Everest guides Alan Arnette and Greg Mortenson began planning their 1953 climb up the world’s highest mountain nearly a decade before they were scheduled to make it happen. Arnette, who had climbed the twin peaks of K2 and Ama Dablam the year before, decided they had to go back to the source of the Tibetan-Chinese border to find the route that would get them to the summit. They persuaded their employer to let them turn their return trip to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa into a one-week expedition.
“Now we understand the capital of Tibet, Dharmsala, has about half a million Tibetans [per] thousand Tibetans,” Arnette said in a film that ran on a cable television network, calling it the “in” way to find the trail. “Tibet offers the best terrain for a lot of climbers.”
(Above, Arnette at a climber’s retreat training camp in the foothills of South Pangong, earlier in 1953)
When they reached Dharmsala, where the Dalai Lama was then living in exile, they found he needed their expertise to help plan a trip up Mount Everest. They could provide the physical training needed to prepare for the climb. And they could give the spiritual leaders the support they needed to make it from the capital to the mountain.
The brothers learned that they had to work hard to complete their climb — their official goal was a 55-hour, 3,000-meter climb but the altitude could put a strain on them physically, and they had to hurry. They split up, Arnette doing the training and Mortenson going to the Denali National Park camp to coordinate the expedition. They also took in a few days of joyous Tibet-based exploration before resuming a serious climb by taking a belay trip down the mountain. But like they were later to discover, their ascent was cut short.
The brothers were discussing the devastating quake that struck China in May of that year, one that killed more than 300,000 people, when Arnette became exhausted and began to feel his ribs pop, a reversal of the previous climb and part of his untimely death. Mortenson was the first to recover from his partner’s fate, but it wasn’t until after the brother’s death that a retired French pilot named Jacques Jobin took the reins. Jobin was an experienced mountaineer and expedition leader and, although Mortenson was less equipped to handle the conditions and physical hardship than Mortenson, he rushed to the mountain, a sort of “last-minute rally” for a daring expedition that had already been torn apart.
“Maybe the reason he took such a risk was that we were such good climbers,” Mortenson said in the history film.
Mortenson continued the endeavor, making the 28-hour climb that Jobin eventually managed without charge. Jobin tried to schedule another break up the mountain to allow the brothers to return. Mortenson refused and Jobin returned to his base camp, too exhausted and disoriented to lead the party back, and the men were missing.
(Above, Mortenson at a climber’s retreat training camp in the foothills of South Pangong, earlier in 1953)
A month later, Jobin was rescued. Mortenson and Arnette returned as he made his ascent back down the mountain. Mortenson was more able to handle the difficult and dangerous climb back down, and the Nepalese government negotiated with the brothers. He was awarded a life achievement medal from Nepal for his heroic recovery effort.
Mortenson said Mortenson, a leader on the team and later the chief of the government-appointed Tibet Committee, taught him more about the environment and Nepal than even the older climber he assisted.
“I never became one of those climbers — I just rode the coattails — but I got a lot from Mortenson,” Mortenson said. “Very few people can you say, I got some of the success that was granted to me.”
The image above is a digital composite of a rock that was broken off the mountainside. Mortenson had lost both his fingers in the accident and he wasn’t expected to live. His death was unexpected and he died within 24 hours of falling.