"As you can imagine, this causes a bit of a sensation on the ski field." The Santa costume that Mike Mahoney was wearing was not some Christmas gimmick but the suit he'd worn up Mount Everest in 1977. He was talking in aid of the St. John Ambulance service in the medical centre in Franz Josef. I had gone along with my girlfriend to see what the Kiwi approach to Everest was.
The expedition was booked ten years in advance by a group of New Zealand climbers when only one expedition to Everest was allowed a year. This was to be the first New Zealand expedition. Edmund Hillary was from New Zealand but had been on a British expedition when he first climbed the mountain in 1953. When it was time to take up the booking, life had moved on for the climbers who'd intended to go and new climbers were needed. The New Zealand government approached Mahoney, the president of the newly formed New Zealand Alpine Association and asked if they'd like to have a crack at climbing Everest. Mahoney jumped at the chance, agreeing instantly before "looking at a map to see exactly where it was."
It was decided that the expedition would do without commercial sponsorship because the deals were based on reaching the top of the mountain and eating a chocolate bar for a photo. If they didn't reach the top the climbers would be descending to a massive debt. The year before, the members of a failed expedition in the Alps had gone bankrupt and been forced to sell their houses to pay off the sponsors. Rather than make a deal with the devil, the climbers themselves would fund this Everest expedition. This meant that funds would be tighter than a climbers knot.
Before this expedition the cheapest trip to Everest had cost about half a million dollars. This paid for around twenty-five climbers with at least that again in Sherpas along with oxygen, medication, special food, equipment and transport to and from Nepal and Everest base camp. The New Zealand expedition was operating on a budget of forty thousand dollars.
"We wanted to take six people. Then we read that one in six die on Everest, so we couldn't do that." It was decided that eight climbers would travel to Everest. There would be no Sherpas, no oxygen and everything that could be sacrificed would be.
Mike flicked to a slide of the road from Kathmandu to the Everest base camp. The dirt road was one of Nepal's main roads.
"The road was 400 km and we had to walk it. We didn't really train for the climb because we knew we'd get fit on the walk." The modern Everest climber follows a rigid regime of diet and fitness for months if not years coming up to the climb. Not for the Kiwi's, they'd get fit on the walk there.
The first section of the climb is called the Khumba Ice Fall. Nowadays this is tended to by the Ice Doctors, Sherpas who go onto the Ice Fall to forge paths for climbers. The Khumba Ice Fall is a glacier and is cracked, creviced and shifts daily with changes in temperature. Mahoney and some of the other climbers had been glacier guides in Franz Josef so they had experience in navigating glaciers.
Mahoney flicked to a picture of his younger-self crossing a crack in the ice. There was a ladder laid flat over the gaping crevice and they had fashioned a handrail to which he was attached by a rope and carabineer.
"This is the only one we did like that. Took too bloody long. We just threw the rest of them down. It'll be 'right." Ladders have always been used on Everest to bridge the gaps in the ice. Ladders must be bought and carried by a porter from Kathmandu for the 400km to Everest. By the time they get there they have cost about a thousand dollars to the expedition. There could also be any number of cracks so generally a lot of ladders were brought. The ladder in the picture was the only one the New Zealanders brought. Instead of blowing the budget on ladders they brought a hacksaw to take the ladders from previous expeditions that had been iced over and nuts and bolts to fix ladders together. The ingenious Kiwi's also recycled rope that had been left behind, having brought only one length with them.
After the Ice Fall the climbers came onto the Western Cwm (pronounced koom). They spent about a month here, acclimatising to the thin air, establishing camps and forging a path up the mountain. They cut steps in the Lhotse face, the mountain adjacent to Everest. The actual climb to the top of Everest from here would only take a few days but everything needed to be prepared in advance.
A German expedition to Mount Lhotse arrived a few weeks after the Kiwis. The New Zealanders arrive first to cut their own route cut into the Lhotse face to be sure they'd done all the work themselves. They were glad to share food with the Germans who had brought wine, chocolate and other luxuries that the Kiwis were missing from their porridge and baked bean diets.
It was around this time that Mahoney and Mike Brown climbed the Lhotse face and onto the South Col. This was the highest they'd been so far and they established camp here. During the night Brown's speech was becoming nonsensical, one of the warning signs of hypothermia. They returned to their main camp where Brown received medical aid from a German doctor. His blood was viscous from oxygen deprivation, it was sticky and gloopy rather than flowing freely. Plasma was required but at two thousand dollars a bottle it's easy enough to imagine how many bottles the Kiwis had.
The Germans donated plasma and the doctor stayed at the bedside until Brown recovered. A few days later the doctor fell to his death while resting on the descent of the Lhotse face. This tragedy spurred the Germans to make an offer to the Kiwis of any oxygen or equipment that they'd need to reach the summit of Everest. They were packing up to leave anyway and they were keen to see the Kiwis accomplish their goal. A meeting was called in the New Zealand camp. The window of time when an ascent is possible was closing and bad weather was approaching. In the end it was decided that having set out to climb without oxygen, accepting it now would void the validity of the whole mission. Mahoney said they could climb it and they'd get home and everyone would say, "Yeah but...."
The Germans left. The Kiwis remained, with a track cut up the Lhotse face and the same basic kit they'd begun with, plus a few ladders they'd picked up on the way. It was time for the final push. Mahoney, Brown and two others climbed the Lhotse face in weather that was getting progressively worse. The two others decided to turn back but Mahoney and Brown pushed on, saying they'd only go a bit further then come back. They actually carried on to the camp they'd set up on the South Col.
The next day Brown and Mahoney came within four hours of the summit of Mount Everest. They could have reached the top but they wouldn't have made it back down alive. This was the end of the 1977 Everest expedition. Since that trip there has been no expedition to Everest without Sherpas due to a law brought in by the Nepalese government. This means it remains the smallest ever expedition to Everest. It was also the cheapest, a trip up Everest will set the average punter back around one hundred thousand dollars nowadays. People have since reached the top without oxygen, but you can be sure they did a lot more training than just the walk from Kathmandu.
This is what I love about New Zealanders, even with the odds stacked against them nothing would stop them a fair go at the world highest mountain. They didn't reach the top but writing off their effort would be like watching a man with no legs get to the twenty fifth mile of a marathon and not being impressed. They were resourceful enough to get within a stones throw of that fabled peak on a per head budget most people wouldn't take backpacking. Mostly I love that Mahoney was having a laugh about the whole experience. In his Santa suit he cracked jokes about one of the most serious hikes on this planet. Not that he bragged about this fact, he was as humble as a priest, his chosen profession after Everest. His hand trembled with nerves throughout the whole speech, the man who climbed Everest on a penny, reduced to a shaking mess by public speaking. At the end of the talk, the lights went on and he said "I'm glad that's over."