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Extract: '8,848 metres and I’m sitting on the summit of the world’

Twenty years ago this week, Dawson Stelfox became the first Irish person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. This extract from Everest Calling: The Irish Journey, chronicles the last leg of this challenging expedition.

Lorna Siggins

“8,848 metres and I’m sitting on the summit of the world”

At 5.07 p.m. on Thursday 27 May 1993, those were the words uttered by Belfast architect Dawson Stelfox as he made history by becoming the first Irish person to reach the summit of Everest. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the summit, Lorna Siggins, western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times, brings the story up to date in, Everest Calling: The Irish Journey.

Day 71, 26 May

‘At the speed you’re going, it’s better than watching the Grand National!’ Camp Two was empty now. Robbie, Tony, Mick and Dendi had been awake since 5 am, breakfasting on Complan and a short burst of oxygen, and leaving for the third camp at around 9 am. By noon, Robbie reported that he and Tony were at the Chinese camp at 7,800 metres. Dendi had a bad headache and Mick was about an hour behind. They were keen to support Dawson and Frank in every way they could, but it was becoming obvious that all three climbers would not have enough oxygen. A decision would have to be made fairly soon.

Gasping for lungfuls of air

High on the ridge, Frank Nugent was in trouble. He had been enjoying himself early on, kicking and digging through the powder. Now, crampons squealing as they crossed the slabs, he just could not catch his breath. Every so often he tore his mask off, gasping for lungfuls of air. Both had set their flow rates identically, but he was forced to turn his dial up. His first bottle was empty after only five hours.

Now he was clawing his way up the slope to the Second Step. His partner was breaking the trail, and Nugent felt that he was slowing him down. His mind ran ahead. What if he was still in trouble over the difficult rock step, the most technically challenging section of this route? He would need a rope to get back down. They had only one between them. There seemed to be no choice left. Stelfox was aware of Nugent’s discomfort, his fear of losing control on awkward ground:

It was already obvious that we wouldn’t make it to the top and back down before running out of oxygen and probably daylight; as we moved on across a narrow slabby ramp that turned the next pinnacle, Frank could see his control slipping away. He was constantly forced to remove his mask and gasp in the thin harsh air, and finally had to take the only option open to him and turn back, urging me to carry on without him. He stayed to photograph me as I traversed on towards the foot of the 60-metre-high crag that forms the Second Step, the most formidable barrier on the ridge and the gateway to the summit.

He then turned to begin the slow, cautious, descent.

Changtse, Manaslu, Carol, his lads – all sorts of thoughts passed through Frank’s mind. Here he was, on his own, living his own lesson again: ‘You have to know when to turn back from a mountain.’

Turning back

Dawson transmitted the news on the radio at about 1.30 pm that Frank had turned back. Some 20 minutes before, Mick Murphy had also made a decision. Robbie and Tony waited for him at the Chinese camp, and he gave the pair his oxygen. They would continue on to 8,300 metres that evening.

The Second Step – the psychological as well as the physical barrier. Did Mallory and Irvine climb it in 1924? Unlikely. Did the Chinese climb it in 1960? Almost certainly, and the first man up later lost both his feet to frostbite after removing his boots to climb the last overhanging crack. The Chinese were back in 1975 and neatly avoided a repetition of this by carrying up and placing a 20-foot aluminium ladder. It’s still there, swinging wildly on loose rusty pitons.

Reaching the ladder wasn’t easy. Stelfox climbed a short, ‘chockstoned’ and snow-filled gully leading up to a series of ramps that led in turn to the foot of the first rung.

First bottle nearly empty but turned up full, I gasped my way up, one rung at a time, body held vertical and pressed flat against the rungs to stop the swinging, eyes avoiding the protruding and vibrating pegs. End of the ladder, still steep. I sweep away the choking powder snow and search for holds. A long step out right, a lunge forward and I’m up, gasping from an empty bottle and on easy ground. Change bottles, mind clears.

Radio on and talk to Base Camp – Dermot, John, Richard, Lorna, Kathy and Leslie huddled round the set, eager for news, eager to help, willing me on.

