Listen to the live conversation between two giants of Australian exploration Greg Mortimer and Howard Whelan
Trailblazers curator and Australian Geographic founding editor Howard Whelan, and renowned Aussie explorer and mountaineer Greg Mortimer come together for An Evening on Everest – the first installment of our Trailblazers Talks series, held on 25 February 2016.
Kim McKay: My name is Kim McKay and I am the director and CEO of the Australian Museum. And it is just my great pleasure not just to welcome you here tonight but to let you know that you are in for quite an experience. I know you've been having a good time, I hope, looking at the exhibition and at the museum and enjoying the wonderful hospitality. Of course we are here tonight because of Australian Geographic and their incredible sponsorship.
So I just want to start tonight by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to elders past and present. And it is very important we do that at the Australian Museum of course as we are the custodians of one of the most significant Indigenous collections in the nation.
I was so excited when we decided to do this exhibition and to be able to involve someone I've known for a long time, Howard Whelan. His lifelong passion for adventure, writing and filmmaking has taken him to just about all the planet's wildest places. One of the first to walk the 4,000 km Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Mexico (it was before Donald Trump wanted to put the wall up, wasn't it, yeah). Well, he went on to cross the Kokoda track in Papua New Guinea, spent three months in remote Russia writing for Outsidemagazine, the United States, one of their premier adventure magazines, and was cameraman on the first Australian ascent of Everest. Howard has led many expeditions, especially in polar regions, including Antarctica, and most recently for the Academy Award winning film Happy Feet, and also for Aurora Expeditions.
In fact, any time in the last few years I've tried to find Howard, he's always in Antarctica. He of course was founding editor of Australian Geographicmagazine and is a fellow of the Explorers Club.
Greg Mortimer of course contracted a terrible bronchial disease at aged six, a lung infection causing a build-up of fluid. However, this did not stop him becoming inspired by climbers he saw in the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains. He went on to become the first Australian to reach the summits of Mt Everest, K2, Annapurna II and Chongtar in the Himalaya, all without supplementary oxygen.
During his amazing adventures he also set up the very well regarded Aurora Expeditions for adventurous tourists wanting to explore Antarctica, and he pioneered those ship-based adventures. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I am so honoured to welcome both Howard Whelan and Greg Mortimer in conversation. Welcome.
Howard Whelan: All right, welcome everyone. We have a fantastic venue tonight. This feels very much like someone's lounge room and we're going to treat it as such. This is a wonderful opportunity for me because I've got some questions for Greg that I've been wanting to ask for many, many years. We got to know each other probably in the party after Annapurna, and there we got to know each other a lot better on Everest, and then subsequently just in life since then.
Okay, this is some footage that Greg shot on the summit of K2. He climbed with a small team, two Americans, one stayed behind, one American came up, and two Australians, Greg Child and Greg Mortimer. They made the first Australian ascent of K2, they went via the north ridge which is a very, very difficult route, and were the first people to climb it without oxygen. So, you're on the summit, what happened next?
Greg Mortimer: A curious thing about getting on the top of really big mountains is that as soon as you get there, this trigger flicks immediately about getting down again. And so it is not triumphalist in any way, it's an 'oh shit' moment that you've got to get down again. That was a very good case in point. What I do remember in setting up to shoot Greg Child and to do that was putting my ice axe into the snow and it went through into thin air and it was a cornice we were sitting on, going down into Pakistan. So we backed off a little bit and did that, and I can't remember how long we stayed there, 20 minutes or so, and then started down. It was towards the end of the day.
Howard Whelan: And so by the time you got down, when you got down to nearly your high camp it was dark by then.
Greg Mortimer: Yes, it was well dark by then.
Howard Whelan: Okay, and in the introduction to your…there's a book I'll refer to, it's calledFirst Ascent, it's written by Lincoln Hall, and he had commented…
Greg Child had actually written the foreword to the book, and he had commented about a situation where he got within about 100 metres of the tent and he was done in, he was gone, and then you encouraged him.
Greg Mortimer: Well, I laughed at him actually. I didn't mean to do that, it was a fairly grim and serious moment in principle. It was dark and it was steep and we didn't know where we were really, apart from down in the valley about 10,000 feet below we could see this little red dot and it was my wife Margaret had lit a bonfire down on the glacier, and we just saw this little red dot which connected us to the rest of the world. And Greg Child is an extraordinary, extraordinary mountaineer and he was stuffed.
