Smythe, Frank - The last 1,000 feet of Everest are not for mere flesh and blood
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Simon Smythe April 2003 – Daily Telegraph
Grandfathers usually tell children about the war. Mine died before I was born, which was tragic as he had stories of a battle against adversity that had become legendary - and not just within the family.
I grew up surrounded by paintings and photos of glaciers and Himalayan peaks and always tried to visualise the exotic places that adorned his books on the shelf: Kamet Conquered, Camp Six, The Kangchenjunga Adventure, The Valley of Flowers.
I had no idea what Camp Six meant. I was too young to know that it was the wind-blasted canvas tent at 27,000ft, the highest base of the 1933 British expedition.
Years later, when I did open the book, I was greeted with images as vivid as the most heroic war story:
I remember clearly the way he described his first sight of the summit:
Alone on steep, treacherous slabs, he recalled: "It was only 1,000 feet above me, but an aeon of weariness separated me from it. Bastion on bastion and slab on slab, the rocks were piled in tremendous confusion, their light-yellow edges ghostlike against the deep-blue sky. From the crest, a white plume of mist flowed silently away."
On June 1 1933, Frank Smythe was as high as anyone had ever climbed. But it would be another 20 years before anyone would stand on the summit. Exhausted after two nights in the so-called "death zone" and emaciated by weeks at high altitude, he began his descent to Camp Six at 27,400ft, where fellow climber Eric Shipton, too ill to climb, lay in a tiny tent waiting for him.
As he made his way down, he began to hallucinate - he was climbing without oxygen - and he had an overpowering feeling that someone was with him. It was so strong, that when he stopped, he divided his mint cake and turned to offer half to his "companion".
Later, he noticed two dark, bulbous objects hovering above him. One had "what looked like squat, underdeveloped wings, whilst the other had a beak-like protuberance like the spout of a teakettle. They distinctly pulsated... as though they possessed some horrible quality of life."
Smythe collected himself enough to do a mental check, naming each of the peaks around him. Then he looked back. The things hadn't moved. A mist drifted in front of them, and, when it cleared, they had vanished.
Days earlier, he had come across the tangled remains of the 1924 expedition's highest camp: "There was something inexpressibly desolate and pathetic in the scene." Smythe thought about Mallory and Irvine, the last men to sleep there. "Where were they? Would Everest yield its secret?" Perhaps Mallory and Irvine had stood on the summit. Smythe never did, but Everest would let him go.
He wrote: "Those who have failed on Everest are unanimous in one thing: the relief of not having to go on. The last 1,000 feet of Everest are not for mere flesh and blood."
He believed that Everest could be climbed without oxygen, but the first oxygen-free ascent to the summit wasn't until 1978, via the easier South East Ridge. By the 1970s, equipment and techniques were also vastly improved.
Camp Six, is one of the great accounts of the early attempts. It brought the full epic story to the British public, establishing him as a top mountaineering writer.