“The letter in the unmistakable Bonington scrawl, once deciphered, read:  ‘How about coming on the coldest holiday of your life?  P.S. Will you do the food?”   (Mike Thompson)

On 9th April 1975, two 16-tonne trucks left London on a long road trip to Nepal.  They contained over 1,000 crates of food, tents, ladders, rope and breathing apparatus for a British team of climbers as they made an assault on the south-west face of Everest.  

Assembling enough rations and equipment to support 100 people in extreme conditions over a period of 12 weeks had been a logistical nightmare.  To make it even more complicated, the supplies had had to be divided into 60-pound loads so that they could be carried on the backs of Sherpas.  It had taken two days just to pack the lorries, and leader Chris Bonington remembers that in the end they were two tons overweight, rolling alarmingly around the slightest bend.  The journey would be a slow one.

Nearly three months later, on 29th July, Bonington and his team of experienced climbers flew from London to Kathmandu, where Landrovers transported them into the Himalayan foothills.  When the road petered out they continued on foot, through the hot and humid weather of the monsoon season.  They stopped for chhaang - a Tibetan form of beer - in each village, and at Thyangboche they were received by the lama who gave them his blessing.  They were also acclimatising their bodies to the altitude and preparing themselves mentally for the long and arduous climb that lay ahead.  By 23rd August all of them had reached Base Camp, together with their supplies.

“The south-west face of Everest was undoubtedly the greatest and most complex challenge I have ever encountered.”   (Chris Bonington)

In 1975, no Briton had yet set foot on the summit of Everest.  Admittedly the triumphant 1953 expedition had been led by John Hunt, but on that occasion it was Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Indian Sherpa, who reached the summit.   Nor had anyone ever climbed Everest via one of its faces.  Bonington had tried - and failed - to scale the fearsome South-west Face in 1972, and he was now favouring a more accessible route via the South Col.  It was Doug Scott and Dougal Haston who persuaded him to change his mind.

The route up the south-west face of Everest takes climbers over the treacherous Khumbu ice-fall, a slow-moving ‘river’ of massive ice blocks.  Crevasses had to be spanned by ladders, and across one of the biggest gaps, just above Camp 1, Hamish MacInnes directed the construction of a 42-foot bridge, built from six-foot ladders braced together.  Despite the lurking dangers, the scenery was spectacular:

“Zigzagging between the initial abysses which cut across the direct path added perhaps a mile to the walk but could be welcomed in the magical beauty of the early morning light, surrounded by towering rock ribs, snow-flutings and then the pyramid of Everest itself, so often obscured when close at hand, with the SW Face etched out in a pattern of snow and rock and the South Col gracefully dipping down to its right.”   (Peter Boardman)

Doug Scott and Dougal Haston spent three days prospecting for a route up the Western Cwm, and eventually Camp 2 was set up at 21,700 feet;  Bonington and his team established this as their Advanced Base Camp, as snow storms closed in and avalanches rumbled around them.  While Nick Estcourt and Paul ‘Tut’ Braithwaite searched for the best route to take up the face itself, Bonington weighed up the possible locations for Camps 3 and 4, while considering the needs and capabilities of his team.  His instinct was to push ahead while good conditions prevailed, but the scale of his expedition meant that if his ‘advance guard’ proceeded too fast, communication and transport of emergency supplies became much more difficult.  His little team was progressing like an army on the march, battling not with another human foe but with the harshest elements of the Earth itself.  

“Each day exact checks on what food and equipment were in each camp had to be matched against the number of Sherpas available for carrying and what was required for upward progress and maintenance of present positions with safety margins.”  (Peter Boardman)

Their route through the Western Cwm and the Great Central Gully took the team to Camp 5.  Above this was the Rock Band, a massive, forbidding wall which glowered down upon the tiny figures of Nick Estcourt and Paul ‘Tut’ Braithwaite.  Their task was to pick their way up the vertical cliff face and fix pitons - metal spikes - into the rock for a rope ascent by the others.  Estcourt later called it “the hardest pitch I have ever led.” 