Howard Whelan: I'd like to investigate where that wicked laughter came from and why, so we're just going to go back…
Greg Mortimer: I laughed at him because it was so ridiculous, the whole situation, not out of malice I don't think, it was more…it was just such a silly situation.
Howard Whelan: Okay, I think this might go a little ways to start explaining a few things. Greg was born in 1953 here in Sydney, and for the first five years or so of his life he was living above a florist shop near Bondi Junction which his mother ran.
That's Greg. That sort of says it all right there in that one shot. I'll just take a minute because Kim referred to the fact that Greg did have to overcome a childhood challenge you might say. When he was five he contracted measles and because of that he then got something else called bronchiectasis, and this is a disease that basically fills your lungs with mucous. And to deal with it, Greg's mum would take him into the Prince Alfred Hospital, I think it was once a week, and put him down on the operating table and they would then force two tubes down through his throat into his lungs and then they would pump air and water into his lungs through one tube and then that would wash out his lungs and then this frothy mix would come out on the other tube. They had to time it just right because if they pumped too much water, too much fluid in, then Greg would drown. The procedure took about 20 minutes, and throughout the procedure Greg had to stay completely still. If he struggled in any way he could do permanent damage to his lungs. And it was only through washing out the mucous away from his lungs that they were able to absorb oxygen.
And Lincoln later wrote about this in his book, and Lincoln wrote, 'The struggle remained, the mental battle between the part of his [Greg's] mind that screamed 'I can't breathe' and the part of his mind that told him calmly 'I can manage this breath and if I just stay calm I can manage the next'.
This one breath at a time approach transformed the 20-minute treatment into a timeless exercise of disciplining his mind. Greg was learning the kind of mental control needed to deal with life-threatening situations, an amazing skill to develop during the formative years of 6 to 11.' It went on for that long.
So, my question is when you were climbing without oxygen high in K2 or on Everest, did you ever consciously think back to those treatments, think back to when you were a child?
Greg Mortimer: No, I didn't, I'd washed that away and sort of hidden it away I suppose. It was just the way things were when I was a kid, and I hadn't really thought of it in those terms until you read it out to me the other day. But on reflection, that's a chapter gone by as a child, and I suppose on reflection I was quite lucky to be able to have that sort of thing as a child, to be a meter of what breathing was about.
Howard Whelan: And do you think the childhood challenges like this, be they physical or emotional, do they play a role in developing the mindset of an adventurer and explorer?
Greg Mortimer: I've heard it said that men and women who do it tough when they are kids get this tough streak in them, and I think there's a bit of truth in that. I don't think of it as conscious thought. And yeah, it has probably stood me in good stead.
Howard Whelan: Let's talk a little bit about going into the next phase which is how did you start climbing? Climbing defines you…
Greg Mortimer: Like this! This is going down the banisters at the Three Sisters with my friend from school Warwick Dyson and my mother and sister and a couple of other people who I can't remember. I think I'm incredibly lucky because my mum and dad would let me, the age of 12 or so, take a train up to the Blue Mountains and disappear for the weekend and come back on Sunday night to go to school on Monday. I don't think they knew what was going on, on reflection, it was an extraordinary act of love for them to just let me go. And that is often talked about in recent years, about the cotton-woolling of children in our large cities. I was a grateful kid who went rock climbing from 13.
Howard Whelan: And tell me a little bit about some of the early climbs that you did. We've got a great shot of you…
Greg Mortimer: In hindsight I was obsessive. I still managed to go to school, but just wanted to go climbing all the time. And I learned that from the Boy Scouts, going and being taught to rock climb in the Boy Scouts as a kid, and that was…when I saw what climbing was like, saw guys climbing on the Three Sisters, I just liked doing that.
Howard Whelan: And you had some key people who took you under their wing and took you out and taught you a little bit about the rules and how it worked.
Greg Mortimer: Keith Bell, Bruce Postill, and throughout the years…and recent versions of those as well, Mike McDowell in recent years, but yeah, teaching me to go climbing, friends who I went to university with who took me to New Zealand to learn the basic skills of mountaineering, and they were just fortuitous events where friends came along who suffered a fool.
Howard Whelan: Okay, you climbed up in the Blue Mountains, you then expanded your range, started to put up first ascents up in the Warrumbungle Mountains in the early days of Bungonia Gorge, Mount Buffalo, a few other spots. But you then went over to New Zealand, you were very keen on rock climbing, and you went to the Darrans, and something happened there. But before we get into that, just maybe very quickly define the difference between just rock climbing and mountaineering.
