25 years ago, Caradoc 'Crag' Jones became the first Welsh person to summit Everest, quite by accident. Don't miss his wonderful tale. "People did not have the cynicism about the mountain that exists now, it was still a 'worthy' aspiration! Two grand to cover costs and I could attempt it in any style I wanted. This was planned to be: no guide, no Sherpas for the actual climbing, no oxygen, just climbing one-to-one." It didn't work out quite that simply...
With bags of enthusiasm and a gift for the gab, Crag sprang from the rural village near Aberystwyth where he grew up and, via Bangor University, out into the climbing world where he marked his territory with first ascents from the Karakoram to South America, before winging his way onto an Everest expedition aged 33. To mark the 25th anniversary of his small step for Welshkind, Sarah Stirling persuaded Crag to tell his fantastic story.
CJ: I was part of the North London scene in the mid 80s. There was a lot of manic activity at the time, inspired by the likes of Mick Fowler, Victor Saunders and many more. It was a motley crew doing everything from first ascents on Dover chalk to winter weekends and Orkney Odysseys. I'd studied Marine Biology and Oceanography but did all sorts to fund my climbing from labouring to climbing retail. Mick and I went to Africa to climb a new route on Kili. When I eventually returned a year later I lodged at Mick’s until my girlfriend turfed me out, and then I stayed at Henry Todd’s.
Henry was an expedition manager by trade [Ed: who developed an infamous reputation but that's another story]. He and I climbed together, making early ascents of Scottish winter routes like Labyrinth Direct and Fly Direct, and teamed up for an expedition to Mount Sarmiento in Tierra del Fuego. When the latter turned into a bit of a mess I was really pissed off. Henry said, "Don't worry man, stay cool, I’ll make it up to you one day.”
Throughout this article: a selection of Crag's photos from Everest
True to his word, when Henry was gathering a world team for an Everest expedition ten years later, he invited me along for the ride. People did not have the cynicism about the mountain that exists now, it was still very much a ‘worthy’ aspiration. In return, I was to help out here and there, where required. He was always such a generous guy and a great laugh to be with.
Two grand to cover costs and I could attempt it in any style I wanted. This was planned to be: no guide, no Sherpas for the actual climbing, no oxygen, just climbing one-to-one with another member of the team; a Danish climber called Michael Jorgensen, as it turned out. Michael was a paying client but I wasn't his guide, we operated as an equal pair.
Michael was up for the same style as me, including putting in the hard miles with weeks of load carrying, cutting platforms, establishing camps and stocking them. We both went to the South side first, to help with clients on some trekking peaks (Pokalde and Island Peak). This was a good opportunity to get fit and acclimatise. We then returned to Kathmandu and went round to Tibet to attempt the North Ridge on Everest.
"Two grand to cover costs - the plan was no guide, no Sherpas for the actual climbing, no oxygen"
After weeks of graft, back and forth, up and down, with various dramas, we finished off with a jaunt to 8000m to see what it was like. I kipped in a sheltered sun-trap, then we staggered back down to Advanced Base Camp (ABC). You could not recover there because at 5200m it was too high, so we decided to descend the whole 20km back down the East Rongbuk glacier to Base Camp to get a proper rest before our summit attempt.
No sooner had we got down than I got some stomach bug and was virtually living in the insanitary toilet there. Worse still, the weather became perfect and teams started summitting every day, including most members of our own team. We headed back up without a real rest. At least we’d lost altitude for a few days.
We passed Alison Hargreaves coming down the Rongbuk. She looked a bit incongrous and delightedly explained that the bunch of artificial flowers she was carrying had been presented to her by a Polish team to celebrate her tour-de-force. She had stormed to the summit solo, without oxygen or support. It was a remarkable achievement. Sadly she died the following August on K2 while returning from the summit.
