Daily Dispatches
Satellite phone updates from the 1998 American Everest Expedition

Wally Berg
Alone on the Summit of Everest
Saturday, May 23, 1998 — Base Camp (17,500')

Hear Wally Berg's call from Base Camp
Click for [RealAudio] or [NetShow]
Satellite phones for Everest cybercasts provided by MVS/USA

Bishop's Rock in '63
[click to zoom]
(photo: Barry Bishop © 1963 National Geographic Society)
[click to buy cards including this image]
Hi Mountain Zone, it's Wally Berg calling you, finally, on May 23rd from base camp. It's finally gotten quiet enough that I can call and give you a brief dispatch. Of course, the first thing being that I'm extremely proud and pleased that the highest GPS reading ever taken has been taken successfully, and even more importantly that that station is established at Barry Bishop's rock, the highest bedrock, we believe, very near the summit of Everest. It's the end of two years of work on my part and many other people's to get this project done.

There are a lot of bits and pieces of science that are already nagging at me, and I know Bradford Washburn right now, that we didn't get done. The most important thing right now is a very successful adventure is coming to a close in a sense that everyone on my team is back at base camp, or actually, in some cases are already descending. No one was killed or injured, and we got that station established. I could go on and on about what I wish we had done, but I feel very grateful that we got that thing established and that the entire team is down safely.

Once again, this mountain offered an amazing adventure spread out over a few days when we went for the summit. For me, in particular, the meat of it began when I started up from Camp III, intentionally a day behind the team and saw lights, headlamps, flickering up near the Balcony (27,500') at 3am on the 19th of May. I'm not sure if I really explained it to anyone, but I made the decision to take myself off that May 19th summit team because I felt it was actually stronger with one less western climber. The Sherpas are the guys that we knew had the strength and ability to push the oxygen up high and allow us to get all this work done. We had worked with them on the details of the various science projects we wanted to undertake, and I felt like one of our goals this year was not to put me on the summit for the fourth time.

Streaming Video
Wally Berg
Wally Berg
modem speed
(28k) (56k) (T1)
I also, in the back of my mind, I was very aware that we were spreading our efforts out a bit, and I might be able to pick up some pieces and do a little work afterwards if the very strong summit team that we sent up on the 19th happened to not finish or were not going to be successful. It was in the back in my mind, but I also, as a leader, made a decision that I may have to regret or live with for awhile which was to put all of our Sherpa power on what we perceived to be a very good day on the 19th, and get the job done. I didn't think I needed to be part of that.

As you know, the 19th turned out to be an unsuccessful summit day for a lot of very strong, talented people even though the conditions in the day started very promising. I mentioned seeing those lights approach the Balcony at 3am on the 19th, a few hours later I was on the South Col (26,300') still very optimistic that things were going to go well although I had heard reports from Eric that the snow was getting deep above the Balcony. I knew that was going to take a great deal of effort on the part of everyone up there to break through to the South Summit (28,700') and energy would be lost. As that work went on, my heart began to race a little because I thought "Oh gosh, this is not in the bag after all."

Then I had the very interesting experience of laying behind a rock on the South Col so the wind wouldn't interrupt with my radio transmission and attempting to contribute to, and from my own end, being the expedition leader laying up on the South Col, to some extent, help orchestrate this live coverage of our summit attempt for ABC Nightline. This was pretty interesting, you know. I'm laying up there in the wind, and I'm communicating through Dave Mencin here at base camp, and Jim Burton, who was primarily responsible for all the technical matters of getting this live coverage back to ABC. I'm trying to communicate just what's going on, and I'm hearing from them that they might want to ask me a question in twenty more minutes, and in the meanwhile, I'm becoming increasingly aware that news that Eric is able, from time to time, to get down to us is going to be really a big deal.

I wanted very much to know that this route is getting advanced, and that things are looking good, but I'm also getting a bad feeling because the plumes are starting to show up. The 19th was a good day, but it turned out that the winds did pick up by 9 or 9:30 in the morning. At some point, Eric, as the lead western climber, is up on the South Summit with a group of Sherpas who are exhausted from having broken trail up to the South Summit and fixed line up that far. What a lot of people never realize is Everest, by the South Col route, is really, honest to God, really and truly, not a walk up. Never was, never has been, and no one that has ever been there has ever described it as that.

The Traverse across the Hillary Step was imposing that day, as I'm sure you've heard. Eric was in charge, he knew that — I reiterated that — the Sherpas did not feel that good about going across with what they had. Eric didn't feel that it was going to happen, and as a good mountaineer is able to do, especially a good mountain leader, he was decisive. He turned around, and that was the end of it. I'm convinced, whatever you want to say about second guessing that decision, that a lot of people got down safely that day, and that's always the ultimate goal. That may not have happened had that route been pushed on. Actually, I would say that I'm pretty confident that would not have happened if that route had pushed on at that time, in those conditions. It turned out that it was a two day effort to advance the route this year.