Greg Mortimer: There's a demand of technical skill in rock climbing. It's a concentrated physical and mental effort which is a very particular connection of physical effort and mind of course in the vertical. But you are very much focused on the immediate, your immediate body, your feet and your hands and the few feet around you. But mountaineering is a whole world that opens up and that's what I found the first time going to New Zealand.
Howard Whelan: This is a shot up near Ball Pass. So Greg was over rock climbing in the Darrans and the weather was crap and you went to Queenstown, ran into an old mate who said let's go…
Greg Mortimer: Let's go to Mt Cook. This is a guy who I befriended at university, Steve Anderson, and I had gone to New Zealand just to go rock climbing, fairly blinkered. Sat for six weeks in the Darrans in the rain and didn't do one climb, got very pissed off. Met Steve in the Wanaka supermarket and he said, 'Well, we'll go climbing.' And I didn't know anything about it and he took me up into this world of glaciers and the magnificence of the South Island of New Zealand. And we simply went up over a pass, we just walked up a bit of a glacier and a bit of a snowfield and it was a day and a half and it was really straightforward. But there's an entire universe there in that place of natural beauty and avalanches and crevasses and things to learn. That's what opened up for me then.
Howard Whelan: You went back the following year to climb mountains, so you had made the adjustment, but on that trip you were going up to a place called Harpers Saddle I think it was, and you had…it wasn't your first major accident but it was certainly something that was quite a severe accident. Is that when you had the collapse of the cornice?
Greg Mortimer: Yes. We had climbed in the south face of Mt Hicks. So for those of you who know the valleys of Mt Cook, it's on the western side of Mt Cook, a fantastic valley system with a big steep rock wall at the end of it, and a demanding steep rock and ice climbing. We were actually coming down from that, so tired, knackered, at the end of an 18-hour day.
And going down the snowfields which are the skirt at the base of Mt Hicks, but it's quite steep and it's crevassed. And I didn't have many skills in my kitbag at that stage, and the weather was filthy, so we had nylons on, slick, we had the slicks on. And one of my crampons got balled up with snow and I didn't really know how to deal with that at that stage, I hadn't learnt that one.
And I fell off, and took off like a condom all dressed in rubber and down the hill. Excuse me. And I can remember it, I can remember it quite distinctly because I tried to stop and I tried to remember about the things that the guys had told me about using your ice axe to stop yourself, and I hadn't done that before. And what you do is you roll onto your belly and you stick your ice axe into the snow and you use it as an anchor and your body weight supposedly digs into the snow or ice and slows you down. Self-arresting. So I wasn't very good at it and went a long way. I don't know from whence it came but I got onto the…I kind of remembered…I don't know, there were big crevasses at the base of the steep slope, and I somehow the got onto my back again (this is all completely intuitive) and got my crampons on the lip of the upper side of this big crevasse and projected myself in a forward roll across that down to the downside and took off again, kept going.
It was perfect, it was a 10, unbeknownst to myself, and then it just rolls out at the bottom. That was sobering because that's what those environments do, they come at you suddenly.
Howard Whelan: Well, most people would have called it quits after that but you didn't. You came back to Australia, you continued your studies, you are getting a degree in geology at Macquarie University, you are in a steady relationship. But then like many Australians you went overseas, but you went with a purpose. I'm not going to…we've just got to watch time a little bit but I'm just going to show you a couple of slides of Greg's gap year, when Greg went overseas, and Greg can just say a few words about each…
Greg Mortimer: This is climbing steep limestone in Britain, which is famous of course for those of you who know it, wonderful stuff, Stoney Middleton.
This is on Mont Blanc. There's an extraordinary climb in the Italian side of Mont Blanc called the Central Pillar of Frêney. It was famous because the Italian mountaineer Walter Bonatti had been the founding father of that. And at that stage it was considered the hardest route in the Alps. That's on that.
And we went to Yosemite Valley, and this is a time when there was an explosion in the standards in rock climbing, and this is on the nose of El Captain. We did what at the time was a ridiculously fast time, we did it in two days and bivvied once on the way, and now there are young guys doing it in a couple of hours, without rope.
And this is in Peru in the Cordillera Huayhuash, and that's Noel and Mary Sissons with me on a bivouac we had climbing the magnificent Mt Yerupajá. For those of you who know the Peruvian Alps at all, they are extraordinarily pointy, volatile, scary mountains with weird snow conditions, and Yerupajá is…I think it's the second highest mountain in Peru.