If we were all willing him on, Somers was talking him up, while O’Neill-Dean was marking out his route as best he could. The next obstacle should be a third step, he told Stelfox, marked by a dogtooth of a rock. ‘You should pass this on your right, losing a little height. You should find a little ramp there, about the width of a boot I guess.’

A lone climber

The lone climber had been on 2 litres of oxygen a minute and now he was turning the dial up to fpur. ‘I’ve one full bottle left now,’ he said. ‘That should get me up and down … I’m reasonably happy, but not too sure about fit and healthy.’

That was 2.15 pm. An hour later, Robbie was on air. He and Tony had reached Richard’s rucksack, still clipped to an old fixed rope. It was snowing very heavily at that height, and conditions underfoot were ‘terrible’. At 3.40 pm, Stelfox was ‘somewhere on the rocks to the right of the summit snowfield’ in ‘mid to good Scottish winter conditions’. Somers seized the radio microphone at base.

You’re there. You have it in the bag. Make sure when you get there you don’t fall down the other side!

It’s not in the bag till I get down,’ the voice replied. Here was a mind still thinking rationally, clearly, despite the altitude. ‘Hopefully my next broadcast will be from the summit.’

Somers took up the tin whistle again, and broke into an air from Carolan. Frank was stumbling down, still gasping, still tearing at the mask. His rucksack pulled at his shoulders. He had seen it, he had smelt it, and now he was leaving it behind. The first ten steps had been so difficult: there was no adrenaline to bear him down. No relief, no joy, no elation: his mind was numb. There was nothing in reserve. But at least he had daylight, and he wasn’t alone. ‘Don’t look back, don’t look back. You don’t need to be up there.’

4.37 pm: Fenlon to Base Camp. He had just seen Frank Nugent descending the ridge. It was clearing up, there was no wind. ‘We’re all snow and ropes here, it’s pretty hard and very hot.’ Somers’ thoughts were with his climbing partner.

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‘Robbie, the rest of your life will be a whole lot easier after this!’

‘I don’t think so, Dermot!’

Easy ground now – a vast boulder-strewn plateau. The afternoon closes in, a light breeze picks up and it begins to snow. Keeping well down from the ridge to avoid the cornices, I plod on, searching out hard snow patches, stumbling into drifted holes between the rocks. Across the top of the Great Couloir, eyes straining through the cloud for the route ahead up the summit tower.

A steep rising traverse across the upper snowfield, crossing a vertical windslab breakline to a rocky ridge, out onto more steep slabs. Forced rightwards, towards the West Ridge, looking for a break in the steep buttress above.

It stopped snowing, the sun burnt through from above and the cloud descended into the valleys. A broad ramp led back left onto the summit ridge. Steep, with a few short steps, it was an unexpected last problem but with the summit close I swarmed up the steps, clambered out onto the ridge again and … there it was, 200 metres away along a gentle snow ridge, a minor bump, the crown overhanging the Kangshung face, topped by an aluminium pole.

5.07 pm ‘Everest calling Rongbuk. Come in please, over … Dermot, the altimeter is reading 8,848 metres and I’m sitting on the summit of the world.’

Somers sat motionless on the stool by the radio. For a second, there was silence. Then whoops, shouts, hugs, many, many tears. Asha Rai rushed out of the tent to join the excited yakmen. There were half a dozen of them, but it seemed as if the whole of the valley had broken into a cheer.

Extract: '8,848 metres and I’m sitting on the summit of the world’
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  • Everest Calling

  • Everest Calling

    Dawson Stelfox on the summit ridge, just beyond the First Step, checking theoxygen. (Frank Nugent)
  • Everest Calling

    Dawson Stelfox traversing towards the summit of Everest at approximately 8,680 metres. Photo: Frank Nugent taken from Everest Calling - The Irish Journey by Lorna Siggins, published by The Collins Press, 2013
  • Everest Calling

    Everest Summit panorama as taken by Dawson Stelfox at 5.30 pm on 27 May 1993. taken from Everest Calling – The Irish Journey by Lorna Siggins, published by The Collins Press 2013

Everest Calling – The Irish Journey by Lorna Siggins is published by The Collins Press, price €19.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online here.

About the author:

Lorna Siggins

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