Climbing Mount Everest has long been the epitome of physical and mental endurance. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit on May 29, 1953, only some 4000 have been able to duplicate the feat; another 200 have died in the attempt.
Ambassador Sue McCourt Cobb learned first-hand how dangerous and grueling a climb up Mount Everest can be when she set out in 1988 to become the first woman from the United States to reach its summit. She traveled through China and Tibet and approached the mountain from the little traveled north side. Her ascent was made without Sherpas and without the use of oxygen.
It was common knowledge in those days that ten percent of all Everest climbers died and for every one climber who made the summit, one climber died. During their six-week expedition on the mountain, 19 people on various routes (in both Nepal and Tibet) perished.
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“You can’t really train for high-altitude climbing”
COBB: In 1987 I had unexpectedly been invited to go to South America to climb Aconcagua, at 22,841 the highest mountain in the Western [and Southern] Hemisphere. I was not a mountain climber. I was, however, very comfortable in the mountains due to childhood summers in California’s High Sierras and adjusting to frigid temperatures, snow, and ice during my ski racing career.
The climbing team I joined were experienced alpinists. The leaders had acquired the second permit given to Americans in 60 years by the Chinese government to allow travel across China and climb Mt. Everest from Tibet, on the long, cold, and dark north side of the mountain.
Since the 1920s the only way you could climb Mt. Everest was from the Nepal side, which required a permit that cost a lot of money and took years to obtain. So I found myself climbing in South America with guys who had gotten this rare permit from the Chinese.
No woman from the United States had ever made it to the top. I was 50 years old. I had the chance to travel across China and Tibet and seek an astounding world record.
You can’t really train for high-altitude climbing — for starters, there’s really no convenient place in the U.S. to do it. The two factors that are of definitive relevance are weather and physical acclimatization, the first of which you have zero control over and the second of which you can have only the most marginal impact.
Climb high, sleep low
Acclimatizing is your body adjusting to changes in air pressure at different altitudes. I knew that I acclimatized easily (to the extent you could test yourself in the U.S.) I would fly from Miami to Telluride, Colorado, and easily ski the 9,000-13,000 foot terrain the same day. I had no problem adjusting to that degree of change, while many people do.
Basically, we got into shape on the mountain because we (not Sherpas or numerous earlier expeditions) set up our 15-mile route with the necessary tents, food, fixed lines, homemade crevasse bridges and all other necessities. Setting up intermittent camps is kind of a hopscotch thing where you take a load of food, for example, to a new camp that’s 1,000 feet higher than you are, drop your load there, and go back to the lower elevation to sleep. (This is a well-known high-altitude mountaineering technique: climb high, sleep low)
The next day you take sleeping bags or blankets or something else and might go up 2,000 feet, drop your load of sleeping bags and blankets, and go down to a lower elevation to sleep. So you kind of hopscotch your way up the mountain, supplying several camps along the route.
Well, somehow people heard that I was going to go join this team and go off to China, which was an adventure in and of itself in the 1980s – as not that many Americans had been there — and climb Mt. Everest.
“I would either be the first woman from the U.S. to reach the summit or I would die”
A book publisher called and wanted me to do a book about the climb. I said, “No, I’m not a writer and this is serious business.” They countered by offering a sizeable advance for a book. It was a big amount of money for an ambitious enterprise like ours, and generally speaking, mountain climbers don’t seem to have a lot of money lying around. The advance from this book company would go to the team and it was too good to turn down.
We agreed on a diary. I’d take a small Dictaphone and at night, if I was able, I would dictate the expedition progress and what was happening. The publisher was happy with this storyline: a by-then 51 year old woman would either be the first woman from the United States to reach the summit of Mt. Everest or die trying. They knew the odds: it was common knowledge in those days that ten percent of all Everest climbers died and for every one climber who made the summit, one climber died.
I disappointed them. I did not get to the top by a very short margin – about 900 meters – which is like two laps around a high school track — and I did not die.
However, I don’t think we fully comprehended the toll of the continued extreme risks, the constant exposure to the elements, and the absence of our normal support systems. We had trained for the physicality, but we had not explored the psychological side. In the vastness of the hostile Himalayan environment, we learned – I learned — that each climber is profoundly alone.
Understand that this was in the 80’s and prior to the existence of commercial expeditions. Tibet was not at all like Nepal with hundreds of people populating base camp and scampering all over the mountain. There were few climbers on the north side of Everest. We did not climb rope together in formation as many people visualize. We often climbed alone. It was, indeed, lonely.