Howard Whelan: And it was on this trip you had your second close encounter I believe. This is one where the…we're not going to just make this all about the disasters Greg, there will be some successes!
Greg Mortimer: I had a very big fall in Peru, with Noel on the left-hand side there who is a wonderful, wonderful, bright, sparky Kiwi climber in the best mode, and a very good friend. And he and I climbed a mountain called Chacraraju, and it's steep and demanding and I mentioned these weird snow conditions which the mountains of Peru have, which we at that stage didn't really fully understand. But it's like fairy floss snow in Peru, it's full of air, and no consistency to it, and that's why you see magnificent images of huge mushrooms, of snow sitting on top of the mountains of Peru, of the Andes. Weird atmospherics of wind and snow and warmth.
Anyway, I climbed up to the top of Chacraraju from a little snow hole, trailing a rope, Noel belaying, and triumphantly got onto the top of Chacraraju. And I'd gone out 50 metres up from Noel, and a few metres out from him had put one small ice screw into the ice, so it's about this long, screw it into the ice, clip your rope into that. And then after that it was just air and snow, nothing to make you safe.
I'd just got on to the top of Chacraraju and the whole thing collapsed, the top fell off, the top of the mountain fell off. So I go down with it, screaming down through the air, and I fell about 80 metres, and I don't remember too much about that, but I do remember, kind of remember going through the air and thinking that the only reasonable outcome was my own demise. Then the rope stopped me, and somehow that ice screw had held. And Noel had been ripped off his position and ripped up into the air, and his anchors had held. And I just remember looking down the rock gullies of Chacraraju, swinging in the air, a bit broken up.
Howard Whelan: Okay…
Greg Mortimer: It's silly. When you do it like that, say it like that.
Howard Whelan: Okay, you came back, and just to relax when you were back in Australia, maybe go out into the South Seas and climb Balls Pyramid. Balls Pyramid is probably one of the great geological features on the planet, it's the largest sea stack in the world, it's about 27 km south of Lord Howe Island, and it's stunning, it's an absolutely beautiful, beautiful piece of volcanic plug really. So the idea was…it had been climbed before, and Greg and Keith Bell were going to start here, I believe, and come up over the top and do the first skyline traverse of it, all the way down here, so that's the south-west, north-east ridge. I don't want to go into a lot of details except for things didn't go quite according to plan. This is bad, isn't it, really, sorry…
Greg Mortimer: It's shaping up unexpectedly. We got caught in a cyclone…you may laugh! On the way down, pretty much on the top the cyclone started, and it was about this time of year, like Winston coming in, it was one of those hitting Lord Howe Island. And so we got down…as the encroaching cyclone came, and got to a point a couple of hundred feet above the water into a little hole, into a cave, and then we waited there for five days I think because the cyclone passed quite quickly but the seas were huge.
But I very distinctly remember sitting in that cave with Keith, and in the guts of the cyclone a vortex appearing off the end of the pyramid, off the end of the north ridge, just in front of us, it was like we were sitting in a cinema watching this waterspout come, as the wind came around both sides of the pyramid. Like I said, we were about 200 feet above the water, and this vortex was many, many hundreds of feet above us from the water up, and the birds on the pyramid were being drawn, sucked into this vortex. So it's a mass of water and wind and birds, just like a maelstrom in front of us, like to the back of the theatre away from us.
Howard Whelan: Okay, this is now the late '70s and in 1979…you've been doing a lot of geological work here in Australia and in New Zealand, and in 1979 you were invited to go south with the New Zealand Antarctic Program, to go both as a field training officer and as a geologist. You spent the summer working out of Scott Base. Do you just want to say a few words about your first encounter with Antarctica?
Greg Mortimer: I know that a number of you have been in Antarctica, from conversations before, this evening. For me, going to Antarctica for the first time was flying in a big US Antarctic Program aircraft from Christchurch, a 10-hour flight to Scott Base.
And you land on the glacier, on the Ross Ice Shelf, next to Mt Erebus basically, underneath Mt Erebus. And the Ross Ice Shelf stretches out there flat as the floor, the size of New South Wales, disappearing into the South Pole. And I really clearly remember getting out of the plane and you're in somewhat the warmth of the aircraft and there's the Royal Society Range which is one of the great mountain ranges of the world, and gasping and taking a big lungful of deep-freeze and regretting it. An extraordinary impact. The first sight of Antarctica, there's nothing like it.
