September 24th 2020 marks 45 years since Chris Bonington’s Everest Southwest Face 1975 expedition. The expedition succeeded in conquering the face but the expedition wasn’t without drama and tragedy. Here is a brief account of the famous British ascent.
On September 24th 1975, after 5 previous attempts by other teams, a British team successfully ascended the Southwest Face of Mount Everest. It is hard to think that this incredible ascent happened 45 years ago. An ascent that opened up a new chapter in Himalayan mountaineering.
The Everest Southwest Face 1975 ascent was ground breaking. An incredible achievement both in terms of the individual contributions of some incredibly talented mountaineers and in the tactics employed by expedition leader Chris Bonington. Bonington had already led a team to the face in 1972 and on that trip they reached 8,300 metres. Lessons learned that time around undoubtedly helped them hone their tactics for the 1975 expedition.
The key to the route lay in using rock climbing techniques at extreme altitude. The dream team of Nick Estcourt and Tut Braithwaite opened the door. They managed to forge a route through the complicated rock band at 8,200 metres. The Rock Band had defeated all previous expeditions. It consists of almost vertical cliffs with little snow or ice. Nick Estcourt led one unprotected pitch which some claim is the hardest extreme altitude technical climbing ever undertaken.
They had overcome the rockband. This allowed ropes to be fixed to the upper slopes. Summit bids could be launched. The talented duo of Dougal Haston and Doug Scott headed up first and followed the face and then a steep gully to finally arrive at the south summit. They found the steep gully filled with chest deep avalanche prone snow. It must have been a desperate struggle. It took them 11.5 hrs to the south summit and they started to dig a snow cave while deciding whether to stay there for the night. In the end they decided to seize their chance and continue. They followed the Southeast Ridge to eventually arrive at the main summit at 6pm.
They stayed a while at the summit and by the time they started descending darkness and stormy weather soon arrived. Descending the gully seemed too dangerous and so they enlarged the snow cave and settled in for a frigid night at 8,760 metres. Warmer clothes had been left behind to save weight and their oxygen was spent. Their fuel ran out at about midnight. It is hard to imagine what a long and hellish night that was.
Amazingly, they both survived and survived without any lasting damage. At 5.30am they began descending and by 9.00am they were back at camp 6 after 30 hours without food or water. The Southwest face of Everest was conquered and in spectacular fashion. Unfortunately tragedy followed.
The second summit pair of Peter Boardman and Sherpa Pertemba reached the summit a few days later. They had started their ascent as a group of four alongside Mick Burke and Martin Boysen. But soon after starting Boysen had problems with his oxygen set and lost a crampon. Retreat was his only option.
Boardman and Pertemba continued strongly and Burke soon lagged far behind. They reached the summit by 1.10pm and soon after started their descent. They saw the weather deteriorating and wanted to hurry. So, they must have been horrified to find Mick Burke sitting in the snow only a few hundred metres below the summit.
Burke asked them to return to the summit with him but they were reluctant in the challenging conditions. He understood their decision and said he would continue himself. They agreed to wait for him at the South Summit. They waited for 90 minutes in blizzard conditions. Night was approaching and eventually they were forced to descend. It is assumed Mick Burke reached the summit but his body has never been found.
At 19:30 they rejoined Martin Boysen at Camp 6. Boardman had frostbite and Pertemba was snowblind. The Everest Southwest Face 1975 expedition was over.
We hope you enjoyed this blog post. If so, you might also enjoy our post about the first solo ascent of Mount Everest. You can find it here. If you feel inspired the video below also tells the full story of the Everest Southwest 1975 expedition.