‘Everest calling . . . I’m sitting on the summit of the world’
Dawson Stelfox, the first Irishman to reach the summit of Everest, explains its enduring appeal
Dawson Stelfox (left) and Frank Nugent at advance base camp after his successful ascent. Photograph: Brian Hayestaken
“I wandered up the last few yards to the top, the snow untracked and pristine on all sides, absorbing the beauty of the most extensive mountain panorama on Earth. The green jungle and forests of Nepal to the south contrasting with the brown, rolling, barren hills of Tibet. Radio on, make it dramatic.”
5.07pm, May 27th, 1993
‘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.”
At base camp, Dermot 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 yak men. There were half a dozen of them, but it seemed as if the whole of the valley had broken into a cheer.
This was the moment the first Irishman reached Everest’s summit, as described by the summiteer himself, Dawson Stelfox, and this journalist, who covered the expedition for The Irish Times 20 years ago.
The altimeter had actually read 8,890 metres and so he had adjusted it to 8,848 metres. Over the radio, it sounded like “884”.
He took his photographs, left a flag. Not an Irish tricolour, not a Union Jack – as holder of both Irish and British passports he would have been entitled to leave both. National flags, national anthems were not in the spirit of this expedition. He left a pennant, bearing the title First Irish Everest Expedition and sponsors’ names.
Writing in the foreword of a new edition of Everest Calling, The Irish Journey, my account of the expedition, Stelfox reflects on the achievement.
“There is a moment – every climber knows it – when the rock steepens and you see no way up. Then instinct kicks in and you fight your way through the crux. A barrier is broken, confidence gained. The essence of climbing is in that act.
“Highest, hardest, youngest, oldest: we get distracted by the claims and by the clamour. Adventure has never been more popular: challenge walks, mountain races, guided trips, expeditions. And standards are higher than ever. Training, coaching and competitions have led to a surge in technical ability; equipment ensures lighter, faster, harder ascents. The urge to climb triggers multiple choices and there are many paths to the mountain. One of those choices drew together members of the first Irish Everest expedition and its forerunners.
“Climbers in the 1980s aspired to lightweight climbs in the Himalaya: alpine style. Too often ambition outran ability, with many failures and a casualty rate that was sometimes tragic, always painful. We learned the hard way and still carry the scars.
“By the time of the Everest attempt, pragmatism had conditioned our approach: low key and light as possible while retaining the prospect of getting up and down the mountain with fingers, toes, lungs and brains intact. Oxygen for the summit attempt: but just enough that we could carry it ourselves. Sherpa support for the lower stages while we struggled to acclimatise; but to the summit on our own. And, above all, a team that would support a few reaching the top, rather than a drive for individual success.
The style that counts
“Such reasoning may seem odd today, in the commercial climbing age, when Sherpa support, oxygen and fixed ropes are maximised to increase the chances of success – but to us, the way you climb is more important than ‘success’ or ‘failure’. It’s the style that counts. It was true then and it is true today.
“In 1993, the concept of an all-island Irish expedition to Everest caught the public mood, tuning into an emerging peace process. The team was chosen, not because of any desire to be politically inclusive, but as the natural reflection of a climbing community that ignored borders and flags, focusing instead on the values shared by mountaineers: personal responsibility, a spirit of quest, the life-affirming value of risk and impatience with the status quo.
“In the past 20 years I have had immensely rewarding trips near and far: from rock and ice in these islands to unexplored mountains in northeast Greenland. Again and again I found that true satisfaction lies at the limits of one’s stretched ability; that happiness is the sharing of intense experience with friends in tune with the adventure; and most rewarding of all, is to watch young talent emerge and set new standards. And always the escape from the stress of urbanised living to the simplicity of the mountains.
“On the summit day I was out for 18 hours, much of it on my own, buoyed by the efforts of the entire team in helping me to reach that place, by Frank Nugent’s self-sacrifice in turning back to let me go on, and by warm words over the radio from our base camp.
“I ate and drank little, ran out of oxygen hours before getting back, got lost in snow and cloud, and finished in the dark. Yet in all of this I never doubted my ability to make the right decision, never doubted that my mind would control a weakened body until it did what it had to do. I was constantly reinvigorated by the sense of what I was doing and where I was.
“Recapturing that coincidence is what brings me to the mountains time and time again, looking for that sweet spot where body, mind and mountain meet and remarkable things happen – all the more remarkable because they are there for anyone who seeks them out.”
Everest Calling: The Irish Journey, by Lorna Siggins with Dermot Somers, is published by Collins Press