I've talked a great deal about Apa [Sherpa, now a nine-time Everest summiter], and he is an old dear friend of mine. One of the things I need to mention about Apa right up front is that he is the climbing Sirdar for another team this year, the American Environmental Team, and he was not working for me, nor was he doing any GPS work, nor did he do any GPS work this year. He is a talented climber, a great Sherpa, a true professional, and he had a full plate.

It turned out that he was my friend, who was going up the next day, and Apa and I talked the evening of the 19th down at the South Col. It's situation that I'm not sure I can explain very clearly, but maybe people know about trust. Apa and I had summitted Everest under difficult conditions twice before, and we have a lot of mutual respect and trust. We talked, and I think we both took comfort in that one another was going the next day. I know I took comfort that he was going, and when I realized that, I began to see that I was going to go up on my own, with regard to my team, and try to do this work the following day. We talked briefly the evening before in a very meaningful manner and expressed to one another that we were glad that each other was going. I told Apa 'we will be able to get up there quickly because of the work those guys did today. I'll lead that section across to the Hillary Step, and I'll feel really good if you're there,' and Apa expressed similar feelings.

The next morning I took off a bit behind many of the climbers but knowing that my plan was to get out front for two reasons: to be up there with Apa and see what we could do, and also to repeat an experience that I described to Mountain Zone a year ago, actually, that had meant a lot to me. I realized that with the trail broken and feeling pretty good as I did, that I would probably get the opportunity to be alone on the South Summit as I described to Mountain Zone just about a year ago on the 25th. In fact, I did get up there in the early morning to the South Summit and enjoyed some time alone at a place that means a great deal to me.

A few moments later, Apa and a core of his really strong Sherpas showed up. We discussed it a little more. At one point, I saw Apa take a set of Tibetan text prayers out of his pocket, face the mountain, and three times throw groups of these prayers into the wind. I knew what he was thinking, and I looked at him, and in the meantime, I'd been looking down at all the this GPS stuff that the team had left that I needed to kind of sort through, and I said, 'I probably should deal with this stuff, you feel like leading it?' He just smiled at me and said no problem.

I saw a very competent and confident and genuinely inner-motivated mountaineer take off to do something that he loves to do and does well, and he did it with a great deal of pride. As he was taking the rope across, and his Sherpas team was belaying him, I began to sort through what I thought I could do up at Barry Bishop's rock once I got there. It was a situation where, the more that I thought about it, the more I thought 'I need to drill that hole; I need to mount that station.' That's been the task that has been kind of primary the last two years. Sure we wanted to power up the receiver on the summit; sure we wanted to mount the prisms and point them towards Rongbuk glacier; and I could go on and on and on, but I thought that's where I should put my time and energy.

In fact, I was able to get up to Barry Bishop's rock, and one of the thoughts I had is that we began calling this Barry Bishop's rock because of a famous photo of Lute Jerstad crossing this rock towards the American flag on the summit in 1963 taken by Barry Bishop. The more we referred to it as Barry Bishop's Rock in the GPS project over the last couple of years, the more Sherpas and other western people and climbers from all over the world have begun to kind of pick up on that. I think I'm very proud and pleased that it's a name that is going to stick. Barry Bishop took that photo in 1963, and it ended up on the cover of The National Geographics that were delivered to all of our homes.

I was there at Barry Bishop's rock with a hand drill, banging away on the rock as a number of people walked up to the summit past me and followed Apa and his team up. They spent their time on the summit and then walked back down as I was still drilling there. As we thought, and I would have to say maybe even a little more so, it was frustrating and strenuous. At the time, I felt pressure because of limited oxygen supply and just the situation of being alone and not wanting to come down the mountain behind everybody else. I felt some pressure, but I was able to get the station mounted and the Trimble 4800 installed and powered up.

We had this idea this year that using telemetry, that David Mencin had worked on along with others, we would be able to transmit data. In fact, we wanted to leave that receiver so the telemetry could be checked out and established, and the maximum amount of data could be obtained from this station the first time it was occupied with a GPS receiver. Through my own high altitude induced misjudgment, or through undo optimism, or through whatever I might speculate about that I can't confirm right now, the telemetry was not working. I walked away from it thinking it could be made to work one way or the other by Dave Mencin and the others working down here. Before my descent was over, I learned that they had in fact decided that they couldn't make the telemetry work, so all that valuable data from the highest GPS station ever operated is still sitting in that wonderful Trimble 4800 bolted to Barry Bishop's rock very near the summit of Everest.