“Alison Hargreaves looked a bit incongrous and delightedly explained that her bunch of artificial flowers had been presented by a Polish team to celebrate her tour-de-force”
Back at ABC, we looked out onto a full moon and thought about walking on its surface. A man who had done just that had died near here - a sad day. We heard that he was a geologist and an ex-Apollo astronaut who was accompanying one of John Tinker’s teams. He developed altitude sickness and, despite being carried down overnight to base camp in an inflatable pressurised Gammow Bag on oxygen, he did not make it.
Michael said in his rough Danish accent, “Hell Crag, would you go if you had the chance?” “Yeah, for sure, of course.” Henry chipped in: “Well guys, you’d better make the most of this opportunity, because it’s the closest you’re ever going to get!” It helped focus our minds on the task ahead.
As we left ABC the next morning, Henry handed me a pressure metre and a felt pen: "You never know, they might be handy." We slogged back to the North Col. There we met Leo Dickinson and Eric Jones. They and Rob Parker were making a film about the first Welshman up Everest, which Eric if anyone deserved to be. Only frostbite had prevented him making the attempt with Messner and Habler on their first oxygenless ascent of the mountain. Tom Whitaker, originally from Tremadoc, was also in the picture.
"They could not believe they had a functioning Welshman heading upwards. How did I fancy being a film star"
But the entire team had gone down with various ailments. They could not believe they suddenly had a functioning Welshman heading upwards. How did I fancy being a film star. I had not even realised that this particular accolade was still available. Other members of our team had returned safely from the summit by now, while Nicolas Chapaz, a French member of our team, had decided to join Michael and myself for our attempt.
We reached Camp 2, approximately 7500m, in deteriorating weather. We were the last members of our team, time was running out and we were out of synch with the weather. We opted to stay there for an extra night. The wind moderated a little the next day and we struggled on to the top camp at 8300m. The forecast was still bad. We decided to wait an extra day and knew it might possibly be more, so we had to start using oxygen. Without it we would not last the waiting game and be in a fit state for the summit.
Nicholas was adamant about not using oxygen so had no choice but to make his attempt the next morning. In the poor visibility he missed the line up the flanks of the ridge and got stuck on a ledge in the dark. He waited till dawn, down-climbed and returned to us. He decided to descend immediately to wait for better weather to make another bid without oxygen. We guessed this might be our last chance so continued to sit tight.
"Without oxygen we would not last the waiting game and be in a fit state for the summit"
We had to wait there for three nights in all before the winds finally calmed. During that time I found a large abandoned tent left behind by an Austrian team. We moved into that from our tiny bivvy tent. Crawling around on all fours, like the bagman from hell, I scoured assorted rubbish for any usable supplies. I amassed a trove of food and brews and even some burners to fit some cooking gas cylinders.
The main problem was getting enough oxygen. We had been reliant on what our Sherpas had carried up and needed to keep at least two full cylinders for our summit bid. Henry arranged to buy extra that a Condor team had left behind on a ledge 500 feet above us. They also said, crucially, that there were also a lot of extra partially-used bottles on that ledge.
Each day, I’d crawl up there and test the bottles with the pressure metre Henry had given me and scrawl down whether they were three-quarters, half, quarter-full or empty. I also checked the sealed full bottles in case they had leaked. In this way I was able to amass enough for us to sleep on plus three full bottles for the summit bid.
"Crawling around on all fours, like the bagman from hell, I scoured assorted rubbish for any usable supplies and amassed a trove of food and brews"
We were eating and drinking as much as we liked, comfortable and biding our time. We had Japanese soup and South American chocolate and half-eaten other things. The north side of the mountain was completely clear above the North Col. We had the mountain to ourselves. Meanwhile, down below, something of a public relations crisis was developing. Henry was getting concerned that we had been up there for so long.
Soon, other teams started chipping in on our daily radio scheds trying to persuade us to come down, convinced we were suffering from summit fever. At one stage they demanded to speak to Michael in case I was holding him hostage against his will. A quick bout of withering Danish sarcasm quickly dispelled that worry. Luckily Eric was providing moral support.