Howard Whelan: So we're going to come back to Antarctica again, but after that work you came back and in the early '80s you were invited on an expedition to go to the Himalaya to climb Annapurna II. So was climbing in the Himalaya sort of a long-held dream of yours?
Greg Mortimer: No, it just kind of came that way, it was a logical progression and the opportunity came, and that has often been the case for me, just things pop up, and this chance to go to Annapurna II with Tim and Lincoln and Andy popped up.
Howard Whelan: So you went across to Nepal for the first time. What was that like?
Greg Mortimer: Kathmandu then in the early '80s was somewhat different to what it is today. At that stage when you arrived at the airport in Kathmandu the customs officer was cross-legged on the desk, sitting on top of the desk when you arrive and you think, okay, well this is different. And the cows were still allowed in around the airport and it's just a throng of that colour and heat and smells and exoticia that is Nepal and Himalaya and Asia.
Howard Whelan: And you also…which is quite different from, say, climbing in New Zealand, was you got to interact with the local culture, you got to meet the Sherpa people…
Greg Mortimer: For the first time, to meet those guys, the people of the Himalaya.
Howard Whelan: When you were there you were attempting a new route on Annapurna II?
Greg Mortimer: Yes.
Howard Whelan: It was…
Greg Mortimer: This is the south face of Annapurna II. That ridge that goes right up the middle, the guts of it, that beautiful beeline is what we wanted to climb. And it hadn't been climbed before. Those of you who know Pokhara, Kathmandu and the Himalaya, it's a fantastic looking thing that dominates the drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara. We were just lucky, a point in history where no one had climbed it before.
Howard Whelan: And you had some challenges. Aside from the fact you were climbing nearly 8,000 metres without oxygen on a new route, you had very difficult climbing, very high, and you also had not the best weather conditions.
Greg Mortimer: Yes. That's somewhat out of naiveté I suppose. I think it's an interesting thread in Australian Himalayan mountaineering. We've gone there with an enormous quotient of naiveté, given that we come from the flattest continent on the planet.
So we didn't know what we were doing to a large extent, and that stood us in very good stead to a certain point because we had no tradition to live up to or to match or a certain style. I suppose a crude analogy is like the introduction of the wine cask, a brilliant invention of Australia, or wine bottles without corks. You know, we just did that out of ignorance, and Annapurna II was like that.
Howard Whelan: Lincoln wrote a couple of interesting things on this, he said, 'Annapurna II changed Greg's life. Until the Annapurna II expedition, Greg's method of climbing hinged on maintaining the balance between his ability to climb and his skill in predicting the play of natural forces. On Annapurna he became trapped in a situation that he knew to be immensely dangerous but where the only escape lay to the heart of the danger. He was forced to accept that he no longer had control of his fate, and afterwards he struggled with the implications of this renunciation of control.'
Just another quick one, he just said, 'Long-lived mountaineers don't trust their survival to luck, and the implications of us having done so without dying worried Greg because it affected his next move. Although he does not like the analogy since his highs are far more considered, the post-Annapurna Greg was like a junkie after an almost fatal overdose; the high was good but he now had to work out how he could equal this intensity with more control of the danger.'
Greg Mortimer: Right. We got into strife because we didn't know what we were doing, and survived. And after a bit of reflection I thought there was something…personally I thought there was something quite enticing about that. Rock climbing and most of the things that we do in our life is controlled. You know, we control our next move. The perverse enticement and attraction for the big mountains or wild places generally are that those forces are way beyond you, the natural forces are so much way beyond us, and that was very, very clearly evident on Annapurna II.
Howard Whelan: This is a bit of a telling shot. This is a Greg after Annapurna II, coming off the mountain. You have a tendency when you're at altitude to quickly burn the fat off your system and then you start working on the muscle when you are at high altitude, and so Greg was a skinny boy coming off of that one.
Greg Mortimer: I lost 14 kilos, yeah, somewhat because on the way up we got stuck in a snow cave below this top steep rock climbing in a snowstorm at about 7,500 metres for a week, and I had giardia. It was awful, and I lost a lot of body fluids there. And on the way down we got into a set of natural forces way beyond us, way, way beyond us.
For example, on the south side of Annapurna II there is a subsidiary range called Lamjung Himal. That's steep, at the base of which is an enormous rock wall of about 2,000 metres, vertical rock that goes into the jungles of the south side of the Annapurnas, the steaming jungles. And from Lamjung Himal there's a skirt on the top of that big band of rock of ice cliff, 100, 150 metres high. That's constantly moving down the valley and falling over this steep rock wall. And there's so much ice falling over that in the valley in the jungle in amongst the trees at the river level there's a glacier at about 5,000 feet, formed by the debris falling off the side of Lamjung, just the avalanche debris forms its own glacier a few thousand metres below, with crevasses and a neve and all the traditional things. It's those sort of forces we got messed up with.
