For over 30 years, John Amatt has led expeditions to remote regions of Northern Norway, Peru, Nepal, China, Greenland and has explored areas of the Arctic on six occasions, making many first ascents of previously unclimbed peaks. Climbing Everest soon became the ultimate goal, and John pulled together a Canadian team that would obtain achieve just that.
I grew up in England. My father was a bank executive, and my mother was a full-time homemaker. They were both conservative and proper. I had a protected, insulated childhood. As a result, I didn’t have much chance to stand on my own.
My Early Years
As a teenager, I still didn’t have much confidence. I was fortunate, however, because I went to a school that had an outdoor program. I joined. We used to go away on weekends, hiking and camping out. I immediately felt at home in the outdoors. My chest opened. I stood taller. And at the end of a fifteen-mile hike, I always felt, in addition to exhausted, a sense of accomplishment.
I’ve been fascinated by mountain climbing since I was little. My parents had been on holiday in the Swiss village of Grindelwald back in 1938 when the treacherous North Wall of the Eiger was first climbed by an Austrian-German team.
Preparing for Everest
In 1978, I was invited to join the Canadian team that was organizing an attempt to climb Mount Everest. The first ascent of Everest was made in 1953 by Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide. Even though Hillary was a New Zealander, it was a British financed and organized expedition.
Then, in 1963, an American expedition, led by Jim Whitaker, conquered the summit. Ours was to be the first attempt by Canadians, and it quickly became a source of national pride. Back then, only two parties a year were allowed to attempt the ascent, one in the spring and one in the fall, and so the world paid great attention.
I was named manager of the expedition. One of my first jobs was to raise money. I went to Air Canada, and it quickly put up almost a million dollars. There were myriad issues to deal with – I assembled the team of climbers, set up training programs for them, and purchased the equipment and food, twenty tons in all.
I was also working closely with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), which was going to unprecedented lengths to cover our climb, hoping to bring the world the first live broadcast from the slopes of Everest. With all preparations finally in place, our team set off for the Himalayas in late summer of 1982.
Getting to Nepal
We flew to Kathmandu, Nepal. We wasted no time setting off for base camp, which was 150 grueling miles east of Kathmandu. It took three weeks, but we made base camp, which sits at 14,000 feet; Everest itself soars to a little over 29,000 feet.
CBC had a flown a huge satellite dish into the city and turned the entire top floor of the Sheraton Hotel in Kathmandu into a television studio. All of our efforts with CBC paid off – we were able to broadcast live from Everest base camp.
We rested for a day and then checked, doubled- and triple-checked that everything and everyone was ready for the ascent. We started climbing.
Devastation On Everest
The expedition went well for the first two days. Then, on the third morning, we heard a muffled roar from above, and within seconds, a 30-foot high avalanche swept down the mountain and engulfed seven members of the team. We worked frantically to reach them and were able to dig out four. Three men, all Sherpas, died.
We were devastated. We decided to take a day to get our bearings and decide whether or not to continue. We chose to go on.
More Setbacks Along the Way
The next day, we reached the Ice Fall, an exceedingly dangerous stretch of the mountain where you are climbing through blocks of ice. Some are as big as houses piled on top of each other. The Ice Fall is in constant but inconsistent movement; some days, parts of it might slide two or three feet, other days not at all. An area can slip 10 feet in an instant.
We were making our way through when there was a sudden surge, and one of our men, also a Sherpa, was crushed by a block of ice.
In keeping with Sherpa tradition, we brought wood up from base camp and cremated all four bodies on the mountainside. It was a solemn ceremony. Once again we were faced with the question of whether or not to push forward.
We’d spent five years organizing the ascent, we had all the equipment in place, and most of us wanted to keep going. Six members decided not to. They returned to base camp, and I weighed our options.
Where to Go Next
We planned to reach the summit by an unclimbed route, a Canadian route. We originally had the team to fulfill this ambition. Being down 10 people, we no longer had the manpower to tackle the new route. We decided to follow the route established by Hillary and used by Whitaker, up the South Col of Everest.
My ultimate objective changed, too. At the start of our climb, I hoped that many, if not all, members of the team would reach the summit. After the accidents, my goal became to get one climber to the top.
The Media Circus
I felt confident that the remaining climbers could make it to the top. I was less confident of our ability to manage the media circus. There were all sorts of so-called experts criticizing us. Yes, we experienced terrible setbacks, but our losses hadn’t been caused by human error, but by unpredictable forces of nature — risks we all knew existed when we signed up.
I made the decision to go back to Kathmandu and try to take control of the coverage. The climbers stayed engaged in the struggle against the mountain. My job was to protect them and have their effort receive the respect it deserved.
Back in Kathmandu, we turned the top floor of the hotel into our war room. Mattresses were brought in, and we dozed when we could. Eating was an afterthought. During the years of preparation for the expedition, I had made numerous appearances on television, so I was prepared for my new role. In my first interview, I began to correct the narrative – how, out of the ashes of defeat, we were going to rise and conquer Everest.
We were in constant radio contact with the crew back at base camp, who were monitoring the team’s progress. It was a tense few days; we could feel the goodwill and high hopes coming to us from back home in Canada.
Then the news came in: Team member Laurie Skreslet had reached the summit. His first words were, “We did it! We did it!” The entire studio burst into cheers and applause. I was particularly proud of Laurie for saying, “We did it.” He knew that when he set foot on the summit, so did the whole team.
The climb wasn’t over until we got everyone safely off the mountain. Accidents can happen on the way down, too; your focus isn’t as strong, it’s anticlimactic, and you’re just so tired. So there were a couple of more anxious days, but all went well, and as the team neared base camp, I flew in to greet them. Then we all trekked back to Kathmandu together.
I didn’t stand on the top of Everest. I was part of a team that did. When Laurie stood at the summit, I was overwhelmed with pride – for Laurie, for the team, for Canada, and for myself.