Right now, as the expedition leader, my task is not yet over. I'm not going back up there. I told the Sherpas that if I was successful in establishing the station that day, there would not be a third summit attempt; that my second one would suffice, and therefore the expedition is disassembling right now. As you might imagine, I'm here at base camp talking to friends, Sherpas, and other climbers here who think they may summit in the next couple of days and hoping that, as has been the intention all along, that the 4800 can just be unscrewed from the permanently established station now, brought back down, and we'll have our hands on the data sooner rather than later.

Otherwise, who knows, it will sit there for awhile. As people who are watching Mountain Zone know, I got my thermos back from the South Summit after it sat there a year. Believe me that Brad Washburn and I and the scientific community at large, in general, want that 4800 back, but I'm confident that if I can't get it back this spring from one of the teams still attempting this, that we'll get it back in the autumn climbing season or next year or sometime. The whole idea with establishing this station is that this kind of thing can be done: receivers can be placed and retrieved from now on at a permanently established station.

One of the intriguing plans or options I have, that I intend to pursue with some vigor over the next couple days, is contacting Dave Hahn on the north side, who is in charge of a trip that's run by Eric Simonson's company, an ascent on the north side. This is especially appealing to me, the idea that our friends over there could obtain this 4800, take it back down to China, there where Jey Wy Chen [surveyor general of China] and other Chinese at the north side, at the Rongbuk glacier, are eagerly awaiting contact with us and information from these efforts. The cooperative spirit of this is wonderful, and the idea of just taking that 4800 down and turning it over to them for awhile is especially appealing to me. So, we'll be in contact with Tibet and see what we can arrange. Once again, I'm confident that we'll get that 4800 back, but I'll certainly rest a little easier once it's in someone's hands who's involved with this project; be that in Tibet or be that in Nepal.

Just to close up my little summary here of my last few days. Some of the people involved... I should mention that, Greg Wilson, Eric Simonson, Charles Corfield and David Mencin did leave base camp today. We will all be back together soon either in Kathmandu or in the States following up on the work we've done here. It was time for those guys to leave, and the Sherpas are busy packing up the camp. I'm sitting here wondering if I should just stay in a tent until a few more teams have tried, or how long I should stick around to give every chance of retrieving that receiver from this side its due course.

Apa Sherpa in '97
[click to zoom]
(photo: Lakpa Rita)
I should mention also that I went over and saw Apa this morning. I didn't see him for a few days because... this guy is my hero, that's why I keep talking about him, he is an amazing fellow that you should know about. If I haven't mentioned it yet, that summit that we did on the 20th of May was Apa's ninth time to the summit of Everest. He is a true professional. A caring, dedicated, and skilled mountaineer. Sherman Bull, another old friend of mine from Connecticut, who was attempting Everest for the third time, took a bad fall the morning of the 20th, and Sherman needed a great deal of assistance — he was on Apa's team, the Environmental team — to get down. This evacuation of Sherman took place basically over the two full days after we summitted, if you can imagine that, and Apa was right in the middle of it the whole time. Apa and the team that was helping Sherman down I think finally got to Camp II about midnight on the 21st. They came here to base camp with Sherm — who I went over to see about this morning and he was sound asleep and looked like he was doing well from that stand point but he had been pretty beat up in the fall — they got him through the Icefall on a stretcher and got him, finally, safely to base camp here, the Environmental Expedition base camp, about two in the morning today, on the 23rd. In the other words, a very, very long evacuation.

So after doing that brilliant job I keep talking about Apa doing: giving the teams the confidence to move on and using skill to advance the route after the diligent work that was done the day before on the 19th by the other team, Apa, after his leadership role in that, he was tireless and dedicated and skilled, as were others, in the evacuation of Sherman Bull. I went over and talked to him this morning, and he was having a cup of tea, and he basically looked like he had just gotten up after a normal nights sleep. This guy is really tough and really amazing. So my hero, Apa, is finally taking a well deserved rest.

Brad Washburn is in Telluride and is very eager to hear from me about: are we going back up, what else are we going to do. I know he is going to be more sleepless until we get that receiver probably than I, but I also know how relieved he is and pleased he is to finally have that thing up there. My heart is with Brad and Barbara in Telluride at Mountain Film [Festival]. I'm going to give them a call in a few hours when I don't wake them up and fill them in.

That's a little update on the team in general. Our Sherpas are busy packing up. As mountaineers, and a lot of people don't realize this about Sherpa people, but the best climbing Sherpas are self directed and motivated climbers. They have a degree of disappointment about not going to the summit; many of them have been there before; some were looking for their first summit. They also have a great deal of pride in knowing they did their best job, and they contributed to something that finally came to fruition on the 20th. This mountain is very demanding, and people who hear about multiple ascents and all the activity on Everest these days may not get a real understanding about what it takes to get up Everest. There were a lot of skilled, dedicated and strong people that contributed to the ascent that happened on the 20th this year and to successful ascents that may yet happen in the week or so left in the pre-monsoon climbing season.

Wally Berg, Expedition Leader