Saturday, 29 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 6 - Everest

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

Arriving in the Himalayas at the beginning of April this year Cason had to go through several weeks of extra training and acclimatisation before he could begin his assault on Mount Everest.

Climbing mountains isn’t always a case of leaving Base Camp in the morning and reaching the summit the same day. With a mountain as high as Everest it takes several days or weeks going one stage ahead and back again so that climbers can acclimatise and get used to breathing less oxygen, though oxygen masks are used in the final assault. These treks up and down help to get equipment and supplies higher up the mountain so climbers don’t have to carry everything with them all the way.

The route Cason climbed was the southern route along the South Col. After a couple of training days he made the first step up Everest by climbing the Khumbu icefall, a mass of solid blocks of ice from the Khumbu glacier that have frozen together. The icefall is regarded as one of the most dangerous stages of the route up to the South Col. Cason would have to encounter the Khumbu icefall several times as he climbs up and down before the final assault on the summit.

At the beginning of May Cason had moved up to Camp II situated on Mount Lhotse, 21,300 feet above sea level. After a couple of rest days back at Base Camp he was back over the Khumbu icefall for the third time. The aim was to go three steps forward and one back, reaching Camp III then returning for the night to Camp II.

In the morning bad news reached the camp, as one of the experienced sherpas at Camp III had died just before his group were about to descend to Camp II. It highlighted just how dangerous an Everest climb can be even for the most experienced climber.

The sherpa’s death was the latest in a long line of tragic losses on the mountain. One of the most well-known is the failed attempt to reach the summit in 1924. The whole expedition still provides lots of unanswered questions, the most important being “was George Mallory on his way down from the summit when he died, or on his way up?” Mallory’s body was missing for decades and was finally discovered in 1999. Recent biographies have also raised the question of his sexuality. True, he had some form of brief relationship with James Strachey when they were at Cambridge, and Mallory knew most of the predominantly gay Bloomsbury Set. Apart from that there’s not really any evidence to indicate he had any other gay feelings after Cambridge. What we do know is that he had a great appreciation of the naked male form, almost homoerotic in nature, often showing off his own muscular physique for painters and photographers.

Cason Crane and the team of 15 climbers had several rest days to ponder on the deaths of the sherpa before their own summit attempt. On 20th May they made their way up to Camp IV on the South Col. This is a mountain pass at the southeastern side of Everest from which the final ascent is made.

The South Col was first reached in 1952 by a Swiss expedition. They failed to reach the summit, but the next year the Hilary-Tenzing team succeeded. The first of the team to reach South Col was Wilfrid Noyce. There are many lists of lgbt people which include both Wilfrid Noyce and George Mallory. The latter, as I’ve just mentioned, probably wasn’t gay. But Wilfrid Noyce probably was. Noyce’s own death in 1962 echoes that of Mallory – they both died on climbing expeditions. In his early 20s Wilfrid was a regular climbing companion of John Menlove Edwards, who was gay.

At Camp IV on the South Col Cason’s expedition had their instruction in the use of oxygen equipment and prepared for the final assault in very high winds. As the blog of the expedition said “… suddenly the reality of climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest was made real, and even a little intimidating.”

Cason finally stood on the roof of the world on 20th May 2013, almost 60 years to the day after Hilary and Tenzing made the first successful climb on 29th May 1953 (near enough for me!). And as if to highlight the significance of this, Cason’s personal sherpa was called – Sherpa Tenzing!

Mount Everest would have provided a fitting end to Cason’s Rainbow Summits Project had it not been for that bit of unfinished business on Mount McKinley Denali in Alaska.

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