“The climbing was the most difficult we had yet encountered, with insubstantial snow lying over steep smooth rock.  There were hardly any piton cracks and insufficient snow for a deadman anchor.  It would have been awkward at any altitude, but at nearly 27,000 feet, encased in high-altitude clothing with an oxygen mask clamped over the face, it was desperate.”   (Chris Bonington)

After the exertions of the Rock Band, Estcourt and Braithwaite needed to rest, and this also ruled them out of the first summit attempt.  As team leader, it fell to Bonington to make the difficult decision, and he chose Scott and Haston.  He said: “I believe they recognised the strength of the other, and brought out the best in each other.  On Everest, in a talented bunch, they were head and shoulders above the rest.”  Some of the others would be allowed a later try, if conditions permitted. 

22nd September was one “long relentless day”, during which Bonington, Mike Thompson, Mick Burke, Ang Phurba and Pertemba carried ropes, fuel and oxygen up the Rock Band to Camp 6, the final camp, which was poised on a slim crest of snow.  There they left Dougal Haston and Doug Scott to excavate a safe site for their box tent, and contemplate the task ahead.  All the others could do now was watch, wait and pray.

For Scott and Haston, the next day was spent fixing 500 metres of rope in place across the upper snow field, before returning to their tent and watching the ant-like comings and goings at Camp 2, 6,000 feet below.   Then, at 2.30 am, they brewed tea, donned crampons, harnesses, rucksack and breathing equipment, and emerged into the cold darkness of the mountainside.   The sun was setting once more by the time they reached the Hillary Step, and they took the last few paces side by side.  At the eleventh hour, the film in Scott’s camera ran out, and he had to search in his rucksack for a replacement:  

“The wind was strong and blew the snow Dougal was sending down the Nepalese side right back into the air and over into Tibet.  I fitted the film into the camera and followed him up... All the way along we were fully aware of the enormous monsoon cornices, overhanging the 10,000-foot East Face of Everest. 

“‘Here you are, youth.  Take a snap for my mother.’  I passed him my camera.  ‘Better take another one, your glove’s in front of the lens.’”   (Doug Scott)

“We were sampling a unique moment in our lives.  Down and over into the brown plains of Tibet a purple shadow of Everest was projected for what must have been something like 200 miles.   On these north and east sides there was a sense of wildness and remoteness, almost untouchability.”   (Dougal Haston)

Scott and Haston survived the next night without oxygen at 28,000 feet, the average altitude of commercial aircraft.  They had not slept or eaten for 30 hours.  On 25th September they descended to safety while Boardman and Pertemba reached the summit on the 26th.  Mick Burke, a BBC cameraman who had been accompanying them, struck out for the summit just afterwards but never reappeared, and bad weather forced any rescue attempts to be abandoned. 

Later that year, the 1975 British Everest Expedition was awarded the Livingstone Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society

Team members:  Chris Bonington, Hamish MacInnes, Peter Boardman, Martin Boysen, Paul ‘Tut’ Braithwaite, Mick Burke, Mike Cheney, Charles Clarke, Dave Clarke, Jim Duff, Nick Estcourt, Allen Fyffe, Adrian Gordon, Dougal Haston, Mike Rhodes, Ronnie Richards, Doug Scott, Mike Thompson;  Lt Mohan Pratap Gurung, Pertemba Sherpa;  and a 100-strong support team of high-altitude porters, drivers and cooks.

- - -

Article by Jo Woolf for RSGS.


‘Everest the Hard Way’ by Chris Bonington

Peter Boardman, Alpine Journal  http://www.alpinejournal.org.uk/Contents/Contents_1976_files/AJ%201976%203-14%20Boardman%20Everest.pdf

‘The Modern Explorers’ by Robin Hanbury-Tenison and Robert Twigger