Howard Whelan: Which, 'getting messed in', the translation of that is the glacier moved, it came down when they were up above and it took out all their fixed ropes and the entire route down the mountain beneath them, so they had to then…you then had to re-work…
Greg Mortimer: Retrace it, yeah.
Howard Whelan: You said that you thought that was a good foundation for what was coming up, which of course was Everest in 1984.
Much has been written about, much has been filmed about the first Australian ascent of Everest, so we won't retrace old ground, but there it is, that's the north face. It's a really big mountain. You just show us where the route goes up there. It's kind of hard to pick it from this way, isn't it.
Greg Mortimer: It goes up here, up here, across there, up there, around in there, up there, out there, up there.
Howard Whelan: Okay, we were fortunate on the mountain, we got up there early. When I say we were one of the first expeditions, there were only two expeditions on the north face or on the north side that year, so it was very different, and we had been up there for about three weeks or so when we heard that the American expedition, they were going to go do the north ridge, they were going to go up a subsidiary glacier, and we went down to meet them. And they had actually attempted this route the year before, and these are some of the great American climbers, Jim Wickwire, Phil Ershler who was with these guys on K2, and guys who I had actually grown up with…I actually grew up in the States, and it was fantastic to go down and meet them. They were so jealous of these guys because they had the permit for this route. They were very doubtful that these guys would succeed. I mean, they didn't say that…
Greg Mortimer: Just look at us.
Howard Whelan: We came down, we looked…we were quite a treat, coming off the mountain, we'd been up there for nearly a month and we came down, and in the distance it looks like something out of Arabian Nights, they had all these fantastic tents with banners flying, truckloads of all these delicacies, they were sitting back on lounge chairs, and we came out of our army tent like a couple of rodents and ran down the mountain. But they were very gracious and fantastic and they did say when we were there, they said, look, if you guys pull this off it will be the climb of the century. And in essence it has been, it's the only route that hasn't been repeated on Everest, it's gone 30 years without a second ascent.
What I found interesting on that trip was, as the cameraman it's fun, you were invisible except for when they need our gear, but we are invisible. And so I was able to watch the interplay of personalities. And Greg I was really just getting to know. And Greg kept to himself, you didn't…you sort of stayed quite quiet, but you were the first guy out after the storm and you had an intensity of purpose that was very interesting, and quite telling. The bit here…see this little bit up in here, that's quite a steep rock band, and technically that probably was the most difficult, and Greg did climb that. It will forever be known as Greg Gully. These are the guys following up once the ropes had been fixed but Greg had climbed that, which is pretty impressive. Anyway, we made it up to the summit late in the day, like just before sunset.
And it was Tim and Greg were on the summit, Andy Henderson unfortunately had left his glasses in a pack further down the mountain and he had his glacier glasses on and he knew as soon as the sun went down he'd be stuck because the glacier goggles were too dark. So he got to within 80 metres of the summit and he had to turn around and start heading down because he didn't want to put these guys at risk really. So he started down, and he had also one other problem and that was that on the way up his crampon had broken, he had to take his gloves off to fix his crampon, and his severely frost-bit nine of his fingers, his hands were almost useless.
This is a chance for a little untold anecdote because Lincoln doesn't deal with it in White Limbo, and in fact nobody has really told this story of what happened, getting from the summit down to the camp.
Greg Mortimer: Climbing…it's kind of hard to describe what it's like at extreme of altitude without oxygen in the comfort of our lounge chairs, but it is like…it's like being on another planet. I have a really very clear tattooed memory of the summit under my eyelids, and a memory of it going dark because we had climbed that day five or six steps at a time at the limit of endurance.
And then you stop for a couple of minutes to get over the oxygen debt, and then you start again. And so the day…and we climb without rope to go as fast as possible, five or six steps at a time. And so the day had disappeared into oblivion inside our heads, we just kept going up. And then getting on top just before dark was, like I said about K2, for me immediately in a total state of exhaustion the trigger goes off about getting down again.
