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Durango climber recounts Everest ascent on 100th anniversary of first expedition

Peter Jamieson reached the world’s highest point twice in the 1980s
Peter Jamieson, a La Plata County resident, displays some of the gear he wore during his Mount Everest climbing expeditions. Jamieson said he first became intrigued with the world’s tallest mountain at age 12 when reading about others who had done the climb. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For Durango resident Peter Jamieson, standing at the top of Mount Everest was like looking out of a jet plane with his feet on the ground.

“At 29,000 feet without oxygen, you’re kind of in a bit of a haze. But it really had spectacular views to the north and all around,” Jamieson said.

Sitting between Nepal and Tibet, Everest tugged at Western explorers’ interests for decades before a mountaineering team launched the first recorded reconnaissance mission 100 years ago. The team marked a possible approach to the summit. Each decade after, mountaineers worked their way closer to the summit, pulled by the thought of standing on the tallest peak in the world.

A pair of boots and crampons Peter Jamieson wore during his Mount Everest adventures. A mountaineering team launched the first recorded reconnaissance mission of Everest 100 years ago. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Jamieson, 65, first felt the pull of Everest after reading “Americans on Everest” when he was 12 years old.

“Everest has always had this mystique. Part of it is, what’s up there? Do you find nirvana up there? Do the heavens open?” said Jamieson, a Fort Lewis College graduate. “I got up there, and I was going, ‘Yeah, it's just snow and rock. Kind of looks like every other mountain to me.’”

Peter Jamieson summited Mount Everest about 4 p.m. May 7, 1983. (Courtesy of Peter Jamieson)

The mountain, on the crest of the Great Himalayas of southern Asia, rises to an elevation of 29,031 feet, according to a 2020 consensus between Nepal and China that settled years of international debate.

It has multiple names: Everest, after George Everest, a former surveyor general of India; Chomolungma in Tibet, which means “mother goddess of the world”; and Sagarmatha, or “peak of heaven,” in Sanskrit, according to the “Encyclopedia Britannica.”

The Sherpas, an ethnic group in Nepal, traditionally treated the Himalayas as sacred and did not climb Everest before mountaineering expedtions became a source of income.

To reach the top, climbers must ascend more than 11,500 feet from base camp, passing through treacherous landscape with a shifting icefall, avalanches and swiftly changing weather.

A summit team who did the South Col Route in 1983. Left to right, Sherpa Ang Rita, Larry Neilson, Gerry Roach and Peter Jamieson preparing to leave advanced basecamp at about 21,000 feet in elevation. (Courtesy of Peter Jamieson)

Above 26,000 feet, the “death zone,” where there is not enough oxygen to sustain human life for a prolonged period of time, climbers experience confusion, poor decisions, brain swelling and drowning as blood leaks into the lungs.

In 1921, George Mallory and other mountaineers made it to the North Col before turning back because of weather. In 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men known to summit the mountain.

On May 7, 1983, Jamieson became the 14th American and 129th person to reach the summit.

His path to Everest, he said, started at FLC. In the 1970s, he joined the Outward Bound program with well-known mountaineers Gerry Roach, who wrote the guidebooks to the Colorado Fourteeners; Wally Berg, who summited Everest four times in the 1990s; and a slew of other accomplished outdoorsmen.

Roach invited Jamieson to join an expedition funded by Frank Wells, former president of the Walt Disney Co., and Dick Bass, owner of Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah and the first man to climb the Seven Summits, the tallest peak on each continent. ABC American Sportsmen came along to film the event.

They were the only crew on the mountain. Jamieson spent 10 days laying the route in the Khumbu Icefall. At one point, the ice started collapsing around him. He grabbed a rope, holding on for his life until things settled down – then he realized neither end of the rope was attached to anything.

“It’s an extremely dangerous place, always shifting and collapsing,” Jamieson said.

Reinhold Messner and Peter Jamieson on the way down from Mount Everest. Messner was the first to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen and the first to climb the 14 highest mountains in the world, all without supplemental oxygen. (Courtesy of Peter Jamieson)

They worked their way to Camp 4 on the South Col, and started their push to summit at 5 a.m. Jamieson got to the south summit and through the Hillary Step, turning up his oxygen as he went.

“All of the sudden, I couldn’t keep up at all. I was just exhausted, hyperventilating,” Jamieson said. His oxygen ran out. He plodded on as best he could, stopping every few steps to breathe. “Then it started getting steeper. ‘Phew, I don’t know about this.’ Then all the sudden it was less steep and I was on top.”

On the way down, it was getting dark and the clouds came in – he had left his headlamp in the tent that morning, he said. He fell 10 feet into a crevasse filled with snow. Everything was white – the clouds and the snow – giving him a sense of vertigo.

About 11:30 p.m., they crawled into camp. That’s when he realized he had his headlamp in his parka the whole time, he said.

“It wasn’t elation really, it was more just like, ‘Huh, how about that? I’ve done something I’ve always wanted to do,’” Jamieson said.

Jamieson summited again in 1989, this time on an expedition with professional climbers Berg and Scott Fischer.

Fischer later died in 1996 on another Everest expedition when a sudden storm swept over the mountain, resulting in the deaths of eight climbers. The disaster was recounted in multiple books and films.

The 100 years since the 1921 expedition have been marked by other tragedies.

In 2012, an unprecedented 234 climbers made it to the top, becoming dangerously backed up at the Hillary Step. Four people died then. In 2019, 11 climbers died when long lines prevented several climbers from ascending and descending quickly enough to replenish their oxygen, according to “Britannica.”

A deadly avalanche struck in 2014, then a fatal earthquake in 2015. Most of the bodies of more than 280 climbers that have died on the mountain have not been removed, according to “Britannica.”

Berg, also a FLC graduate, has known members of the 1953 ascents – his roots on the mountain go far back, he said.

Berg said he could not comment about crowding or expeditions in recent years, but he said some efforts to remove the bodies of those who died on the mountain were dangerous.

“I have strongly and vocally opposed dangerous efforts to remove (Scott Fischer) from where he lay,” Berg said. “You have to understand the culture of the area. Just north of there, people are given sky burials. In Nepal, people are cremated. It’s more appropriate to leave the climbers where they lie.”

Heavy traffic has also led to habitat damage for wildlife and an accumulation of litter on the mountain – oxygen containers, human waste, discarded gear. Recent cleanup efforts in some areas have helped remove the buildup.

“This spring 500 people summited Everest, so it’s just crazy how it’s changed,” Jamieson said.

Berg said the mountain seemed busy even in the 1980s, but for him, it hasn’t lost its mystique.

Even with the changes, Jamieson speaks animatedly about his time on Everest and the accomplished mountaineers he met along the way.

He remembers being on the mountain alone – stringing the ropes, picking the route, doing the climbing – “kicking our own steps in the thigh-deep snow,” he said.

Jamieson says he went because he had the chance to do it. For many mountaineers, the mountain’s mystique draws them in, as does the appeal of touching the highest place on Earth.

One hundred years ago, George Mallory uttered a now-famous response when asked why he wanted to summit the mountain.

“Because it’s there.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

Peter Jamieson in the Khumbu Ice fall in 1983. Jamieson summited Mount Everest on the expedition. (Courtesy Peter Jamieson)
Former Durangoan Wally Berg in yellow and Scott Fischer on Everest in 1989. Pumori, a 23,494-foot peak, is in the background. (Courtesy Peter Jamieson)
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