We didn’t really know each other when we started the trip. We were selected because we were fit and qualified to climb a mountain. In deadly circumstances when there’s nobody around whom you really know and know you can trust, who really cares about you surviving, it becomes a lonely psychological struggle.
It became both a physical and a psychological challenge. It made me stronger.
“There were times when I just sat down and started crying, it was so hard”
Our base camp was in the moraine of the Rongbuk Glacier at 16,700 feet. The peak at 29,028 feet was 15 miles away. We had three Chinese “minders” who never left us. They just watched us. They allowed us to use a radio communication system that worked through the Indian Ocean Inmarsat system. So my husband could at times call the base camp and find out if I was still alive, where I was, what was going on, and I actually talked to him from base camp a couple of times.
Our team did not have money to pay guides or Sherpas. We could not afford oxygen except for emergencies. When we were at the base camp we hired a handful of yak herders to take some of our gear to the next higher level, but the yaks couldn’t go very high and we didn’t have much money to pay them. We simply carried our team gear and all personal items to the higher camps.
It doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re carrying 40 pounds at high altitude and going up a steep mountain, I assure you it feels like a lot. For me it was really hard. Every day, another load, back down to sleep, carry another load higher. Do the same the next day. It was Sisyphean.
There were times when I just sat down and started crying, it was so hard, but I would never let anyone see me crying. In the end I lost almost 25% of my normal 130-pound body weight.
One interesting thing that I noticed was that in our base camp where all of us could survive comparatively easily with about 20 sleeping tents, a big cooking tent, a dining tent, and a protected latrine, certain cordialities were maintained. There was a degree of decorum with respect to latrine use.
As we got higher on the mountain there is neither time nor strength for much in the way of manners and bodily functions are generally just accepted in due course. You simply step off the trail somewhere. The only duty of anyone nearby was to turn your head and wait a few steps further away. Nature has to take its course in the mountains in whatever way it can be managed.
After weeks of ferrying life-sustaining equipment up the mountain in preparation for our summit attempt, we heard rumors that a big storm was coming towards us.
At the time I was at about 24,000 feet on the Northeast Ridge trying to move up towards our camp at 25,500. It was late in the season and we’d been on that mountain above 22,000 feet for about six weeks. We were nearly ready to make our summit attempts but we were starting to lose the ability to judge what was safe and what wasn’t safe.
“‘All Cowboys are to descend immediately, we’re not going to lose you guys.’ The climb was over.”
Most of our teammates had removed to lower altitudes. A couple had to be evacuated from the Rongbuk Valley because they were too close to terminal. There were eight remaining climbers above the Col, including me, whom we thought may be strong enough to make a go for it. All of us were very depleted. But, stubbornly, we still thought we were going to make it.
Finally, communicating between camps by relayed hand-held radio messages, we got a weather report: the polar jet stream was headed our way. Winds of 80 to 100 mph were expected. In the opinion of our leaders we were too exposed and generally too wasted to go further up and make it back down alive.
On October 14, 1988 the climbers remaining on the edge of Everest heard these words: “All Cowboys are to descend immediately, we’re not going to lose you guys.” The climb was over.
While we were on the mountain, we would hear via hand-helds when somebody had been caught in an avalanche or dropped into a crevasse. We knew when somebody died of exposure or could not recover from a fall.
We determined that 19 people on various routes (in both Nepal and Tibet) were killed while we were on the mountain. But no Cowboys lost their lives. All of us ended the trip in bad shape in one way or another, but we didn’t lose anybody.
“It is not really about the peak – it is about the journey”
When we got to base camp, when we all knew we were going to live, one of the women climbers, who was then 31 years old, said, “We can always come back next year.”
I looked at her and said “Julie, you’re nuts. Who’s going to come back here? I’ve done this, this is it, it’s over.” Unfortunately, Julie was killed in an avalanche two years later in the Canadian Rockies.
I survived Everest and I’ve done quite a lot of mountain climbing since in a lot of different parts of the world, including, contrary to my statement to Julie, back in the Himalayas. I could do that because I learned on Everest that, after all, it is not really about the peak – it is about the journey.
Everest was a brutal struggle with rock, ice, altitude and self. Yet when I look back, it is not so much the pain and loneliness I can feel, it is my teammates’ goodwill, the small triumphs, the sheer joy of climbing on the mountain, that is the symbol of man’s highest aspirations. It was the journey. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity I had.