So I remember the view, there's much I don't remember, but I do remember coming down because of the attention that it demands of you. And the sad truism about mountaineering generally is that so many people get killed coming down off big mountains because you are physically exhausted, you can easily lose concentration, that's the thing, you think, okay, well I'll go down now. So we came down off the summit, and that was a lot of back climbing. So you're facing into the snow with your ice axes and down-climbing, facing into the snow, until through the rock band of the limestones of the yellow band which is the magnificent top band of Everest.
And I can almost feel the wind of that night. It was black as the inside of a cow at first, and then the moon came up. And through the moon was blowing…I just remember seeing the moon through blowing spindrift, and initially we could start to climb facing out, but gingerly, ice axe, and moderately steep ground. And Tim and I came across Andy quite soon, huddled waiting. He'd actually started moving down. And Everest is a fittingly the biggest mountain in the world, the bulk of Everest is extraordinary, those of you who know it, seen it and been on it know that it's fitting as the biggest mountain in the world, it's so massive, so bulky in every way. And so the bit of it that we were on was enormous, a vast expanse of steepish snow slopes and rock gullies. And I don't really know where the energy came from for us there. There's gravity, you've got gravity on your side, but you are cut off from reality in a sense, like you are moon-walking I think, what it must be like, almost like floating in space it feels like. So there's a disconnectedness, but an acuity of thought which it demands of you. And with that acuity an intense concentration, every step requires intense concentration, and that's draining.
And so we could at first follow the vagaries, the vague outline of our steps from where we had come up, and then onto the broader slopes below the yellow band which are broad snow slopes, it was just blowing spindrift and no sign of our footprints, and no sense of time. I have no concept at all of time. It had got dark about 9 o'clock at night, and we were just up there with the moon really and the spindrift and nothing else, and lost our footprints. And the way we had come up was steep and circuitous, and we didn't figure that we could find that again.
And there were moments of really…of quite desolate thought in the perversity of the situation, the desolation and beauty of it at the same time. I've probably romanticised that in the intervening time because it was just concentrating on the next step, figuring out where in the hell we were on that big expanse of the top of Everest and not really knowing. And kind of like Braille, we got our way across to what turned out to be the very top of the Great Couloir, which is the enormous gully chute system which dominates the north face of Everest. We had climbed up the bottom part of it on the way up, and with the…
I don't know how we got to that point really, we just used our experience I guess, used our intuition, gave over to intuition in a way, and found the top steep rock buttresses of the top of the Great Couloir and we came to a dead end, dead end of steep rock. We only had one torch, and…silly, you might say! But there's method in that, when trying to go as light as possible, we had one water bottle between us I believe, and a few other bits and bobs, spare gloves and things like that, that's it. And light packs, alpine sacks, beautiful Macpacs. So it was just standing at the top of the Great Couloir, and we had one little bit of rope, about a 25-metre length of rope or a 30-metre length of rope. And I can't remember how that evolved, but basically we ended up using that bit of rope to abseil down into that black hole, not knowing where it went, using the stay out of the…yeah, using one of those. And that's all we had.
Howard Whelan: So that's what these guys abseiled off of. So what they did…
Greg Mortimer: You just dig it into the snow.
Howard Whelan: Tie it around, make a dead man, put snow on top, sit on the snow to hope that it will melt the snow long enough for it to freeze long enough to hold the body weight, as you abseil down of a rock face into the dark above a 6,000-foot Couloir.
Greg Mortimer: Yeah. But it was dark, it was dark. And they are interesting moments in humanity. Because of the jostling that goes on as to who goes first.
Howard Whelan: A bit like penguins.
Greg Mortimer: It's very gentlemanly on the surface, but somehow…I think it's body posturing, a bit of shoelace tying, and then someone goes first. And obviously it worked.
Howard Whelan: That's fantastic. Thank you. All right, we are going to have to watch time here. I'm going to have to…we are going to zip ahead a little bit. We really are going to have to wind this up. I'll just run through a couple of key and quite important things. In 1988 Greg went down and did the bicentennial Antarctic expedition. That was down to Antarctica on a sail boat on what was the Dick Smith Explorerthat became theAllen and Vi Thistlewhayte. A small group of friends went down to the Admiralty Mountains in the Ross Sea…
Greg Mortimer: With Margaret.
Howard Whelan: With Margaret and climbed…I won't show the clip here but they made it up and here's these guys coming back off that mountain.
It turned out to be quite an amazing adventure, going on to a peak that nobody had climbed before. The fantastic Mount Minto. And then came back and started a company called Aurora Expeditions, which pioneered a lot of ship-based Antarctic adventure tourism in Antarctica, and then up in the Arctic and then in the Amazon and the Galapagos and Siberian Arctic, and provide a lot of adventure for you over the years.
