his own incompetence–his inability to meet this dire outcome in some satisfactory way.

Nothing happened for a time. It was dark in the tent. He thought of a river near his home, the river now nameless to him. He slipped in and under and swam along the bottom. He touched mud and debris. He couldn’t see and the darkness seemed to reflect his mind; it derived from his mind rather than his circumstances, which he suddenly recalled. He was sheathed in this tent, buried under snow in this vast mountain night. He went back to sleep.

And woke again. The snow had set around him; he couldn’t move his body. The slide had stopped. He couldn’t draw a deep breath. The weight on his chest prevented it. It was still very dark. His fear awoke, shards of light through a web.

He remembered a small knife in the pocket of his wind suit. He could move one arm and he used it to find the knife. He tried to open the blade and nearly dropped the thing; at this a wave of terror nearly swamped him. He waited and the fear subsided. He forced himself to move his hand again. He moved it very deliberately. He opened the blade. He stabbed at the tent where the fabric pressed against his face. The quality of the air had changed. He was able to wonder what might happen now–whether he could get out and what he would find if he dug up the others.

But they were digging for him. Joe heard voices and felt the weight on his chest give way. The voices grew louder and now he could reply. Peter and Dick finished digging him out. He sat up in the tent and began to pass out gloves and flashlights. Peter told him to stay in the tent and gather what gear he could find. Peter and Dick cleared snow from the ledge and worked the tent back onto solid ground. The avalanche had moved the shelter so that Dick had hung over the abyss, suspended by the tent fabric.

Joe found boots and inner boots and handed them out to the others, who pulled them on over wet socks. He was sitting up now. He looked around for more gear and here was the sound of hissing snow. He took more blows to his head and pressed himself into the bank of snow at his back and felt the slide bury him. He imagined the others swept into the void; this time there would be no one to dig him out. The slide stopped. A vision of death by suffocation rose up to appall him. He felt unbearably alone with this prospect. He shouted for the others.

Tears rose in his eyes when they shouted back. Peter had tied himself to the anchor after the first slide. He’d managed to throw his arms around Dick to keep him from going over the edge in the snow that ran through their camp like a river in flood. Peter and Dick dug Joe out for a second time. The climbers moved quickly to depart. There was no question of continuing up the mountain now. Their task was to get down. They must descend 9,000 feet, wading across open slopes of deep snow where any step might trigger an avalanche. They had worn their clothes to sleep and so it was a matter of boots and gloves and stuffing food and gear into their packs. They needed to be gone from this place but they had to wait for the light even while new snow continued to build on the slopes above and below them. They were too afraid to set off across freshly loaded slopes in the dark.

Dawn came. Joe led them down. He kept to rock as much as he could. His crampons caught and skittered. The climbers were roped together and Joe knew that if he fell here he would kill everyone; he knew the others knew it too. He stepped back off the rock and into snow that came up over his knees. He pushed through the snow with a childish sense that it was unfair; they should not have to do this. He felt bitterness rise in his chest even as he prayed that the snow would hold the climbers’ weight and that they would be spared more slides from higher up the mountain. The danger of avalanche grew more severe as they descended. Joe was aware that he might be stepping in snow that would later find and bury him. There was also the chance that a patch of snow would break away under his feet. Dick and Peter might be able to hold him but probably not.

They had come here knowing that the mountain had buried Nick. And now they were doing something far more dangerous than anything Nick had done. Joe worried that he was piling up a debt that would come due and claim him; he could not believe that a debt of this magnitude would be forgiven. A mountain would decide the matter. He thought of school, the seminary–men and boys praying to a patchwork vision.

They descended in cloud and falling snow. Nothing was familiar to them. They found the great gully they had crossed the previous afternoon. They crossed it again. Snow collapsed under their feet; some huge beast stirred in its sleep. Joe stayed in front looking to pick a way down. He was moving more strongly than the other two–he had lost their names for a moment. He stared through the mist and snow in hopes that a familiar rock or feature would appear. The ground here wasn’t steep.

Peter and Dick moved ahead after a time, forcing their way through deep snow. Joe was tired now. He worried he would not be able to stay with them. He sat down in the snow. He heard the voices of the other two and crawled to them. Peter had found the campsite the party had occupied two nights before.