On one of my forays to secure oxygen I looked up at the clouds and they had turned into puffing cherubs. Apt, considering my quest, but somewhat alarming. I made a note to myself to keep the thinking cap on! Finally, on the third evening sched the forecast for the next day was good. We got up at midnight aiming to be away by 2am. Michael had electrically warmed footbeds in his boots. I decided to boil (70 degrees C!) water for bottles and prewarm my boots with these. I then put one bottle inside a large spare down mit.
“Something of a public relations crisis was developing - another team demanded to speak to Michael in case I was holding him hostage”
Suddenly a body burst through the tent door. Christ, we almost died with fright. It was Charles, an orphan from another expedition that Henry had taken in. He had been listening in to the developing situation and slowly worked his way up from camp to camp, then made an overnight dash up to us, aiming to join us for our bid.
It was immediately apparent that he was knackered after slogging through the night. He had one bottle of oxygen with him. He would more than likely slow us up to the extent that we’d all run out of time and have to turn back. I told him to rest up with our accumulated supplies and see what transpired after our attempt. He would not take no for an answer.
The discussion became protracted, wasting two hours and getting quite heated, with me eventually threatening to hit him with an oxygen bottle if he tried to come with us. I felt mean but certain of my ground, there was no way it was going to work. Michael and I knew and trusted each other well by this stage. The radio was going crazy saying to make sure we dragged him off the mountain with us and so on. Under it all, I had a sneaking admiration for him. It was what I would have done, in his position.
“Suddenly a body burst through the tent door. Christ, we almost died with fright. I threatened to hit him with an oxygen bottle if he came with us”
Eventually we got away by 4am, far too late. After Nicolas’ experience, I had rehearsed the way to the ramp leading up to the crest of the North Ridge. There was a fixed rope there. We heartily pulled up the first one, only to find two out of three strands cut through near to the anchor. It was the last time we did that wherever they sporadically appeared. They did, though, provide confirmation we were still on the right line as we moved separately, unroped.
As we gained height we could see an incredible pyramid-like shadow of Everest being cast all the way down into India. We trusted a great wodge of lines up the first step. The ground was consistently awkward. Loose scrambling interspersed with steep bits. The fabled ladder up the second step had recently been replaced and was sturdy. Post-monsoon pictures showed this area banked up allowing people to speculate that Mallory and Irvine might have prevailed here? Pre-monsoon it is a lot longer, bare, steep, loose and technical without the ladder. I am almost certain they would not have managed this at the time.
At the top we poked our heads over the other side, down the Kangshung face. The Fantasy Ridge, still unclimbed even now, particularly impressed us. The drop was mind-boggling even for experienced mountaineers. Henry had told us some long-gone Russians had left some spare oxygen at the top of the second step. We hunted around and found these, tested their pressure and left them there as insurance for our return.
“We could see an incredible pyramid-like shadow of Everest being cast all the way down into India”
Looking west along the spine of the Himalayas, the curvature of the earth seemed apparent. That was a bit of a surprise, along with the realisation of how thin the atmosphere actually is. Not some bottomless comfort blanket extending to the heavens, but a gossamer-thin shield beyond which you can walk on two legs. Never would I take it for granted again!
We flanked the ‘third step’ on the right via some steep loose scrambling to emerge on the final ridge. This stretched a final unexpected few hundred feet to the actual summit apparent by the old tripod hanging over the East Face. Finally we knew we were going to make it. Normally you are not sure if you are actually approaching a true summit, but here that signpost allowed us to savour the final minutes with broadening grins. Blunt crampons skated on glass-hard ice to the final snow. We took care to summit together.
We had not seen a single soul for days apart from Charles’ spirit visitation. I don’t know for sure if anyone had summited that day from the South Col route. We saw no-one. We spent about twenty mins at the summit. My first water bottle had frozen solid in my sack. It was afternoon, later than we had intended, and we hoped the delay would not cost us dearly. We picked up some shale souvenirs a few feet below the summit and set off down.