Then you slipped into…had another trip up an 8,000-metre peak, Manaslu. And more recently, now that you are a relaxing a little bit more, Greg went up into East Greenland and has been on a couple of expeditions up in the East Greenland to climb the magnificent, absolutely stunning peaks up around Scoresby Sund. This one was a great one because he went now with his son Oliver, and they put up some fantastic new routes.
And just to sort of wind this up, it's kind of relevant to the Trailblazer exhibition and something that people have touched upon already, but people do say that everything has been discovered. You know, adventurers…isn't it a pity being a young person nowadays because there's nothing left to explore. I used to get that when I was at Australian Geographicand it drove me crazy. What do you think about that?
Greg Mortimer: Well, Greenland is a wonderland of 2,000-metre rock wall like Yosemite but coming straight out of the ocean and the fiords with icebergs floating by.
And there's a whole land of the scale like Australia of that around the edges, and it's not in our mind map. There's a whole world to discover there yet. And those things are turning up all over the world.
Howard Whelan: Yes, okay, so this is Oliver who was with Greg in Greenland. Ollie this last year, I think sponsored by Australian Geographic, did a trip where they were paragliding, and they were camping. So they would take off in the morning, get some thermals, get some ridge, go all day, camp. This is what their plan was. They were going to start from Nice and fly to Austria.
Greg Mortimer: This blew me away in so far as there is seemingly no end to our inventiveness for exploration and adventure. And Ollie's generation, he turns 30 in a few weeks, shaping their explorations, great explorations and adventures in their own way, which is really exciting stuff. And this was just a simple idea of he and a mate. They thought, well, we like to paraglide, we'll go to Nice on a Qantas flight and we will walk up the hill behind there and we will fly to Austria, which is what they did.
So they had their pack, they had their paraglider and a bit of gear and they just slingshotted their way across the European Alps. So, extraordinary stuff. There's things happening now in rockclimbing, for example. There was a rockclimbing festival in the Blue Mountains, in Katoomba last year or the year before. One of the key characters in that festival was a 13-year-old girl who is climbing grade 31 we say in rockclimbing parlance. Those of you who know rockclimbing grades, it's ridiculous. I grew up in the age of grade 21 being the lap of the gods. Here's a 13-year-old girl doing grade 31. Extraordinary. And she's sharp, this kid, she's so on the ball. Unbelievable stuff.
I'll go back quickly because I remember when we were going to Tibet, to go to Everest, we went through Beijing and we went to an acrobatic festival in Beijing, one of those wonderful physical displays that the Chinese are extraordinary with. And I remember a bare stage with four poles, like fireman poles sticking up out of the stage. And these young Chinese gymnasts played on those poles and they were able to hold themselves out with their hand on a skinny slippery pole with their body parallel to it and do things up and down. Extraordinary strength.
And it was a shameful experience as we were going off to climb Mount Everest. Now, those sorts of things are now coming into the world of rockclimbing, for example, and those things are happening at every level of adventure, and we are getting now to the limits of what is physically perhaps possible in rockclimbing in extremis where young men and women are climbing so hard to such extreme that they are ripping the muscles off their bones. They have to be careful not to rip the muscles off their bones. It's crazy. That's where they are pushing the mind. What they are yet to do is to combine their mental fortitude with that. Of course there is great mental fortitude in that, but a mountaineering expedition or a big expedition, a big exploration is something that doesn't go for the length of a rockclimb, it goes for three months, and that's the great joy of it, that's the angst and the great joy of it, three months of that intensity. It's pretty groovy stuff, if you like that sort of thing. And we are yet to get there. So there's endless possibilities.
Howard Whelan: Thank you Greg. Thank you everybody.
Kim McKay: Amazing, thank you.
Greg Mortimer was the first Australian to reach the summits of Mount Everest, K2, Annapurna II and Chongtar in the Himalaya – all without supplementary oxygen. In this inspiring discussion, Greg recounts reaching the summit and the qualities of modern-day explorers.
“I think it’s an interesting thread in Australian Himalayan mountaineering: we’ve gone there with an enormous quotient of naïvity, given we come from the flattest continent on the planet. And that stood us in very good stead because we had no tradition to live up to or a certain style to match.”
An Evening on Everest was the first of our 21 Trailblazers Talks taking place at the Australian Museum in 2016, held weekly in parallel with the Museum's Trailblazers exhibition celebrating Australia's 50 greatest explorers.