They had descended a mere 900 feet in six hours. It was nine o’clock in the morning but they were finished for the day. They had brought their battered tent down with them and they pitched it now, coping with the torn fabric and bent poles. They were too tired to dig a platform; so the floor of the tent lay at an angle. The three climbers shivered in their sleeping bags; they were almost dead with fatigue. They had lost their spare gas cylinders and much of their food; now they used most of their remaining gas to light the stove and melt snow for drinks. They needed to drink more but they slipped into a collective daze and then drifted off to sleep. They came awake during the afternoon to recall the events of the previous night and then dozed again. They drifted, featherlike. They were slipping away, becoming ghosts who shimmered and disappeared and reformed without reference to time. They had no opinions and no knowledge. They forgot their predicament and even talked of coming back here, back up on the Ridge.

Joe at moments would awake to this nightmare. The snow was still falling but they had to leave in the morning. Their bodies would deteriorate quickly if they stayed high any longer, especially without fuel to melt snow. They spoke to Major Sarwat on the radio that afternoon. The transmission was fuzzy. Major Sarwat seemed to think the climbers were regrouping for another assault on the summit. Joe felt himself near tears; not even the major understood their predicament.

They left in the morning without their tent. They were too tired to carry it. They hoped to reach the glacier before dark. Snow continued to fall. They came to a difficult section of rock. Peter went first. He picked his steps carefully, taking tension from the rope as he scraped snow from rock and struggled to keep his footing on the steep ground. The others followed. Snow covered everything. Their crampons skidded and caught on the rock that lay beneath it. The climbers used their hands for balance. Their gloves grew soaked and their fingers went numb. Dick was very worried about frostbite. The three climbers kept moving, miserable and frightened. Joe reminded himself that they had failed decisively–there would be no need to return to the route. They could go home if they could get down.

It took six hours to descend another 800 feet. The light was fading. They were near the site of their fourth camp, but the snow had buried everything. They poked and dug until Dick uncovered a frozen piece of someone’s excrement. They found the tent and huddled inside; they were not safe but they were now free of the obligation to move.

Joe made the evening radio call to the major, who had a surprise for them. Georges Bettenbourg’s voice came on the air. The Frenchman was in the region to climb Broad Peak, and had come by to visit his friends. Georges was his usual self, cheerful and enthusiastic, carrying on in his ridiculous accent. The climbers on the ridge were very glad to hear his voice. They settled in for the night. They hoped to finish their descent to the glacier the next day.

Joe took a sleeping pill. That night he dreamed of a battlefield: tents and buildings collapsed; he could make out shapes of people inside the tents. He stood watching an American colonel. The colonel held a pistol to each head and calmly fired through the tent fabric.

The climbers woke in the morning and continued down. They were now back on the crest of the Ridge, safer ground, but slower going than open slopes. They lowered themselves on fixed ropes–their own as well as ropes left by previous expeditions. Dick dislodged a block of snow that knocked Pete off his footing. Pete slithered 15 feet before an old rope caught him.

They peered through cloud into the valley. It looked far away–but now in the growing dark they came upon their friends Gohar and Ali. The two Hunza had come as high as they could; they stood shivering in their light garments on a ledge at the start of the technical climbing.

Joe was the last to reach level ground. He lost his footing; Gohar rushed forward to receive him. Ali joined them and the two Hunza encircled Joe with their arms. Joe felt their concern for him as a kind of shock and he felt himself surrender to the notion that they were his protectors. He wept at this welcome.

The two Hunza carried the climbers’ packs the last 300 feet to the glacier. They had erected tents. Ali made supper for everyone. The climbers are and thanked him and found their sleeping bags.

Gohar brought them tea in the morning. Ali had found a very small flower in the otherwise barren litter of the glacier. He picked the flower and offered it to the three young Englishmen. The little party crossed the glacier together. The climbers limped along, giddy without their packs; the Hunza carried everything.

The sky had cleared when they reached Base Camp. Georges had waited and smiled broadly as he ran toward them. Joe once again found himself in tears, glad for the sunglasses that hid his weeping from the other two–the major so utterly blind to their egotism and their earlier condescension, so delighted, so happy to have his boys back that Joe was happy and ashamed. Tears rose yet again to his eyes. He could not stop this weeping–he had not understood.

This feature is 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