Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Chinese on Everest - 1960

Now that the Chinese are in Base Camp on the North side for their attempt to get an Olympic torch to the summit, I thought some of you would be interested in the story of their first climb. For decades, Westerners doubted the claim that the Chinese had summited Everest in 1960. Eventually, enough convincing evidence was provided that they were grudgingly given credit but there have been few good accounts of that expedition.

The following is an excerpt from a book published in 1993 by Shu Ren, "Records of Exploration by the Chinese." The translation was provided by my friend Tuan Luong and I've cleaned it up a bit. If anything, it speaks to the determination of the can bet good money that they will get that torch to the top this season, no matter what it takes.



In 1958, 100 experienced mountaineers of the Soviet Union wrote letters to the head of the Soviet and PRC, proposing a joint assault on Mt Qomolungma (aka Everest). An agreement was made between the governments.

The Chinese assembled their team, which went to the Soviet Union to train in August 1958. 17 summitted Lenin Peak (7134 m) in Sept. At the end of 1958 a reconnaissance team reached 6,500 m.

According to agreement the Soviet was to provide equipment. The Chinese constructed a 300 km road from Shigatse to Rongbuk Monastery.

1959 March, uprising broke out Tibet. Climbing was postponed.

End of 1959, the two countries became hostile due to ideological disagreement. The Soviet withdrew form the expedition. The Chinese decided to do it alone. Team leader Shi Zhanchun went to Switzerland to buy equipment.

On March 19, 1960, the base camp was established at the end of the Rongbuk Glacier. Shi and vice leader Xu Jing had done five years of mountaineering and climbed quite a few peaks in China. The team members were from all walks of life — miners, forest workers, soldiers, peasants, scientists, and college students.

The weather was bad. Logistics support was a feat. Meteorology and high altitude medical data were collected.

A siege strategy was planned to carry out the climb in four acclimatizing climbs:
1) BC-> 6,400m ->BC
2) BC->7,600->BC
3) BC->8300->BC
4) BC-> 8,500 camp -> summit

March 25
The entire team started from BC.

March 26
Reached the 5,900m camp.

March 27
Found a mummified unrecognizable body in English made green down suit. Buried it. They reached 6,400m. Back to BC.

Xu, Liu Dayi, Peng Shuli, and other four reached the North Col (aka Bei’ao, 7,007 m) in a day. It was technically difficult. Xu later went up again with another team to fix ropes and ladders across crevasses.

April 11
The bulk of the team started from 6,400 m to reach the North Col. Attempt to reach further was stopped by very bad weather. Wang Ji died of mountain sickness.

April 29
The entire team started from the North Col. -37C. Soft snow. Frostbite. Zhao Ziqing died. Liu Lianman (a porter) chopped steps for the team with 30 kg pack on his back all the way. Reached 7,600 m.

May 2
Shi, Xu, Laba, and Myma went up to 8,100 m. In order to acclimatize they didn’t use their O2. Reached camp after dark. No food left. (Support team didn’t follow up.) Laba and Myma went back to 7,600 camp. Food was sent to the high camp over-night.

May 3
The team passed the First Step and the Yellow Band. Shi and Wang Fengtong went past the reconnaissance point and reached the Second Step. It was a 60 to 70 degree smooth rock face about 100 feet high, almost devoid of holds.

Shi and Wang climbed to somewhere near the top of the second step when it was getting dark (13 hours UT). Decided to bivy so they could see what it looked like to go to the summit from there the next day. They dug out a snow hole in a crack between rocks. The temperature was -40 C. No food. They didn’t use oxygen, saving it for the next day (a first time at that altitude).

May 4
Clear. The Summit was about 700 feet higher. They found a route and went down.

Many team members were sick or injured. Shi and Wang went back to Shigatse and Lhasa to recover. Time flew by. Spirit at the base camp was going down. Beijing sent instruction: Get the summit at any cost. Han Fudong, the head at the BC, talked to the team members and assembled a group, including Wang Fuzhou, Kongbu (with a sprained ankle), and Liu Lianman.

May 14
During a good weather spell, equipment and food was sent to 7,600 camp.

May 17
The team swore at the BC. Depart at 1 hour UT. With the national flag of China, they also carried a plaster statue of Mao Zhedong.

May 18
Reached Camp 4.

May 23
Porter Qu Yinhua carried oxygen and a movie camera to the 8,500 camp. He planned to go down after shooting some footage the next day. Food had run out that night.

May 24.
Good weather. Vice leader Xu collapsed at the camp. Wang, Liu, Qu, and Kongbu started the last 1,200 feet, carrying oxygen, the flag, Mao’s statue, paper, pencil, and the movie camera.

Two hours later they reached the Second Step exhausted. Tried to circumvent. Didn’t work. Zigzagged to the middle of it, where they found a crack. Decided to climb it.

Liu climbed to about 10 feet from the top. The face became vertical and smooth. He hand jammed, with boot tips smearing on the face. Fell four times.

Liu, who used to be fire fighter from the city of Harbin, proposed Qu to stand on his shoulder so that he can push Qu up. Qu took off his boots to get up, and nailed in a piton in the crack. He lost his toes and heel to frostbite during the feat. (The same piton was used 15 years later to hang a rope ladder.) Then Liu pushed Kongbu up and went up himself with Wang on rope.

It had taken them 3 hours to do the last 10 feet of the Second Step. Not much oxygen was left. It was getting late. Liu fell down continuously, and stayed on the lee side of a rock, semi-conscious. The other three pushed on. Liu used some oxygen, savoring warmth, and became sober. Proceeded to turn off the oxygen and wrote a note for the three - “There is still some oxygen in the canister. You three can use it when you come back. It may be helpful.” And fell asleep.

The other three went on 60° slopes in the dark, on all fours to avoid accident, navigating using starlight reflected on the snow.

150 feet from the summit, all three had run out of oxygen. Ditched the canisters. Inched their way to the summit.

At some place where rock bordered snow, Kongbu, who was in front, suddenly shouted, ``It’s downhill to go on.’’

Quietly, in darkness and surrounded by silhouette of the mountains, they crawled to the top of the world. It was 4:20 am, May 25, Beijing time (UT+8), 19 hours after they had started. 15 minutes later, they left the flag, the status of Mao, and a note at the summit and went down with some rock samples (gift for Chairman Mao). Liu was waiting for them with his oxygen at 8,700 meters, saved their lives.

May 30
They were back to BC. Wang and Qu were 176 lb and 170 lb before they had climbed. And 111 lb and 110 lb after.


After the PR China was founded in 1949, there have been two Extras from the official newspaper People’s Daily: one was the first Chinese ascent of Mt Qomolungma, the other was the successful A-bomb test made by China during the heydays of the Cold War.

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