“I realised how thin the atmosphere actually is - a gossamer-thin shield beyond which you can walk on two legs. Never would I take it for granted again!”
At the third step I pulled up a cut section of fixed line and tied it off. As a result, I came to its free-end two-thirds of the way down on hard steep snow. Luckily I had pocketed a big channel peg and used this as an ice dagger to gingerly descend to safe ground. We tried to keep up as quick a pace as was possible. We swapped bottles at the stash at the top of the second step and pressed on down.
Michael’s oxygen started to freeze up and he kept having to take his goggles off to try to fix it. We swapped masks to see if it helped. Wet, freezing slimy leather, yuk, steamed up goggles, tired, awkward ground – we looked carefully to each step and rammed down yet another foraged chocolate bar. There were a few easier walking sections where we could enjoy the scenery and savour what we had achieved. At least we could examine the anchors and the state of any old fixed lines before trusting any weight to them. Usually we just clipped in and slid down with gloved hands, no rappelling.
We just got back to the tent before dark and settled down for our fourth night there at 8,300m. Charles was rested. Despite the continuing howls on the radio I told him he was welcome to use our accumulated supplies if he still wanted to stay and go for the top. He slept on it but decided to descend with us the next day. It was a long way all the way down to the North Col.
“We had not seen a single soul for days. Blunt crampons skated on glass-hard ice to the final snow. We took care to summit together”
Michael woke up with snow blindness. He’d worked as a welder and had an old trick they used when cheating without goggles on fine work resulted in similar excruciating pain and obstructed vision. We made a thin cream paste out of crushed asprin in milk powder and dropped this into his eyes. We then used a roll of insulating tape to bind up some sun-glasses, a pair of old fashioned Herman Buhl’s, and some ski goggles.
With that arrangement and me double-checking any rope arrangements he was able to get down. A Sherpa going up to the North Col kindly brought up some Novocane drops from Henry which eased the pain for the night. Next day we descended to ABC for Tea ‘n' Medals. My mum was immensely proud to see the news on newspaper billboards in South Wales - “That's ma boy!”
I was lucky that, following on from Leo Dickinson’s and Eric’s TV programme about the first Welshman to climb Everest, which was called 'On Top of the World', I got various commissions from S4C for a series of climbing programs. For these programs, which were filmed and directed by Alun Hughes for Nant productions, I did all sorts from climbing Totem Pole in Tasmania to making a winter traverse of the Zanskar Gorge in the Indian Himalayas, and a six-part series on South Georgia, the voyage there, its wildlife, history and a first ascent of the Three Brothers.
"My mum was immensely proud to see the news on newspaper billboards in South Wales - 'That's ma boy!'"
I joined up with Michael again for one of these programs, the first ascent of the South Ridge of Ritterknegten in East Greenland. We had plans for other projects as well. Sadly Michael, after achieving his Seven Summits ambition, was killed on Makalu descending from the summit. He was the sort of guy who will be having a great time in Valhalla. He talked a lot in his sleep, in Danish, but his most alarming pronouncement was in perfect English, “Hello Darling, I bet you can teach me a trick or two!”
Looking at how Everest has changed since those days, I see some benefit to local economies, but at what environmental cost? The main problem of Everest is a philosophical one whereby society has lost the understanding of true adventure. Everest has become a commercial transaction and devalued accordingly.
I now work as a fisheries consultant and, after long periods of work in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, live in Frodsham, Cheshire. I am still regularly climbing and expeditioning as much as free-time allows, and am married with two children, Eleanor 19 and Owen 17. I unexpectedly took up downhill mountain bike racing a few years ago as a consequence of having a teenage son. I came second Grand Vet in the Welsh Nationals last year. I’m still alive so far, but it makes climbing look like a vicar’s tea party.
Want to find out more about Britain's rich mountaineering history? Take a look at the Mountain Heritage Trust who work to preserve and promote our important heritage.
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