I’ve recently been reading The Everest Years by Chris Bonington, during which he states that he was the 7th Brit to climb Everest. In fact, on official lists he is usually described as the 6th. One of his predecessors’ ascents is uncertain (though Sir Chris himself obviously has no doubts).
So who were the 7 and what were their stories?
1 and 2 – Doug Scott and Dougal Haston (50 and 51 overall)
24 September 1975, Southwest Face route
Back in the 1970s, Everest expeditions were few and far between. This was because only one expedition team was allowed to be on the mountain at a time.
After leading a successful siege-style expedition to climb the south face of Annapurna in 1970, Chris Bonington managed to grab the one and only permit for Everest’s autumn season in 1972. His objective was the unclimbed Southwest Face. His team failed to reach the summit that year, but in doing so they identified a snow couloir that led the way through a difficult rock band that had stopped them. This couloir proved to be the door to the summit.
The scarcity of permits meant that he didn’t get his next chance until autumn 1975. He resolved to have another go at the Southwest Face. Like Annapurna, it was a siege-style expedition with an army of Sherpas and a dozen elite British climbers chipping in to establish the route. The aim was to get someone – just one or two would do – to the summit. If anyone else reached the peak too, well, that was a bonus.
The two outstanding climbers on Annapurna – the only two to reach the top – had been Dougal Haston and Don Whillans. On Everest in 1975, it was Dougal Haston and Doug Scott. They set off from their high camp above the snow couloir and followed a snow ramp above the difficult rock band to join the standard route up the Southeast Ridge.
There is a lot more snow in the post-monsoon autumn season. Scott took an iconic photo of Haston front-pointing up a wall of powder snow on the Hillary Step, his ice axe raised aloft. They didn’t reach the summit until late in the afternoon, and had to spend a night in the open at 8,750m on the South Summit, without tent or sleeping bags. Remarkably, neither of them suffered from frostbite, and it was a relieved and elated Bonington who took the radio call when they got back to high camp to report their success.
3 – Pete Boardman (52 or 53 overall)
26 September 1975, Southwest Face route
Two days after Scott’s and Haston’s epic ascent, four men set off from high camp in their footsteps: Martin Boysen, Pete Boardman, Pertemba Sherpa and Mick Burke. A frustrated Boysen turned back early after his oxygen set packed up and he lost a crampon, but Pertemba and Boardman soon overtook him. Aided by Scott’s and Haston’s tracks, they climbed much more quickly and reached the summit roped together shortly after 1pm.
Unlike Scott and Haston, who had reached the summit under clear skies, they found themselves enclosed in a fine mist. But they were in good shape and fine spirits. Boardman took out a mini tape recorder, interviewed Pertemba about his ascent, and even made a joke about Barclays Bank, the expedition sponsor.
They left the summit at 1.40. It had been a straightforward ascent, and although it was windy and grey, they had plenty of time. There seemed no reason why they shouldn’t be able to return to camp without incident.
A few hundred metres below the summit, a strange object took shape through the mist and events took a darker turn…
4 – Mick Burke (unproven)
26 September 1975, Southwest Face route
The figure that Boardman and Pertemba saw through the mist was none other than their climbing partner Mick Burke, who they had long assumed must have turned back with Martin Boysen.
Burke had been the last climber to reach camp the night before, and the last to set out that morning. It was to be another five years before Reinhold Messner climbed Everest solo. In 1975, it was generally assumed sensible practice to climb Everest with a partner. But Burke was alone.
Burke was also the main expedition cameraman, and he was lucid enough to ask the two descending climbers to walk past him a couple of times while he filmed them. He asked them to return to the summit with him so that he could film them there. But when Boardman accepted, he changed his mind and asked them to wait for him at the South Summit. Then they parted ways.
Boardman and Pertemba waited on the South Summit for an hour and a half as ‘all the winds of Asia’ (in the poetic words of Boardman) threatened to blow them off the ridge. When Pertemba said he could no longer feel his fingers and toes, they decided it was time to descend for their own safety.
Mick Burke never returned. He had climbed in glasses and it is generally assumed that in the thickening mist he fell through a cornice down the Kangshung Face into China. Nobody knows whether he reached the summit. His body has never been found.
5 and 6 – Bronco Lane and Brummie Stokes (54 and 55 overall)
16 May 1976, Southeast Ridge route
Sergeant John Stokes and Corporal Michael Lane were soldiers in Britain’s elite Special Air Services (SAS) unit. This meant that, in true army tradition, they were better known by a pair of schoolboy nicknames. Michael ‘Bronco’ Lane was named after the main character of a 1950s TV western series. More obviously, John ‘Brummie’ Stokes was so named because he came from a place near Birmingham.
In 1976 they were members of a joint British-Nepalese army expedition led by Lt Col Tony Streather (who had reached the summit of Kangchenjunga in 1955 the day after Joe Brown and George Band made the first ascent). As was the practice at the time, it was another siege-style expedition. Like Scott and Haston the previous year, Stokes and Lane proved to be the expedition’s strongest climbers and were nominated to form the first summit party.
After the pair completed the first successful British ascent of the Southeast Ridge, the weather worsened. Like Scott and Haston, the two men had to bivouac in the open on the way down. With Stokes snow blind, Lane removed a glove to open an oxygen cylinder and froze his fingers. By the morning, both men had severely frostbitten feet and could barely walk. They were rescued by the second summit party. John Scott and Pat Gunson found them stumbling in exhaustion from their bivouac site and abandoned their own summit attempt to help them down.
Lane lost ten toes and the tips of all the fingers of his right hand. Stokes lost all his toes and a part of each foot. In contrast to Maurice Herzog, who left his toes on a station platform in India after losing them to frostbite on the first ascent of Annapurna, Bronco Lane had his toes preserved in formaldehyde and kept them in his garage. He eventually donated them to the National Army Museum when they approached him for Everest memorabilia a few years later.
7 – Chris Bonington (176 overall)
21 April 1985, Southeast Ridge route
Chris Bonington may have been responsible for some of the more exploratory ascents in the Himalayas, but he ended up climbing Everest himself in fairly mundane fashion.
By the mid-80s, the Nepalese government had decided to allow more than one expedition onto Everest at a time. The commercial era was about to begin, and you could argue that 1985 saw the very first commercial expedition.
In 1979, Bonington was contacted by Norwegian climber Arne Naess for advice on organising a large expedition to the Himalayas. He continued to advise Naess for the next 6 years. The Norwegian repaid this service in 1985 by inviting him to join his expedition to put the first Norwegian on Everest’s summit.
Bonington climbed with his old friend and former sirdar Pertemba Sherpa. They reached the summit by the standard route up the Southeast Ridge. At age 50 and with his heyday behind him, Bonington was more than happy to breath supplementary oxygen.
He reached the summit early in the season compared to modern expeditions. He was the oldest person ever to climb Everest, but he held this record for only 9 days. On 30 April, 55-year-old American Dick Bass reached the summit. In so doing, he made a couple more significant firsts. By climbing Everest, he became the first person to complete the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on every continent. He was also one of a small handful of fish to have climbed Everest. More importantly, he made the first guided ascent of Everest with the help of David Breashears. The commercial era had arrived and Everest would never be the same again.